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NBA Daily: As Usual, LeBron James Is The Last Man Standing

LeBron James has proven a major point this season. The throne still belongs to him.

Moke Hamilton

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Typically, players don’t get healthier as they age.

But as we’ve been reminded, time and time again, LeBron James is far from typical.

On Wednesday night, with the top-seeded Toronto Raptors paying his Cleveland Cavaliers a visit, the idea leading into the game was that the Raptors—buoyed by the contributions of a supporting cast that’ll give Dwane Casey’s team what they’ve been missing—are ready to contend with James.

Instead, they ended up watching the throne, just as the rest of the Eastern Conference has for the past seven years.

When it was all said and done, James had turned in a game that was the first of its kind in NBA history—35 points, 17 assists, seven rebounds, zero turnovers. He also shot 11-for-19 from the field. Until he had done so against the Raptors, no player in NBA history had ever scored 35 points and dished out 15 assists without turning the ball over.

Incredibly, even as James inches toward 1,200 career games and his 34th birthday, it’s fair to say that he’s the best player he’s even been. His efficiency is off the charts, his range has become more consistent and, now more than ever, he’s overcome adversity to have his team in position to win the Eastern Conference for a mind-numbing eighth consecutive year.

What’s most impressive about James and his 2017-18 campaign, however, is that among the best players in the league, he’s already the last man standing.

There’s something that Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and pretty much every other NBA superstar has in common with one another—everyone’s missed at least one game.

Entering play on March 25, James is 72 for 72.

On a personal level, I’ve had a front row seat to James’ career. From his being drafted in Madison Square Garden back in 2003 to each one of his championship runs, I’ve covered it and have had a front row seat.

During the 2017 NBA Finals, his growth, maturity and intelligence were never on better display than when he quoted Theodore Roosevelt in response to a question posed to him.

I’ve been saying it for a few years, and this past season, others in the media have finally begun to catch on.

LeBron James is coming for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Without help from Ms. Cleo, obviously, the proclamation is more a hope than it is a guarantee.

Entering play this season, James needed 9,571 points to surpass Kareem, and even after scoring 1,972 points through the first 72 games of the season, he’ll still enter play on March 25 trailing Kareem by 7,599 points. Still, unless something catastrophic happens, LeBron will score 2,000 this season and will accomplish the feat for the first time since he returned to Cleveland. The last time he scored as many as 2,000 points in a single season was his final campaign in Miami.

Consider this: entering play this season, his 15th, James had played a grand total of 93.7 percent of the games over the first 14 years of his career. By virtue of playing all 72 of his eligible games this season, LeBron’s career games played percentage has increased to 94.1.

By the time the season is over, James will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 31,000 career points.

About 7,400 points behind Kareem, if James were able to score 25 points per game from here on out, he’d need slightly less than four more seasons to eclipse the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.

Sure, it still seems a long way off, but James has already taken us places we’ve never been. And if nothing else, he’s already proven to be the most durable player a generation has ever seen.

Best bet, the chase for Kareem is his quiet motivation.

* * * * * *

As the Cavaliers get set to enter yet another postseason with an opportunity to win the Eastern Conference again, from Matthew Dellavedova to Timofey Mozgov to Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, LeBron has been the only constant.

Night in, night out, he laces up his sneakers.

And as the other contenders have each dealt with injury issues and questions concerning their durability, he continues to be the epitome of resilience.

In more ways than one, James continues to be the standard. On Wednesday night in Cleveland, he gave the Raptors a not so subtle reminder of that fact.

Sure, it may have been just another regular season game in March. And yes, the NBA Championship won’t be won until June. But make no mistake of it, James continues to be what every other superstar in the NBA aspires to.

At the end of the day, LeBron was the last man standing, and we’d better get used to it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Three Veterans Reviving Their Careers

As the league continues to evolve, three players have revived their careers by changing the way they play. Chad Smith examines the mental aspect of these changes and how they are helping their new teams.

Chad Smith

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Life is all about second chances and what you do with them. Basketball isn’t much different in that regard, as most players and coaches will tell you much of their success is about opportunity. Sometimes a fresh start in a new environment is all you need, as three players, in particular, have proved so far this season.

Health is always a big part of these things, but there is so much more that goes into it. Basketball players are creatures of habit, and old habits can be very difficult to break. Changing your perspective on the type of player you are and changing your style of play simply cannot be done overnight. It takes a strong culture, the right people around you and acceptance to make it all work.

With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, there have been plenty of surprises and disappointments. When looking at the former, three guys stand out that many people thought were finished as NBA players, but are now reviving their careers after taking on a new role.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

The Carmelo experiment in Portland has gone very well for both sides. Two weeks in, the 10-time All-Star has relished his new role as another offensive weapon behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The league announced on Monday that the 35-year-old had been named as the Western Conference Player of the Week — averaging 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game — as Portland posted a perfect 3-0 record.

The last time Carmelo won the weekly award was March 10, 2014. Now seven games into his 2019-20 season, he is averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and over 2 assists per game. His shooting percentages are above average, and he is being utilized much better than he was in Houston or Oklahoma City. He is not trying to carry the offense, but he is more than just a spot-up shooter.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has done a remarkable job of injecting Carmelo into the offense, and not altering it completely. By using his strengths on that end of the floor, it actually alleviates some pressure for Lillard and McCollum, while at the same time freeing up space inside for Hassan Whiteside to get better position. Everyone on the roster seems to be benefiting from Melo’s presence, and the team has reaped the rewards.

No one had doubts that Carmelo still had plenty of game left in the tank. The concerns were believed to be the inability to find a situation that was conducive to his mentality. Carmelo had been fighting the notion that he is not the same quality of player that he was in his prime, being above taking on a reserve role with a team. Now that he has bought in, everything has changed.

The 16-year veteran could be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Trail Blazers. After a number of injuries and a slow start for McCollum had them searching for answers, Portland had the longest winning streak of any team in the Western Conference entering Tuesday night’s tilt with the LA Clippers. When Carmelo is willing to make the extra pass and doesn’t hesitate after getting the ball, Portland has found success.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

When Howard decided to return to the Lakers for a second stint this past summer, there were plenty of people skeptical of the move. The top overall pick of the 2004 draft has answered his critics in a resounding way. After several unsuccessful stops in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, he has finally been able to get his back healthy and return to the floor.

After a dominating start to his career in Orlando, where he was the face of the organization for eight seasons, Howard went to team up with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. The two did not see eye-to-eye, and he made his way to Houston the following year. The injuries began to pile up and his production suffered. Never known as a serious guy that had a laser focus on getting better, Howard made himself a target as the losses piled up — and his frustrations were made public.

Now in his 15th season, Howard has finally bought into the system. His role with this Lakers team is clearly defined, and he has accepted it. He has embraced it. He has played to his strengths, which is exactly what the Lakers need from him. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Five times he has finished with the most rebounds in the league. He has had the most blocks in two seasons and has been named to an All-Defensive team five times during his career. As he nears his 34th birthday, he has been fantastic on and off the court.

While averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game may not sound incredible, keep in mind that Howard is only playing around 20 minutes per game. The loaded frontcourt with Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma has played a significant role in that.

Just by watching Howard play, it is easy to see how much quicker and freely he is able to move on the floor. No longer plagued by back issues, he has been sprinting back on defense, running in transition, and finishing above the rim. The Lakers thought they would have the services of DeMarcus Cousins before the season began, but this may actually work out better for them in the long run.

Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards

The journey for Thomas has been much different. After struggling to find minutes, then thriving as the face of the Boston Celtics franchise for three years, IT found himself looking for a home after the hip injury that ended his tenure in Beantown after a deep playoff run.

The first stop came in Cleveland, where he was part of the trade package for Kyrie Irving. He was then sent to the LA Lakers where the fit simply didn’t work. He played just 32 total games during the 2017-2018 season and appeared in only 12 games for the Denver Nuggets after signing a free-agent deal. With his career hanging in the balance entering his age 30 season, Thomas found a new home in Washington.

Much like the two names mentioned above, Thomas has done exactly what the team has needed them to do. The Wizards knew they would be without their star point guard John Wall for the entire season. While they understood the backup role that Ish Smith would play, they needed another playmaker to draw the attention away from Bradley Beal. Fortunately for everyone involved, IT has been able to deliver so far this year.

The assist numbers for IT this year are on par with his average during his three seasons in Boston, which is a career high. The scoring obviously isn’t similar, but that is not what the Wizards need from him. Washington’s offense is a well-oiled machine that is humming along quite nicely. They have multiple guys that can score, and they do it from all areas of the court. The second-ranked scoring offense in the NBA is a clear indication that this team is more than just Beal.

Thomas may not be the same All-Star player that fueled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, but he has been playing his best basketball since that run.

Not bad for an undersized guy taken with the very last pick in the 2011 draft.

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