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The Coronation of King James

After bringing a title to Cleveland, LeBron James is carrying considerably less weight on his shoulders these days.

Tommy Beer

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Last night, just a few hours after the Cavaliers hoisted their 2016 championship banner to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena, the Indians won Game 1 of the World Series across the street at Progressive Field. For the first time in a long time, it’s good to be a Cleveland sports fan.

It’s also good to be King James.

For the first time in a long time, LeBron James embarks on the start of a basketball season without the weight of the world on his shoulders. By winning his third ring in jaw-dropping fashion and, most importantly, ending Cleveland’s title drought as he promised, James is at the point where he’ll simply be adding to his already-amazing legacy going forward.

No player of this generation, in any professional sports league, has been more heavily scrutinized over the course of his entire career than LeBron James. He was arguably the most hyped high school basketball player of all-time before being drafted with the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft by his hometown Cavaliers. The expectations were extraordinary. When he failed to deliver a championship during his first seven seasons in Cleveland, the pressure mounted substantially each year. Then came his move to Miami.

The decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was understandable, considering he seemed to be judged only by the number of rings he won regardless of how terrific his individual play was. “The Decision” on ESPN was foolish and indefensible. At that point, the majority of his hometown fans hated him. Remnants of burnt No. 23 wine and gold jerseys could be found throughout northeast Ohio for days. The unmistakably heavy feeling of unrequited love hung over Akron and Cleveland far longer. In addition, all of the fans in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles hated LeBron for spurning their cities when he hit free agency. The vitriol directed toward him on social media and message boards was unprecedented. The memes were relentless.

For a multitude of reasons, LeBron not only bore the weight of exceedingly high expectations, he also had to try to embrace the role of villain. He did his best to be brutish and boisterous, but LeBron is a lovable family man and never seemed comfortable impersonating the “bad guy.”

After flopping in the Finals in 2010, James finally got the monkey off his back in 2011, winning his first NBA championship. The HEAT went back-to-back the following season, but outside of South Beach, the rest of the NBA community never fully embraced LeBron and The Big Three. Fans found reasons to criticize him, downplaying his stats and arguing that his achievements weren’t that impressive since he had help from a talented supporting cast.

Winning “only” two championships wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the weary and irritated skeptics – especially after LeBron himself had promised “not one, not two, not three, not four…”

After losing again in the 2014 Finals, this time to the Spurs, James shocked the world when he packed up the weight of those unmet expectations and headed back home to Ohio. He voluntarily doubled-down on the all-consuming pressure. He had to shoulder both the heft of his own individual goals, and the hopes and dreams of a city desperate to shed the “loser” label.

In his first season back, he dragged a depleted Cavs team to the Finals before being squashed by the brash, upstart Warriors. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be?

Then a funny, unexpected thing happened. The Warriors reeled off an incredible 73 wins during the 2015-16 regular season, and became overwhelming favorites to capture their second straight title. Once beloved, the Warriors’ confidence (or cockiness, some argued) started to rub many the wrong way. Steph Curry would strut back down the floor after yet another remarkable three-pointer – sometimes turning his back to the basket and celebrating while the ball was still in mid-air. Draymond Green often brashly bullied lesser opponents. Owner Joe Lacob proclaimed that his team was “light years” ahead of the rest of the league and would dominate for years to come.

All of a sudden, James and his band of mere mortal teammates were viewed as the underdogs. This was particularly true after the Cavaliers fell behind 3-1 in the Finals against Golden State. The odds seemed insurmountable. Curry (the first unanimous MVP in NBA history) and his Warriors, the best regular season team of all-time, had a two-game lead with two of the final three contests in Golden State.

Many NBA fans without a dog in the fight surprisingly found themselves rooting for the once-hated LeBron. Setting aside past feelings for a few days, folks were able to watch James play the game without the same level of enmity that may have previously clouded their view of him.

After being forced to play “Goliath” year after year after year, Lebron got to try the “David” costume on for size. It was a great fit. And LeBron played as close to perfect as humanly possible, catapulting the Cavs past the mighty Warriors.

That three-game stretch to close out the 2016 NBA Finals may go down as arguably the greatest individual performance in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole.

Consider this: Over those three games (Games 5, 6 and 7), LeBron averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, three blocks and three steals.

To help put those numbers in perspective:

  • In the final three games of the 2016 Finals, James dished out more assists (29) than Curry had in the entire seven-game series (26).
  • In those final three games, James scored more points (109) than Draymond Green scored in the entire seven-game series (99).
  • LeBron grabbed 35 rebounds in those final three games. Klay Thompson grabbed a total of 21 rebounds in the entire series.
  • LeBron also had nine blocks and nine steals in those final three games. Curry finished the series with a total of six steals and three blocks, while Thompson totaled seven steals and four blocks.

Of course, it wasn’t just those three games in which LeBron unequivocally proved he’s the best player on the planet. Over the 13 NBA Finals games played between the Cavs and Warriors in 2015 and 2016, James led all players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Below are the respective ranks, with first- and second-place finishers:

Points:  

1. LeBron James: 423 points
2. Steph Curry: 314 points

Rebounds:

1. LeBron James: 159 rebounds
2. Tristan Thompson: 149 rebounds

Assists:    

1. LeBron James: 115 assists
2. Draymond Green: 68 assists

Blocks:    

1. LeBron James: 19 blocks
2. Andrew Bogut: 15 blocks

Steals:

1. LeBron James: 26 steals
2. Draymond Green: 23 steals

Circling back to Tuesday night, James exhaled as he was able to watch Cleveland rejoice; they finally witnessed a championship banner being raised in their building.

LeBron seemed to be emotionally and joyously overwhelmed. Then, the game started and he dominated. He recorded a triple-double, leading the Cavs to an 117-88 dismantling of the Knicks.

However, quite interestingly, the ring ceremony and subsequent Cavs victory are little more than an afterthought in the sports world the day after. In fact, it wasn’t even the lead sports story in Cleveland. Images from the Indians’ Game 1 win graced the front cover of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday.

It wasn’t even the most-discussed NBA game from opening night, as that was the Spurs’ rout of the Warriors.

For the first time in a long time, James is not the epicenter of the NBA universe. Love him or hate him, LeBron generated the most buzz, most clicks, and most debate this decade. However, Kevin Durant joining the Warriors to form a superteam has been the talk of the NBA since July 4. It will likely continue to dominate coverage of the league until the middle of June.

One gets the sense that is perfectly fine with LeBron. He’s been subjected to unimaginably intense pressure and attention since his sophomore year in high school. Somehow, he found a way to live up to the incomparable hype by winning four MVPs and multiple championships. But last season, by bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy home to Cleveland, he accomplished his greatest achievement.

It’s safe to assume LeBron enters the 2016-17 campaign feeling more confident and carefree than ever before. That’s not to say he won’t be motivated. LeBron himself admitted he’s chasing the uncatchable ghost of Michael Jordan. Still, if he seems just a bit quicker on the floor this season, or appears to be moving with greater ease and joy off the court, it’s probably because he’s currently carrying considerably less weight on his shoulders nowadays.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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