NBA Kingdom, Pt. 1: Lay of the Land

Once the clock hit zeros in Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals, it was finally clear the league didn’t belong to LeBron James for the first time since 2010, at least not solely. But James didn’t lose the league to another player or a single rival opponent who outgunned him in a one-on-one showdown. No, James lost the league to a collective of individuals who had no chance to dethrone him without the assistance of one another. They jumped him for it.

Still, the Warriors haven’t completely snatched the league from James. With two championships in a three year span, they simply forced him to share it with a worthy opponent. When an individual changes teams, yet stretches his streak of finals appearances to seven straight like James did, it’s hard to draw an end to his reign, regardless of recent results. All it takes are a few calculated moves and the Cavaliers could be right back in position to win their second championship in three years. Even if they don’t make moves, most of us expect them to at least get back to finals.

It’s asking for a lot of any team to knock off the likes Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the best supporting cast in the league without injuries playing a factor. This means star players will join near-forces to have at least a fighting chance at sniffing a championship. It means Chris Paul will consider joining the Spurs, Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward will consider the Celtics, Dwyane Wade might team back up with James in Cleveland, and Kyle Lowry might leave a good situation in Toronto for a better one elsewhere. It also means players still under contract like Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony will be brought up in trade speculation.

Before James took hold of the kingdom, it hadn’t belonged to a single player since Michael Jordan. It was shared by teammates on great teams, or fought for every year by new contenders, but it hadn’t been shared by individuals from separate teams since the Celtics/Lakers rivalry of the 1980s. In order for that type of shared kingdom to continue to exist today however, James will need to win another ring soon. Because if Golden State wins another championship or two, he’ll simply be a footnote in what we look back on in the future as the Golden State dynasty.

Draymond is the bad guy, and that’s a good thing

Are you not entertained? I have to ask, because everyone’s complaining about Draymond Green’s intensity as if they’re a Cleveland or Golden State fan.

Unless you root for the Warriors, you should probably look down – you’re sitting on a high horse that’s not in the race. The thoroughbreds left awhile ago. Get down and enjoy the show. This shit is getting good.

Green is providing all you pundits the talking points necessary to bash the bad guy, but without him you wouldn’t have anything interesting to talk about – just the mundane chemistry issues of a 35-6 team. Poor Warriors, with their best record in the NBA, how will they ever get it together? Let’s face it, Green’s the most interesting thing about this team right now.

His 2nd-quarter flagrant-1 foul on LeBron James Monday night was probably unnecessary and uncalled for, but it was also run-of-the-mill. This is the type of stuff rivalries are made of. People complain about the new, “softened” NBA, but when someone infuses some old-school toughness, it’s a problem?

Maybe it’s the antagonistic nature of the person at fault that turns you off, but beggars can’t be choosers. Personally, I can’t think of anyone better to get this party started. I didn’t like the foul. I loved it.

James denied the validity of this Warriors-Cavaliers thing as a rivalry, attempting to downplay the reality of what it is to ease his own psyche more than fool any of us. We, however, know exactly what this is. It’s more than Heat vs Spurs. It’s even better than Bulls vs Jazz. No two teams have met in the finals three years in a row in NBA history, and these two teams are heavily favored to become the first. Green embraces what this is all the way, and he plays like it.

“A team that you beat, beat you, it’s definitely fun,” Green said. “If you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league each year, and so I look at it as a rivalry, and it’s definitely a fun game to play in.”

Is he over the top sometimes? Sure, but why strip down the thing that makes him such a good player at risk of minimizing the pure enjoyment and entertainment of this wonderful rivalry. Green is just as integral to this series as James, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, or Andre Iguodala are – and more so than the Kevins, with Love missing the first finals and Durant just coming around this season.

Rather than complain about Green picking up flagrant fouls that don’t affect anyone outside of potentially himself and his team, let’s embrace the fact that as himself, Green makes this thing interesting. He’s the wild card.

Without Green on the court last summer, Cleveland picked up a pivotal Game 5  victory necessary to spark a rally from being down 3-1. Had Green kept his cool, the Warriors may have clinched a second ring – but Durant doesn’t enter the fold. This season (and rivalry – maybe still?) wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if the latter happened. Green is what makes this thing fun. We need start embracing him finally and stop resisting the urge to enjoy the bad guy.

 

The posse cut

Let’s get two things clear about Phil Jackson’s use of the word “posse” in reference to LeBron James’ friends and business partners.

1. Jackson didn’t intend to offend anyone

2. Regardless of his intentions, what he said was offensive

Whether Jackson knows it or not, calling James’ group of friends a “posse” reveals deep prejudices about young black males that have been built into the psyche of white society. When Jackson was speaking of the situation, he was probably searching for a way to simply refer to a group of males, but that the group he was speaking of was black – specifically black males in the world of sports – the word posse was elicited. If it were Jeff Hornacek meeting with a group of his friends or business partners, we can’t say for sure but it doesn’t seem like Jackson’s word choice would’ve been the same.

To some, it may seem like James overreacted to the use of a word that has been tossed around in similar situations for decades. It’s not unreasonable to think that some of the players Jackson once coached referred to their crews as posses. And although James brought up the dictionary definition of posse to further enforce his point, Jackson clearly wasn’t using the word by its literal sense. He did use it in a condescending tone, however, so as to dismiss the accomplishments of James’ agent Rich Paul and James’ business parter Maverick Carter. By calling them a posse, Jackson reduced them to guys hanging around for either the sole purpose of collecting benefits because they’re cool with a superstar basketball player, or to inflict violence on other people for the star basketball player. In actuality, these are grown men with individual business ventures going on in their lives. They aren’t teenagers fresh out of high school anymore, even if Jackson wanted to refer to them as a posse back then.

James and Carter were right to call out Jackson, not for an apology or reversal of what was already said, but as a reminder to anyone else who might label young black men based on prejudices, to see and think before they speak.

crowned

you remember that clingy person that you couldn’t get rid of? the one that no matter how many hints you dropped, they didn’t get it? they wouldn’t go away! you remember how aggravating and annoying that person was, right? well, you should because that person is you.

you hold your public figures in high regard, your favorite actors, musicians, comedians, maybe politicians, and most of all athletes. when anyone is even mentioned in the same breath as whomever your favorite athlete is, you shun the notion and proceed to lambaste the person being compared as though he/she made the comparison. with the cleveland cavaliers winning the first championship in franchise history last week, i think you can guess where i’m going with this: lebron james.

i’m not here to compare james to some of your favorite players, not michael jordan, kobe bryant, larry bird, magic johnson, dwyane wade? but for some reason you are. when people mention how great james is, your first response is, “but he’s not jordan,” or “kobe was better than him.” maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, but the truth is, james’ greatness stands on its own. it doesn’t need to be confirmed or affirmed in comparison to what others accomplished. bryant wasn’t great in the way that jordan was great, and james isn’t great in the way that they were great. but he is without question an all-time great player.

if you don’t trust your eyes, or if the haterade is blinding you, i’ll provide a little bit of proof of his greatness. since james entered the league in 2003, with the loftiest of expectations (which he lived up to), he has won four regular-season mvp awards. that’s more than any other player over that time. but since you like comparisons so much, that’s one short of jordan’s five, and three more than the one kobe won. he has three nba championships and won the nba finals mvp each time. and by the way, he’s 31. jordan also had three championships at 31. sure, james joined the miami heat with the likes of wade and chris bosh to get the first two, but he was still the best player on those teams. and they didn’t win a title until wade relinquished the reigns of the team to james after losing in the 2011 finals.

changing teams shouldn’t have skewed your vision of what james can do and has done on the basketball court, but if it did, let me ask you this: if charles barkley would’ve won a ring in phoenix or houston after leaving philly, would anyone have cared that he changed teams? not only would his accomplishment not be seen as less, he would’ve been considered an even greater player than we regard him now. would you have thought less of allen iverson if he left those trash 76ers teams and won a ring on a better squad? i wouldn’t. if james stayed in cleveland and never won a ring (he didn’t have any help) why would that have made him any more of a player in your eyes? karl malone never got a ring and is still regarded by many people as one of the best power forwards to ever play the game. and by the way, nobody cried when he went to the lakers to try to get a ring with bryant.

this latest championship doesn’t cement james as an all-time great, he was already there. now, he’s just jockeying for position among that list. he’s adding things to his resume that other players don’t have. he’s defining his own greatness, aside from what other players have accomplished. no one in the king james era has reached six straight finals. sure, he went to miami, but then he came back to cleveland and went to two more, and he’ll probably reach another one next season. james is the common denominator. a player hasn’t led his team to as many consecutive finals since bill russell in the 60’s. james led his team to the title after going down 3-1 in the series, something that had never been done in the history of the nba – in 32 tries before this year. oh, and he did it against the greatest regular season team of all-time.

just to be clear, i still think mj is the greatest player ever, but mj also played on the greatest team i ever seen, for one of the greatest coaches, with one of the greatest sidekicks. we never seen jordan carry an inferior team the way james did. and yes, james did carry the cavs. he led every single player on either team of the nba finals in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. that is another feat that had never been accomplished. he might not have the same shooting ability as some of our other favorite players, especially in late-game situations, but that block on andre iguodala (see above) was one of the most clutch plays i’ve ever witnessed.

no doubt, i once clung to my favorites too. i rode for jay-z as the greatest rapper so hard and for so long that it made it hard for me to realize how great other rappers were, because i was comparing them to him too much. before you know it, a person’s prime is over, and someone else steps in. eventually, i got to a place where i could appreciate other rappers and what they offered, rather than what they didn’t. if you hate lebron james, i would encourage you to start appreciating the greatness that we are witnessing. before you know it, someone else will step up as the game’s best player, and you’ll have to hate someone new.

Athletes will learn from Dwyane Wade’s mistake

The mentality of today’s athlete is in the midst of a reconstruction. Actually, that mental shift is probably in its last stages of being complete.

No longer do athletes need the glamour of big market, prestigious franchises behind them to become recognized as household names. They also don’t need to stay with the same team that drafted them to create a cult following. Thanks to social media, athletes are more accessible than ever, and if they’re good enough, people will care.

Where an athlete plays is less important than how much that athlete is making and the legacy said athlete leaves behind. And in decision making, legacy is no longer superior to the amount of money an athlete makes. They’re equals.

We’re seeing evidence of this attitude shift with the struggles of teams like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers to attract big-name free agents such as LaMarcus Aldridge. In the past, a player like Aldridge might have jumped at the opportunity to play for one of those teams, and only after he’d been verbally chastised for leaving Portland, but in today’s NBA no-one is blinking an eye at his decision. He’ll likely end up with another small market team like San Antonio that offers him the money he’s looking for along with the chance to play a major role in winning championships.

Every player won’t be as fortunate as Aldridge to have the opportunity for both rings and money, but those players will join the team that has the most money, not the one with the best chance to win – unless it’s a veteran like Paul Pierce.

This shift is creating a culture where loyalty between athletes and organizations almost doesn’t exist, and that’s to no one’s fault. It’s business.

The Miami Heat should appreciate the fact that a player the caliber of Dwyane Wade took numerous pay cuts to allow other great players to earn enough money to want to join the Heat and compete for championships. But now that he wants some of that money back, it’s a problem? Apparently so. This is because franchises have never been completely loyal to the athletes.

Most sports organizations are about staying ahead of the bullet, not biting it. That’s why a team like the Indianapolis Colts can cut Peyton Manning before he was ready to hang it up.

It’s about time athletes started doing the same thing.

Paying Wade could go a long way for Miami in drawing other free agents in the future. It shows that you’re still one of the organizations that can be trusted. It’s a place players want to play. If you snub perhaps the greatest player in franchise history and one of the best of all time, who’s still playing at a high level, and has never been the highest paid player on the team, what message does it send to Kevin Durant who the team wants to pursue in 2016.

But then again, if players are going to become more cut throat anyway, maybe the Heat shouldn’t care. Paying Kobe Bryant doesn’t seem to be helping the Los Angeles Lakers in their pursuit of free agents.

The fact is, players cut from the cloth of Wade and Tim Duncan (who has also been underpaid the majority of his career) are a dying breed.

The business savvy of players like LeBron James has cultivated an environment where the athlete controls the conversation of business. Russell Wilson is trying to create that same environment in the National Football League.

Unfortunately, Wade is a few years too late. He allowed Miami to spend his money on other players, and they have no obligation to give that money back. Sure, it would be the moral thing to do. But then again, there are no morals in big business.

A lot of athletes are going to learn from Wade’s situation, and less will be willing to take massive pay cuts over the course of their careers. Will winning be less important? No. But it won’t be more important either.

Fans always want players to say the politically correct things and put revenue on the back burner to winning but don’t expect the same thing from the owners. I don’t blame an athlete for putting his finances first. Carmelo Anthony did the right thing by taking every penny he could from New York. If Los Angeles wanted to overpay Bryant, I don’t blame him for taking every dollar. Guess what? It’s not Anthony or Bryant’s fault their teams can’t attract free agents. Management isn’t doing their job.

New York was terrible long before Anthony got there. And Los Angeles did the right thing by keeping an all-time great, but they clearly overpaid him.

For years, professional sports organization have controlled the narrative of an athletes contract. If you perform up to expectations, great it worked out. If you exceed expectations, sorry we’ll re-negotiate at a higher cost next time you’re a free agent – but there isn’t any back pay. In the NFL, if you don’t perform up to expectations, you get cut and the team isn’t obligated to pay out the rest of the contract.

We’re seeing a shift where the burden of a contract is becoming that of the owners and not the players. That’s the way it should be. Let the billionaires worry about money, not the young man/woman being paid a small fraction of those billions to live out his/her dream.

Loss to Bobcats expose hole on Wizards roster

Monday night’s loss to the Charlotte Bobcats exposed a kink in Washington’s newly crafted armor; one that isn’t as obvious when the Wizards are playing as well as they did in the second quarter of the 100-94 loss to Charlotte.

That weakness is the lack of a true wing-man.

Not a wing-man as in a guard, or forward playing on the wing of a basketball court – but wing-man as in a sidekick. A Robin. The Dwayne Wade to John Wall’s LeBron James.

This weakness has been revealed in past games but recently forgotten given the way that the Wizards have collectively performed to compensate for one another’s deficiencies.

But the presence of a true, top-tier player as a second option is necessary for any team that wants to compete for a championship.

Just ask Tony Parker and Tim Duncan of last year’s western conference champions, the San Antonio Spurs. They get an awesome contribution from the entire team, but if either one of those stars is struggling, they can rely on the other to pick up the slack.

It’s very rare that two top-tier players on the same team will struggle at the same time.

It was evident that Washington didn’t have this when John Wall struggled with scoring and turnovers against Charlotte, and no-one else could step up to secure what should have been an easy win.

The entire team played very well for the most part, but in the end when it was time for someone to take over, Wall was an absentee participant without an understudy to fill-in.

For Washington, it’s either John Wall leading the team to a win or bust.

And when Wall struggles, his ability to be a play-maker and set- up his teammates tends to falter as well, and no-one is else is able to take the game over.

This doesn’t mean that this type of player isn’t on the team. Eventually, Bradley Beal will develop into that guy. He has all of the skills necessary to be an efficient scorer and play-maker in this league. He just has not developed in to that guy yet.

Beal doesn’t handle the ball well enough to create offense for himself on a consistent basis, and too often, he makes passes that are off the mark and leads to turnovers.

It’s not as if he’s an awful dribbler or distributor though, he just needs to work on it and eventually he will become the Russell Westbrook to John Wall’s Kevin Durant.

If not, the Wizards will never make a serious playoff push, because it is inevitable that Wall will struggle at times during playoff series and Washington won’t be able to rely on 38-year-old Andre Miller to play heavy minutes during those times.

What will become of Washington is a poor man’s version of the Indiana Pacers, with one Paul George and a pretty good team around him.

Indiana’s recent struggles are an indicator of what can happen to a defensive-minded team when it’s main offensive threat isn’t playing at his highest level. You fall short.

Coming from where the Wizards are coming from a season ago, being a poor-man’s Pacers is not so bad, but this team has higher hopes.

Eventually, they’ll need a second game-changer on the roster to reach those lofty goals.

Until then, we’ll continue to see games slip out of their grasp when Superman, aka Wall, isn’t up to the challenge.