Tag Archives: LeBron James

NBA Playoff Predictions

Round 1

Cleveland over Detroit (5 games)

Toronto over Indiana (7)

Charlotte over Miami (6)

Boston over Atlanta (6)

Golden State over Houston (4)

San Antonio over Memphis (4)

Oklahoma City over Dallas (4)

Los Angeles over Portland (5)

Round 2

Cleveland over Boston (7)

Charlotte over Toronto (6)

Golden State over Los Angeles (4)

San Antonio over Oklahoma City (7)

Conference Finals

Cleveland over Charlotte (5)

Golden State over San Antonio (7)

NBA Finals

Golden State over Cleveland (5)

The Blockbuster Trade That Needs to Happen

As fans, blockbusters are fun to think about. It’s great to imagine stars flying around willy-nilly, the landscape of the league changing every other minute.

The problem with blockbusters is that they almost never occur. The reason why blockbusters so rarely happen can be easily explained by Newton’s first law: An object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force (thanks 8th grade science!). GMs are unwilling to gamble their jobs on one big move, so rather than taking a chance, they’re content to just sit back and do nothing.

There are a couple of stars rumored to be available: Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard. However, it’s unlikely that a team overcomes its inertia to pull off a blockbuster trade for either of them, because Doc Rivers’ asking price for Griffin is sky-high and teams have little interest in trading for Howard, who’s on an expiring contract, is declining, has dealt with nagging injuries, and will expect a max contract in free agency, one that starts at $30 million per season. In addition, the team that has the most assets available in a trade and is looking for a star, the Celtics, “have recoiled at paying a price Houston would find acceptable,” according to Zach Lowe of ESPN.

Speaking of those Celtics, although they won’t be going after Howard, there are still plenty of other options. And that’s the impetus for the blockbuster trade that absolutely needs to happen:

New York trades Carmelo Anthony to Cleveland 

Cleveland trades Kevin Love to Boston

Boston trades David Lee, Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier, James Young, unprotected Brooklyn 2016 1st round pick, top-7 protected Dallas 2016 first round pick to New York

I absolutely love this trade. It works for every single team involved.

As we were just saying, the Celtics are in the hunt for a star, and Danny Ainge has long been an admirer of Love’s game. The two make a perfect fit.

Personally, I’m not so high on Love, as to me, he’s just a more famous version of Olynyk, but if Ainge wants him, this is a reasonable price to pay. Even better, unlike Howard, Love is signed long-term; he won’t reach free agency until 2020.

Losing five good young players will hurt, but as we discussed a few days ago, the Celtics might have too many good players (if that’s possible) and are therefore unable to play them all. The same logic in trading three good players for a very good player like Al Horford applies here as well.

This trade would make Anthony happy. Melo said last Friday: “I think everybody always kind of dreams and hopes that they can play with another great player, another star player,” adding “It’s a star players’ league. I think that’s what we all talk about every time we get together.”

We can infer from that quote that Anthony is hoping to play with a star and doesn’t want to wait for Kristaps Porzingis to blossom into one. And what better a way to do it than to join his friend LeBron in Cleveland for a title run?

Every couple of years, we see Melo on Team USA, enjoying himself, just swishing three-pointers whenever someone passes to him. On the Knicks, he can’t be a complimentary player; on the Cavaliers, he can. Even better, if Tyronn Lue decided to stagger his three stars’ minutes, two of LeBron James, Melo, and Kyrie Irving would be out on the floor at the same time. All three of those guys can create shots for themselves and others, meaning that Cleveland’s offense wouldn’t miss a beat when LeBron takes a breather.

Speaking of LeBron, this trade would make him happy too. James has historically wanted to play with his friends, and Melo would make basketball sense for the Cavs as well.

Love is shooting 36.8% from three-point range, while Anthony is shooting 32.7%. However, Anthony is attempting far more challenging shots than Love; 61% of his three point attempts have come on catch-and-shoots, compared to 91% of Love’s. As you can see, unlike Love, Anthony is capable of creating his own shot. And, as more of a complimentary player, Anthony will be playing off the ball more, leading to more catch-and-shoot attempts. That’ll raise his 3FG% much closer to Love’s.

Defensively, Anthony is far superior to Love. A good way to measure defensive prowess is by defensive field goal percentage. Comparing the player’s defensive FG% to the usual FG% of the player being defended allows us to find out how the defender is playing when compared to an average defender. To illustrate this point, holding Stephen Curry to 45% shooting is considered a success, while allowing Lance Stephenson to shoot 45%, well, isn’t.

Anyways, in this regard, Anthony is a big winner. He ranks sixth in the NBA among the players who have played in at least forty games, holding his opponents to a FG% 6.3 percentage points lower than their norm, while Love ranks 229th out of the 250 players, with a mark of +4.3.

As we can see, Anthony is a clear upgrade over Love. Naturally, that leads to the question: Why wouldn’t the Celtics just trade for Melo instead? Well, Anthony has a no-trade clause, and although he’ll likely waive it if he’s sent to Cleveland to play with LeBron, he’s unlikely to allow the Knicks to trade him to Boston. On top of that, Love is 27, four years younger than the 31-year old Melo, which makes him a better fit for the up-and-coming Celtics team.

Now that we’ve established why both the Cavaliers and the Celtics would make this trade, it’s time to figure out why the Knicks would too.

Well, it’s really not that hard to figure out. Anthony is nearly twelve years older than Porzingis, and by the time the latter enters his prime, the former will be way past his. Accordingly, the Knicks would be wise to build around Porzingis and this trade would allow them to do so.

Porzingis is 20, Rozier is 21, Olynyk is 24, and Young is 20. The two 2016 first rounders will be similarly aged. Add in the 23-year old Jerian Grant and the 24-year old Langston Galloway, and that’s the start of a damn good roster.

The Knicks will also have control of all of those players for years to come, allowing them to develop chemistry through continuity.

The last guy New York would acquire is Lee. He’s an unimportant part of this deal, as he’s on an expiring contract and would be included just to make the salaries work.

Again, I’m doubtful that this blockbuster will ever occur, but if ever there were a time for NBA teams to overcome their inertia to actually make a trade, this is definitely the trade with which to do it.

Notes From Knicks-Jazz

Last night was chock full of basketball, with local channels carrying both the Knicks-Jazz and Nets-Cavs games.

Luckily, I was able to avoid most of the ugly Nets game in favor of the Knicks, but the one significant play I saw was a classic LeBron transition dunk met with cheers from the Barclays Center crowd. The TV only showed the seats close to the court, but those seats were filled with Cavs fans. I guess Nets fans have officially given up on the most boring team in the league. Good for them.

Anyways, let’s talk about the Knicks-Jazz game.  I was very impressed with how Young Kristaps was able to hang with Trey Lyles, a speedy power forward, on defense. That skill a big part of his appeal: He’s big enough to play center but fast enough to cover stretch-4s. That flexibility gives the Knicks multitudinous lineup options.

Rudy Gobert, the French Rejection, the Stifle Tower, is a gangly 7’2″ center for Utah. He’s not much of a driver—Gobert drives only once every two games—but early in the first quarter, he put the ball on the floor and drove for a layup. If Gobert can combine some offensive skill with his fearsome rim protection he could become even more valuable than he already is.

And, for the record, he is already extremely valuable as a rim protector on defense: Opponents have hit only 40.7% of their shots at the rim against him, one of the best marks in the league. Gobert displayed his rim-protecting prowess last night when he absolutely destroyed a Melo dunk attempt

As always, Walt Frazier’s rhyming commentary was entertaining and enjoyable. After Robin Lopez hit his unblockable hook shot, Frazier noted that he was “looking and hooking”. Following YKP’s lovely turnaround shot from the baseline with the shot clock running out, Frazier exclaimed that the Latvian was “shaking and baking”.

The best one of the night, though, was a triple-rhyme: “bounding and astounding and confounding”.

After yesterday’s game, Carmelo Anthony has now played a combined ninety-one minutes over the past two games. For someone who underwent a season-ending knee surgery last season, it seems a tad reckless to be playing so much. The Knicks certainly don’t need another Amar’e Stoudemire clogging up their cap for years. New York would do well to sit Melo for a game of rest sooner or later.

We need to talk about Gordon Hayward, the Jazz’s starting small forward. He’s a very good player, but his lips are bright red. It’s scary. It looks like he rehydrates on the sideline either with Kool-Aid or blood, I’m not sure which. Someone needs to investigate this.

Anyways, the Knicks ended up winning 118-111 in overtime. Including free throws, New York shot a blistering 11/16 in OT, scoring nineteen points over the five minute period.

The Knicks are back to .500 at 22-22 as they head into a challenging stretch of their schedule. They currently stand a half-game out of a playoff spot in the East, and if they can survive the next few games, they’ll be in prime position to make a run at the playoffs after the All-Star Break.

Which Games Should You Watch on Christmas?

On Christmas Day, us fans of the NBA have a serious conundrum. There’s basketball for thirteen hours straight, which is great, but we also have familial obligations and the like. For those of you who can only escape your family for a game or two, here’s a guide to determining which games you should watch and which ones you shouldn’t.

Miami Heat vs. New Orleans Pelicans

Watch if you like: Freakishly long arms, all-lefty lineups, aging stars,  unibrows, imagining what Young Kristaps will be like in three years, having a quick snooze before the good games start.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Chicago Bulls

Watch if you like: Teams still finding their identities, power struggles, Enes Kanter’s bushy eyebrows, discontented players, Steven Adam’s fake-looking mustache, ex-college coaches in their first season in the NBA, Bobby Portis sitting on the bench, Dion Waiters hoisting up awful shots that miss by a mile.

Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Watch if you like: Games with history behind them, unstoppable pick-and-rolls, superduperstars, injured players returning, going small, raucous home crowds, great basketball, ridiculous displays of shooting from Steph Curry, ridiculous displays of athleticism from LeBron James, Iman Shumpert’s hair, JR Smith hoisting up awful shots that somehow go in.

Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs

Watch if you like: Spectacular wing defense, Hack-a-Howard, intra-state rivalries, Spursgasms, foreign players, beards, dazzling sequences of passing, free throws, lefty shooting guards with Eurosteps.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Watch if you like: Kobe Bryant missing shots, thunderous dunks, Chris Paul to DeAndre Jordan alley-oops, young studs against in-their-prime superstars, brutal blowouts, watching the last quarter and a half played by scrubs.

Notes From Knicks-Cavs

Last night, the Knicks lost in Cleveland, 91-84. After watching the game, I have a few thoughts to share.

First off, at the end of the first quarter, there were .8 seconds remaining on the clock, enough time for a quick shot attempt. The ball is inbounded to Langston Galloway, but, instead of taking a shot immediately, he takes a couple of dribbles and takes the shot right after the buzzer sounds.

That type of behavior is something I’ve noticed a lot lately. Rather than taking generally futile last-second heaves, players have been messing around just enough that the shot is taken just after the end of the quarter. Instead of mumbling empty platitudes about doing everything possible to win and whatnot, why don’t players actually do that, instead of just pretending to try their hardest for the sake of a field goal percentage point or two?

In addition to Young Kristaps and YK, I may have another nickname for the Knicks’ Latvian star: KPP. I heard it from a friend; it stands for Kristaps Perfect Porzingis. I’ll try it out, and see if it feels comfortable.

Speaking of Latvia, the last time I wrote about KPP (I like it!), about 40% of the hits on the article came from Latvia, so for all my dear Latvian, KPP-loving readers, veiki, paldies par lasījumā, un iesim Knicks!

Young Kristaps had a pair of spectacular plays near the end of the first half. The first was a block of a layup attempt by LeBron James.

There were two impressive aspects to this play. First, the block came after YK read the play perfectly, noticing that Jose Calderon was guarding LeBron, who has fifty pounds and five inches on him, and walled off both the basket and the passing lane to his own man. To find the second thing, rewatch the video and pause it at eighteen seconds: KPP’s head is on one side of the rim and his arm is long enough that he’s able to reach across it to block the shot. That’s ridiculous.

The second play was a confident, swished, buzzer-beating three.

There was no hesitation whatsoever. Even from a few feet behind the three point line, his shot was smooth and unflustered. This play was in line with the rest of the game, as he hit four threes on five attempts.

There was one poor play at the start of the third quarter. On an Irving-Love pick-and-roll, Calderon and YPP both jumped out on Irving, leaving Love with an opportunity to nail a wide open three. I can’t say for certain if it’s the scheme’s fault or the players’, but either way, you can’t trap a ball handler, even if it’s Irving, if it means leaving a good three-point shooter like Love wide open.

The most mystifying part of this game came in the fourth quarter, when Young Kristaps didn’t play at all. Wait a second… He did? Sorry, I must not have realized since he didn’t take a single shot until a last second heave when the game was out of reach.

With Melo out, KPP is the Knicks’ best player—why is he not being given the ball? I understand that it’s never good to force up shots when they’re not there, but he was wide open from three point range multiple times and was ignored in favor of awkward, off-balance, mid-range attempts.

The team ended up scoring twelve points in the fourth quarter. Maybe, just maybe, ignoring Young Kristaps had something to do with it.

It’s especially annoying as the Knicks entered the final quarter tied, on the road, without their best player, against the best team in the Eastern Conference, but gave the game away. The points they left on the table could have given them the game.

Running Diary: Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals

This Game 6 has the chance to be legendary. The self-proclaimed (albeit universally acknowledged) best player in the world, carrying his broken-down team on his back, against the whirring machine of basketball perfection that is the Golden State Warriors? That’s compelling enough, appointment viewing, but adding in the tortured histories of the two franchises and the amazing basketball that’s been played so far this series makes this game warrant an official running diary.

I’ve done this a couple of times before, so you know the drill: I write down my reactions live, along with when they happen, as a way of recording what people were seeing, thinking, and feeling, at any given moment.

For the record, I have no real rooting interest in this game. I’m in a pool that I can win if the Cavs win tonight and lose Game 7. To hedge my bet, though, I bet with a friend on the Warriors in this game, so I don’t have any monetary interest in this game, leaving me free to root for a night of amazing basketball.

Anyways, the game is about to start, so let’s get to it!

9:11: And we’re off!

9:12: Interestingly enough, David Blatt is starting off with his twin towers, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, against Golden State’s small ball lineup. In it, Blatt is hoping that all the benefits of the super-size lineup, particularly the offensive rebounds, outweigh the huge negative of having Mozgov, a center, match up against Andre Iguodala, a wing player, on defense.

9:15: Well Thompson just got a lefty hook for two points by posting up the much smaller Harrison Barnes. Cleveland’s size advantage is paying off early.

9:19: And just now, a couple of possessions later, Iman Shumpert got an open corner three off a Mozgov post-up. He missed, but that’s the type of shot that the Cavs need to create from their physical advantage.

9:21: One of the best things about the NBA is the chess match that occurs when teams try to shift matchups in their favor. A couple of examples of this to watch out for are with LeBron and Steph Curry. Iguodala is the only Golden State player who can stick with LeBron, so the Cavs will likely run their star through a series of picks to force a smaller player to switch onto him for a LeBron post-up. Likewise, the Warriors will likely plan a bunch of Curry-Draymond Green and Curry-Iguodala pick-and-rolls to get a slow-footed big man, either Thompson or Mozgov, to switch onto Curry. Then, as he’s been doing all season, Curry can dazzle them with a bunch of awesome dribbles, then swish a step-back three.

9:24: Iguodala missed his first couple of shots and just played hot-potato with the ball, afraid to shoot an open three-pointer. Luckily Curry bailed him out by nailing a corner three, but if Iguodala can’t hit shots from outside, Mozgov, who’s ostensibly guarding him, can just stick around in the paint, mucking up the spacing integral to Golden State’s offense.

9:27: The Warriors just breathed a sigh of relief as Iggy just hit a couple of midrange jumpers.

9:28: Again, with the size advantage, Golden State doubled a Mozgov post-up, leading to a nifty pass in the post to Thompson for a dunk.

9:29: IGGY WITH THE HEAT CHECK!!! CORNER THREE!!!

9:37: End of first quarter check-in: Iggy has seven points and a drawn offensive foul against LeBron, the Cavs star has only four points on a mere six shots, and Golden State had a fifteen point lead at one point. Their record when they lead a game by fifteen points or more at any point? 57-0. Ethan Strauss astutely points out that, in addition to this impressive record in these games, even more impressively, the Warriors are undefeated, an astounding 82-0, when they score more points than their opponent.

9:41: We head into the second quarter with Golden State up 28-15.

9:42: James with a crazy fade-away three as the shot clock expires.

9:47: One thing to keep an eye out for: the Cavs have shot eleven free throws already, with about nine minutes left in the second quarter. Klay Thompson has three fouls as well, which could prove troublesome later on, and even now, as Steve Kerr sits him so he doesn’t pick up another foul.

9:52: Mozgov with the emphatic rejection of Iguodala.

9:53: The comparatively small Leandro Barbosa was just forced to switch onto LeBron, and James took it to the hole for two points. It’s this type of switch I was talking about earlier, with the Cavs attempting to get LeBron a physical advantage over his defender for easy points.

9:54: Shumpert slams his body into a Green screen, knocking him over, mirroring the same play with JR Smith from last game.

9:55: ABC just showed that play from Game Four. Wow, Green’s really been setting some great screens.

9:56: No flagrant for Shump, Golden State to inbound the ball.

9:59: Cleveland’s made a little bit of a run, coming back to within five points, 34-29, after a Shumpert jumper.

10:00: Some nifty passing from Golden State on a transition play, leading to an open three for Harrison Barnes. Golden State with the 37-29 advantage with 5:07 left in the first half.

10:07: The free throw disparity is impressive, 17-2 in favor of the Cavs, but they’re still down by eight points. Eight of those free throws are from Cleveland’s twin towers, including six from Mozgov. It’s clear that Golden State’s smaller players are struggling with the bigger Cavaliers, although they’re okay with it as they’re making up for those fouls on the offensive end.

10:08: Shumpert and Iguodala each just picked up their third fouls. This isn’t good for either team, straining Cleveland’s depth, and depriving the Warriors of the one player who can effectively defend LeBron one-on-one.

10:11: Speaking of James, compared to the lofty standards he’s set for himself, he’s been struggling so far this game, with only nine points and two assists.

10:13: LeBron with a beautiful drive past David Lee.

10:14: Curry with a nice left-handed finish in transition against JR Smith.

10:15: James nails a three. 43-38 in Golden State’s favor.

10:16: Curry makes a quick pass to escape a double team leading to a basket from Green.

10:17: With Iguodala on the bench, LeBron has been having his way with Shaun Livingston. After those last two shots and a couple of free throws, James just slipped a nifty low-post pass for a Thompson dunk.

10:19: With the last possession of the first half, James drives, throws up an off-balance shot and misses, but Tristan Thompson follows up with a thunderous slam with less than a second left. The half ends with Golden State clinging to a tenuous lead of two points over the resurgent Cavs, 45-43.

10:36: The game resumes, and Cleveland begins the second half with the ball.

10:37: Mozgov makes a layup to tie the game at 45, then Thompson hits a shot to take the lead for the Cavs. They’ve combined for 22 of Cleveland’s 47 points.

10:39: Barnes hits a three to put the Warriors back on top by one.

10:40: Barnes steals the ball from Shumpert. Iguodala gets the ball on the other end, fakes a pass, and slams it in for a dunk.

10:41: Green nails a three off of a pocket pass from Klay Thompson. Warriors by six. Blatt calls a timeout to regroup.

10:48: LeBron takes on Thompson for an easy basket, then heads back down the floor to grab his tenth rebound. He’s got a double-double with 6:41 left in the third quarter.

10:48: Thompson picks up his fourth foul and Kerr takes him out.

10:51: Curry gets a rebound, dribbles down the court, and throws a bounce pass to Iguodala for a dunk to make it 61-51. Blatt calls another timeout to try and stop the bleeding. The Warriors are on a 16-4 run right now.

10:59: A nice play from the Warriors. The Cavs double Curry off a pick-and-roll between him and Green, Curry slips a pass between them to Green, and Green lofts it up for an alley-oop to Festus Ezeli.

10:59: Curry misses a three but Ezeli crashes in for a booming dunk, even drawing an and-1 foul on Mozgov. Ezeli hits the free throw and the Warriors lead by fourteen, 69-55.

11:05: The game seems close to getting out of hand. Green just bullied James Jones in the post for a couple of points, and Golden State takes a fifteen point lead.

11:09: The third quarter ends, 73-61, Warriors.

11:10: LeBron looks exhausted. He’s still been great, but not his usual otherworldly self, with a couple of lackadaisical plays where he’s been caught just standing around.

11:12: The Cavs have a 43-27 edge in rebounding, a 29-13 edge in free throw attempts, and three of its players have double-doubles. Its main problem is that they’ve turned the ball over fourteen times, to Golden State’s six. When you factor in that Golden State thrives in the chaos in transition that ensues after turnovers, it’s no wonder that the Cavs are playing from behind.

11:15: Down thirteen, LeBron just says screw it, drives down the floor on Barnes, and hits a layup.

11:18: James steals a pass from Green, gallops down the floor, and rises up for the dunk! A 7-0 run from Cleveland brings them to within seven. 75-68, Warriors.

11:21: Curry swishes a three and the lead is back to double digits.

11:23: LeBron passes to Mozgov for a dunk, 78-70.

11:23: Livingston with a put-back dunk off an Iguodala miss, making it 80-70.

11:23: Smith with a three on one end but Iguodala comes back down the floor to nail a three to keep the lead at ten.

11:24: Mozgov physically overpowers Iguodala on his way to the rim for a basket, Warriors 83-75.

11:24: Curry with another three!!!

11:26: Klay Thompson finally hits a three off a nice feed from Curry and it’s 89-75.

11:28: The officials miss a backcourt violation on Curry and instead call a kick-ball on Shumpert, giving the Warriors the ball. Kerr calls a timeout with 6:09 remaining in the game. It’s 89-77 and the Cavaliers are running out of time.

11:32: Off the inbound, Draymond Green passes to Iguodala in the corner and Iggy hits the three. That’s Green’s tenth assist, giving him a triple-double.

11:35: Klay Thompson was just called for an offensive foul and fouls out. He’s got more fouls (6) than points (5). Assuming the Warriors don’t relinquish their thirteen point lead with 4:16 left in the game, Thompson’s performance will be forgotten by history. He’s lucky he’s not on the losing team.

11:43: A right hook for Tristan Thompson and the lead is down to eleven with 2:39 remaning.

11:44: Curry slips past Shumpert and drives to the hoop for an uncontested layup. It’s 98-85, and the Cavs call a timeout with 1:50 remaining.

11:49: JR Smith just nailed the second of two threes, bringing the Cavs to within eight. They’re down 100-92 with 55.2 seconds left.

11:54: LeBron drove for a layup, then the Cavs fouled Curry, but he only made one of his free throws. Then JR Smith came down the floor and hit another off-balance three. It’s 101-97!!!

11:56: Curry hits two free throws and Smith finally misses. Iggy is fouled, hits one of his free throws, and LeBron comes galloping down the floor, jukes his defender, and sets his feet for a wide-open three pointer which he then misses. After a couple of fouls and missed shots…

11:58: THE WARRIORS WIN 105-97

Three Important Notes:

  1. LeBron could not look more exhausted. He gave it his all and it just wasn’t enough. He could not have done anything more than he did.
  2. The Warriors just finished up one of the best seasons in the history of the NBA. They went 67-15 in the regular season, and 16-5 in the playoffs, for a combined record of 83-20, the third highest win total in NBA history, behind only Michael Jordan’s two best teams in Chicago.
  3. Steve Kerr deserves plaudits for his risky gamble in starting Iguodala over Andrew Bogut for the last three games of the series.. It worked out wonderfully, and with it, he dictated the pace of the game, the matchups therein, and won all three of those games, to win the series, and the championship.

The NBA never stops moving, though, and while the Warriors bask in the glow of their championship, the draft hype is about to go into overdrive. The draft is eight days from now, on June 25th, and we’ll be back in this format for the draft.

Until then, all we can do is applaud the Golden State Warriors and toast the marvelous 2014-2015 NBA season.

Onto the draft!

A Quick Word on the MVP Race

For the last few years, the MVP races have been somewhat dull. Since 2008 it’s been LeBron’s trophy to lose, and lose he rarely did. He captured four out of the six MVPs over the past six years. It’s taken either the whole basketball world collectively losing its mind over Derrick Rose, or Kevin Durant averaging a 32-7-5 on a 59-win team to wrest the award away from James. However, this year, with James missing a few games from nagging injuries and giving up shots and minutes to rest a little more, the race has suddenly been thrown wide open, and it’s anyone’s to win.

Before we can choose a winner, we have to decide what “most valuable” means, and that’s where the proposition gets murky. Everyone has their own opinion on what “most valuable” actually means. Here’s the brief rundown of each interpretation and the player it fits best.

The Best Player: The guy you would choose first in a draft to win a life-or-death pickup game.

Who? Who else but LeBron? When he goes all out, he’s unstoppable.

The Best Stats: Think Wilt. He averaged crazy stats back in the 60s but never led an elite team while he did so.

Who? Anthony Davis. A 24-10-2, with a steal and a half and three blocks a game on 53.7 percent shooting from the field and 80.2 percent from the line.

The Best Lines Night to Night: Huge triple-doubles, lots of blocks, etc.

Who? Russell Westbrook, obviously. That run of triple-doubles when Westbrook turned into Oscar Robertson for a few weeks (complete with the grumpy personality!) was jaw-dropping. He even turned in a few near quadruple-doubles when he turned the ball over seven or eight times.

The Best Player on the Best Team: This is usually the player who wins the award, as conventional logic concludes that the best team must have naturally had the best player.

Who? The Warriors are the best team and Steph Curry is their best player, so Curry would win.

The Most Valuable: This player carries his team nightly and succeeds despite little help.

Who? From night to night, James Harden has been the MVP. Curry can have a bad game and the Warriors can still win because he plays alongside an all-star (Klay Thompson), a rim-protecting big man (Andrew Bogut), and a DPOY candidate (Draymond Green). When Harden doesn’t show up to play, who’s going to pick up the slack? Trevor Ariza? Corey Brewer?

Of those different interpretations of MVP, who is most likely to win the award? James won’t win because he’s missed twelve games this year, and possibly because he stacks up poorly against past versions of himself. Davis won’t win because he’s also missed time, fourteen games, and his team wasn’t elite. Westbrook won’t win for the same reason, missing fifteen games, although he gets the edge over Davis in my opinion because of the insane lines he’s put up.

Harden and Curry, to me, are the clear frontrunners for the award. I think Harden deserves it because of his consistency, the extra load he’s shouldered (about 350 more minutes than Curry), and his irreplaceability to the Rockets.

However, Curry’s Warriors are going to win 67 games (assuming they beat the Nuggets at home tomorrow night), tied for the sixth-highest win total in NBA history, and a record on par with legendary teams such as the ’86 Celtics, the ’92 Bulls, and the ’00 Lakers (and the immortal ’07 Mavs who lost in the first round). With the historical clout that record provides, it’s Curry’s trophy to lose. Interestingly enough, the best player on each of those four 67-win teams (Bird, Jordan, Shaq, and Dirk) all won the MVP that year, providing precedent for a Curry victory.

Whatever happens, it should be an exciting cap to an exciting race. Onto the playoffs!

NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

With the NBA free agency season winding down, I decided to stop procrastinating and to recap the ups and down of the hectic free agency period. What better way to do that than with a good old winners and losers column? Let’s start with the most obvious example.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Winners

Gee, I don’t know… They didn’t have that great of a summer. All they got was the best player alive, who, just by being in Cleveland:

  1. Immediately made them into title contenders and
  2. Made all of the valuable veterans chasing rings come to Cleveland

In addition to getting LeBron, they have a bunch of young, cheap, and valuable assets and could get Kevin Love.

As I said, not a particularly good July for the Cavs.

Sacramento Kings: Losers

What the hell are they doing??? Here are two facts that shed light on why the Kings have been consistently one of the worst teams in basketball for the last decade:

  1. They let their young, talented, restricted free agent point guard (Isaiah Thomas) leave for Phoenix so they could instead save money by picking up a career backup (Darren Collison) instead. How much did they save? About a million dollars per year for the next three years (and seven mil in the fourth year). They say they have some advanced stats that show that Collison is better than Thomas, but I, like most observers, am skeptical.
  2. They’re currently ducking the luxury tax line by just under a million dollars. That’s normally fine (for instance, the Thunder are also just under the luxury tax) but they’re spending a ton of money for a lottery team with no upside.

That seems like a loss to me.

Houston Rockets: Losers

Well, the Rockets are still in a good position for the future, with two stars in Howard and Harden, along with plenty of cap flexibility. They have the normal number of picks (the 1st rounder that they traded to the Lakers with Jeremy Lin is replaced by the 1st rounder they got from the Pelicans for Omer Asik) so they’re not completely screwed like the two New York teams, and they’ve got a top-notch GM who isn’t completely incompetent. Due to Houston’s positive long-term outlook, it’s strange to see them on the list as losers.

The reason why their summer wasn’t a success is due to their failed attempts at landing the upper tier free agents available. They dumped off Asik to New Orleans and Lin to Los Angeles to create cap space to sign free agents. That’s normally commendable, but when you miss out on the best free agents, you suddenly find yourself without two valuable rotation players.

Not only did the Rockets miss out on Melo and Chris Bosh, but they also decided not to keep Chandler Parsons. Their plan for free agency was to let Parsons go into restricted free agency, keeping his cap hold at about 2-3 million and to get rid of Lin and Asik, thereby creating enough cap space to sign a max level free agent. Subsequently, the plan was to sign a max level free agent while remaining under the cap. They would then be able to go over the cap to resign Parsons, giving them a big four of Harden, Howard, Parsons, and Bosh/Melo.
Of course, when Parsons signed an offer sheet with the Mavs, the Rockets only had three days to sign a free agent and then to resign Parsons. They were unable to do so, and then, at the end of the three-day waiting period, they simply let Parsons go.

To replace Parsons at the 3, Houston signed Trevor Ariza. Ariza is older than Parsons and is signed to a longer contract, although for less per year, meaning that Houston will have more cap space for additional free agent signings. Ariza, outside of the contract itself, is a good signing for Houston. He shoots 3s as well as Parsons and plays much better defense, which is especially important on a team with Harden, a defensive sieve. Still, he’s not Bosh, Melo, or even Parsons.

Houston came into this free agent period with high hopes, and left with less than they came in with. The team that suffered a first round playoff exit to Portland just got worse. That’s a pretty bad summer.

LeBron James: Winner

Let’s list the four biggest ways that LeBron won the summer, he:

  1. Goes home to Cleveland, erasing much of the pain from his brief defection in 2010
  2. Gets out of a deteriorating situation in Miami, where he would have been stuck with old and expensive teammates, where he would have had to carry his team every night (kinda like the late 2000s Cavs)
  3. Goes to the only place he could have gone to win titles without being branded a mercenary
  4. Gets a team where he either gets to play with a bunch of young stars who can save his legs, or with less young stars and Kevin Love, a top 10 player.

Not too shabby a summer for King James, huh?

Miami Heat: Losers           

Speaking of LBJ, the Heat had a bad summer. They lost the best player on the planet. That alone is enough to make a team a loser. However, outside of losing LeBron, the Heat actually had a surprisingly good summer.

They resigned Dwyane Wade to a more manageable contract. The kept Chris Bosh, who’ll become their new franchise player. If Bosh can keep up his defense while shouldering the offensive burden, the Heat will be in good shape.

In addition to the players they resigned, they also signed a few good free agents. They signed Luol Deng to replace LeBron (if anyone can truly do so) at the 3. They got Josh McRoberts, a 3-point-shooting, floor-spacing big man, who fits well with Miami’s offensive philosophy of passing, movement, and space. They also acquired Danny Granger, a veteran like the Heat have signed in years past, but, unlike those prior veterans, he’s (probably) not washed up.

Although the Heat lost LeBron, they had a pretty productive summer. However, next year they’ll almost certainly get worse after losing their best player and the strengthening of their in-conference rivals. That’s enough to make them losers.

Phoenix Suns: Winners

They are loaded. Perhaps not skill-wise, at least not yet, but there are really no teams out there that have a better long-term outlook than the Suns. You could make a case for the Hawks. You could make a case for the Sixers. But really, no team compares to the Suns.

Last year they won 48 games when they were trying to lose. Phoenix won with a young team that can only get better. They had four first round draft picks in this year’s draft. They aren’t hamstrung by cap concerns. The Suns can resign Eric Bledsoe and will still have max level cap space next summer. Even if they can’t sign a free agent, they can still trade for a star. They have a ton of young, cheap, and movable assets. For a team that’s pretty good already, adding a max level player would make them elite.

Still, that’s their long-term outlook. We’re only looking at this summer, though. They had one notable free agent acquisition, signing Isaiah Thomas away from Sacramento. In Phoenix’s two-point-guard offensive system, Thomas will be a good fit. However, one free agent signing is generally not enough to make a team a winner. In this case, though, it’s what the Suns don’t do (or at least don’t need to do) that makes them winners.

Originally, they offered Bledsoe 48 million over 4 years. Bledsoe turned them down. They moved on and signed Thomas for 4 years and about 27-28 million dollars. The advantage here is twofold. One, they get a cheaper replacement for Bledsoe. Two, they can afford to play hardball with Bledsoe, forcing him to accept less money to come back to Phoenix.

If Bledsoe comes back, great! They have another good player. If he doesn’t, that’s great, too! They have extra cap space to use to improve up and down their roster.

Now, if Phoenix hadn’t signed Thomas, they would have either lost Bledsoe or been forced to give him a cap-crippling contract that would mess up their cap space for years to come, just so they could keep together their core from last year.

The Thomas signing, because of all of these reasons, is one of the most underrated signings of free agency and is enough to make the Suns winners.

Indiana Pacers: Losers

The Pacers stagnated, not signing anyone of great import. However, they lost Lance Stephenson, a brutal blow.

Despite his antics, Stephenson was one of two players on Indiana last year (in addition to Paul George) who knew the definition of the word ‘score’. If you subtract him from a horrendous Indiana offense and don’t replace him with anyone good, that’s a combination for disaster.

Even the Pacers’ vaunted defense will be affected. Stephenson was a big part of the defense with his long arms and physical defense. He’s also valuable on defense because of his ability to guard the 3, in addition to his position at 2-guard.

Stephenson’s ability to create offense along with his flexibility on defense will be sorely missed in Indiana.

Indiana’s loss of Stephenson coupled with the gains other Eastern contenders made this offseason is enough to make them losers.

Charlotte Hornets: Winners

The Hornets (it feels weird calling them that) were the team that signed Stephenson away from the Pacers. It was a great signing for them. Their, at times, stagnant offense gets a big boost from adding someone who can make his own shot and (kinda like a linebacker) is able to bully his way to the rim for easy layups.

Steve Clifford’s defensive system gets another versatile, long-armed defender. Adding another elite defender to a team that was among the league leaders in defensive efficiency last season? That’s a recipe for a top-3 defense.

With an elite defense, a decent offense, and Lance Stephenson (not to mention an NBA great running the show), could Charlotte be turning into Indiana 2.0.? That potential is more than enough to make this a successful summer for Charlotte.

NBA Fans: Winners

We were the biggest winners of all. Let’s just quickly run through all the ways we won the summer. We got…

  1. Two weeks of nonstop excitement, constantly refreshing our Twitter feeds and ESPN to see if an important free agent had signed.
  2. To dream for the future, imagining our favorite team acquiring LBJ, Melo, Bosh, or whoever else.
  3. To see new teams rise, young teams get even better, and established teams get worse.
  4. To feverishly work out trade scenarios on the ESPN Trade Machine that’d net our team Kevin Love
  5. To watch a player make amends for one of the worst things to ever happen to a fan base in the history of sports

It’s been a helluva summer.

 

Looking Backwards and Forwards with the Finals

Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan

Wow. What a series. Not exactly exciting, per se, but it was amazing nonetheless. Just watching the well-oiled machine from San Antonio dominate in every way possible was stupendous to watch. Series like this one show that when Duncan, Parker, Manu, and Pop all finally retire, the Spurs will keep on rolling on as they always do.

So, if you recall, before the Finals (well actually it was during them, but whatever), I wrote a piece talking about what was at stake for each important player in these Finals (if you didn’t, check it out at https://sushionsports.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/what-these-finals-mean/). Well, now that the Finals are over, let’s take a look back and a look forward for what these Finals have meant. Let’s start with the Finals MVP.

Kawhi Leonard:

The Finals MVP, obviously, had a very good series. The question is whether or not this series shows that he can become the next Spurs superstar, following in the steps of George Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan.

He’s a good player, sure, but he’s not an elite scorer. He’s a very good defender, hassling LeBron all series, but does that make him fit to lead the Spurs into the future?

The accepted requirement for a superstar is to be an elite scorer and the crunch time guy for his team. Leonard doesn’t exactly fit those requirements. He’s not an elite scorer (although he’s capable of scoring more than twenty points a game) and he doesn’t have the ball in his hands at the ends of close games. However, I don’t think it matters all that much.

The Spurs ecosystem is such that all five players on the floor are supposed to pass up good shots for better ones and that anyone can score at any given moment, so the individual scoring numbers for Spurs are generally suppressed. Leonard doesn’t need to score 25 points a night for San Antonio to be considered a superstar, because that’s not what’s needed of him by his team. Along those same lines, as I said earlier, because the Spurs always look for the best shot no matter what, even in crunch time, Leonard can’t get every crunch time play run for him. Leonard can’t be a superstar by those traditional requirements because, again, that’s not what San Antonio asks him to do.

All Leonard needs to be able to do to be considered a superstar by the standards of the Spurs is to take over when it counts, like Tim Duncan. Duncan always knew (and knows) when, to win the game on any given night, that he needed to, let’s say, score twenty points and grab ten rebounds. This was an important quality of Duncan’s, as it allowed him to really turn it on in big games and to lead his team to victory.

As shown by these Finals, it’s pretty clear that Leonard knows how to take over in important games and that he has the capability to lead the Spurs into the future and to assume Duncan’s mantle as the face of the franchise.

Tim Duncan:

Duncan, already the best power forward ever, is now pushed up even higher up the list of the greatest players. By my estimate, he’s pushed past Bird (only won three titles, had a loaded team, didn’t last as long as he could have due to injuries) and Magic (was the second banana to Kareem for much of his career) and is even with Bill Russell for the third best player ever, behind Kareem and MJ. In fact, I think Duncan is better than Russell because while Russell won eleven titles in thirteen years to Duncan’s five, Russell played in a much weaker era with better teammates than Duncan.

There are a few notable similarities between Duncan and Russell: Duncan is a great teammate and is very unselfish. Russell was like that too. Duncan always shows up for big games. Again, just like Russell. Duncan even shares the same reticence and privacy that Russell had half a century ago.

Almost as important, Duncan now clearly asserts his dominance as the best post-Jordan superstar. The runners-up, in order, are LeBron, Kobe, Wade, and Shaq.

Shaq won four titles and was dominant whenever he wanted, but about a third of his career was while MJ was still around, so he’s technically not a true post-Jordan superstar. Also, he failed to become what he could have been had he tried and worked harder, so he was unable to get the maximum amount of points that he could have earned.

Wade won a title by himself, and won two titles and two runner-ups in the Finals in a subservient role to LeBron. As he only played at a high level for a few years before breaking down due to injuries, it’s tough to give him full credit.

Kobe won five titles but three were in a secondary role to Shaq’s. His teams also haven’t had success when he was the only star on his team and his team has won 45 or fewer games multiple times, so he loses points there.

If LeBron had won this year, he’d top this list, but even so, because of his runner-up finish this year, he still moves past Kobe to spot number two. He could have been even better and more dominant, but he never really stopped messing around and started really working on his game until after the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas. He’s accrued as many honors as you can get as an individual player and has had three runner-ups in the Finals and two championships, all as an alpha dog, so it’s impossible to put him lower than second on this list.

Duncan now has five championships, along with a resume so long that the Spanish-speaking announcers during the World Cup wouldn’t be able to say the whole list in just one breath. Those accolades are what make him the best post-Jordan player.

Another way that Duncan broke new ground is in adaptability. At the start of his career, Duncan and the Spurs relied on post-ups and slowing the game down. After the rule changes midway through the decade, they changed course to become a player and team that are essentially 3-and-D, along with great ball movement and selflessness. This transformation was impressive and it just adds to the legend of Tim Duncan. Whenever he decides to retire, the league will sorely miss him.

The Spurs Way (and International Players):

Speaking of adaptability and selflessness, the Spurs Way has proven its’ use throughout the series and the entire season. We’ve already discussed the stylistic and strategic changes that the Spurs have made, but let’s talk about a few other components of the Spurs Way.

  1. Only high character guys. They haven’t had a bad character guy since Stephen Jackson, way back in 2003. Since then, they haven’t risked any locker room cancers and instead have focused only on players that can contribute to a healthy locker room.
  2. Passing and unselfishness. All you need to know about the Spurs’ offense is that when announcers say that so-and-so made the “extra pass”, members of the Spurs just hear “the right pass”.
  3. International players. An astounding NINE of San Antonio’s players are not from the United States (compared to zero on Miami). There must be something about international players that the Spurs have discovered that makes them inherently… better, I suppose, (although I was thinking about “different, but in a good way”) that the Spurs now use to their advantage. Something that I find to be, perhaps, indicative of the gap between international and American-born players, is what happened in Game 1 of the Finals, the infamous Cramps Game. American players like LeBron were felled and couldn’t function properly, while players like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were used to the brutal conditions. Parker said that it “felt like [I was in] Europe… We never have AC in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all” while Duncan said that he hadn’t played in conditions like this since he “left the Islands” where he was born. Be it that international players are tougher, more skilled, or anything else, they, and the Spurs Way, brought the title back to San Antonio, a pretty powerful endorsement of them.

The Spurs Into the Future:

The Spurs are in good shape for the future. Of the San Antonio Big Three, Parker remains in his late prime, while Duncan and Ginobili, while clearly past their prime, remain good players and will be able to play for as long as they want. They have the future leader of the franchise, Leonard (as we talked about earlier), and a number of good players alongside him. They have around ten million dollars in cap space this summer and they can manufacture good players out of thin air. As long as R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich, and Tim Duncan all help run the team in some capacity, the Spurs will be in good shape.

LeBron James:

How can you blame LeBron? Here’s a chart that showed the Heat’s EWA, or Estimated Wins Added by Heat players during the Finals (courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information:

Per DiemESPN Stats & Information

LeBron had nearly two, Bosh had about a half, and the rest of the Heat dragged LeBron down. The chart pretty much says that LeBron was dominant and incredible, Bosh was decent, and that the rest of the Heat were garbage, pulling LeBron down with them.

No matter how good LeBron might be, he can’t win one on five against the Spurs. LeBron was guarded by Kawhi Leonard, (who defended LeBron perfectly) but since the Spurs didn’t have to pay much attention to anyone on the floor other than Bosh, they could help onto LeBron to make it much harder for him to score. And, because there weren’t any scoring threats on the floor other than him, (apart from Bosh) he couldn’t rack up assists and get his teammates easy points when the Spurs helped off of them to guard him instead.

This wasn’t 2011 against the Mavericks all over again. In that series, LeBron forgot that he was LeBron and that he is unstoppable when he decides to be, and did nothing for minutes at a time, losing him a title and a lot of respect from the world. In these Finals, LeBron did everything that he possibly could. This time, LeBron didn’t lose the Finals; the Heat did.

And that’s really what these Finals should be about: Miami didn’t lose the Finals as much as San Antonio won them. Miami didn’t choke away a victory as much as San Antonio went out and got it. San Antonio outclassed Miami in every way, and rather than blaming LeBron for the shortcomings of his teammates or talking about how Miami sucks, we should all be applauding the Spurs for the marvelous tutorial on how to play the sport of basketball. That’s the story that people should take away from these Finals. It’s possible that we will never see the level of offense that the Spurs exhibited during this series ever again, so why squander it by blaming LeBron for something that isn’t is fault? Honestly, I think that we should all just take a moment and appreciate the rarity and history of what we were lucky enough to see.

The 2015 Heat:

Outside of three early termination options (from Bosh, LeBron and Wade) and a player option (from Udonis Haslem) (the difference between EWOs and POs is that the former is ending the deal a year early while the latter extends the deal an additional year), Miami only has just over four million dollars on their cap for 2014-2015 (from Birdman, Norris Cole, and Justin Hamilton). This gives them the freedom to improve. However, it may not be easy as that. Just to bring back their three stars, unless they take a massive pay cut, will be somewhere around 50-60 million dollars combined. Wade alone, when he picks up his player option, will be around a 20 million dollar cap hit. It’s almost impossible to be able to perform enough cap gymnastics to get around that.

Remember, this is a team that got solidly beat in the Finals. Just keeping their players (who are, keep in mind, all getting older) won’t be enough. They need to add a number of supporting pieces, but they don’t have the cap space to do it. Next year, even if they bring back LeBron and Bosh, they’ll be an older and shallower team, even weaker than they were this year. The Heat are in bad shape for the immediate future (or at least as bad as you can be when you just were the runner-up in the Finals) and it’s going to be interesting how they manage to deal with their bleak outlook for 2015 and beyond.

The Decision 2.0.:

How does this series affect LeBron’s decision? As we mentioned earlier, this series, it was LeBron (with some Bosh) against the Spurs. His teammates (again, excluding Bosh) were useless. Miami’s options to upgrade the team are almost nonexistent. Wade will accept his player options for the next two years because it’s a lot more money than he would get on the open market. Why would LeBron want to stay in Miami when he has to carry the team by himself, accept less money, and only be a championship contender because the Eastern Conference is complete garbage?

I’ve been advocating all along for LeBron to go to the Clippers (you can check out a few of my prior articles for the reasons why). An interesting direction that LeBron leaving Miami for the Clips might push the league towards is a league of superstars, rather than a league with individual teams. Instead of cheering for the Heat or the Thunder, fans will cheer for LeBron or KD, independent of the team they play for.

The NBA would never allow that to happen because it would push way too much power to the players, which could lead to an intriguing scenario: the players leaving the NBA and forming their own league, to officially take control of the basketball league away from the NBA. Here’s an article about that very concept from about two years ago, during the lockout: http://grantland.com/features/we-need-renegade-basketball-league/. It’s co-written by my favorite writer, Bill Simmons, and it’s certainly worth a read.

The ideas that the article proposes are fascinating and it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to see this possibly happening. If the players took over and made it a players’ league, the NBA couldn’t do anything to stop them, the players would make more money with fewer restrictions, and we’d all get to finally stop seeing stars force their way to one team or another, because a star would own and run his own team. There’s no downside for anyone other than the owners of NBA teams, and if it ends up happening, that’d be one of the coolest things in the history of sports.

Speaking of cool things in sports, go turn on your TV and watch the World Cup. It’s been great so far and it’s worthwhile to watch. An article recapping the first slate of games for each team should be up, at the latest, within 24 hours, so if you haven’t watched the World Cup so far but want to get into it, you should check that out along with the last article I posted, previewing the World Cup.

Also, if you enjoyed this article, share the link to it on social media and with your friends and family, coworkers and acquaintances, and anyone else who you think might like it. Every page view, like, and share helps. Thanks in advance and thanks for reading!

What These Finals Really Mean

Image

So I was going to write a Finals preview column, but fate, school, and Finals (and no, not the good basketball kind, the horrendous school variety. Ugh) intervened, and I didn’t have a chance to write it. This is my replacement column.

Now, for the record, my Finals prediction before the beginning of the series was Heat in 6. Here’s why I have them winning in 6:

The reason why I have the series ending in 6 is that the Heat don’t have home-court-advantage so they’ll have to win a game on the road. The odds are that the Heat, should they manage to win a game on the road against San Antonio, it’ll be in one of the first three, rather than the last one.

The reasons why I have the Heat winning the series are as follows:

  1. LeBron James.
  2. LeBron James.
  3. LeBron James.
  4. Have I mentioned LeBron James yet? I’m not sure. Just for my peace of mind:
  5. LeBron James.

Honestly, that’s the only reason to take the Heat. They’re don’t have home court, the Spurs are far deeper, the Heat are older. The Heat are not as good as last year while the Spurs are far better, and, if you’ll recall, the Heat only barely managed to win. The Heat can’t count on a Ray Allen 3 to bail them out again, nor do they have home-court so they can play a potential elimination game at home.

Still, all is not lost for the Heat. As you may have seen above, they still have LeBron James. Historically, the best player in the series almost always will win that series, unless the talent disparity is too much. As the Spurs are slightly better, while the Heat have LeBron, it’s close to a toss-up, but for me, when in doubt, I always go with the best player in the league. Still it should be a close matchup.

Of course, when the best player in the league isn’t on the floor, it doesn’t matter much if you have him. On Thursday night, LeBron sat for most of the fourth quarter as an 86-79 lead with nine minutes left deteriorated once he sat, culminating in a 110-95 San Antonio victory. He even came back in with about four minutes left, behind by two, made a shot, then limped off the court, never to return to the game.

This was caused by the arena’s air conditioning malfunctioning so the players were playing in 90 degree weather, lending new meaning to the chant “Beat the Heat”.

LeBron has had trouble with cramps in past playoff games; maybe he should try and fix his problem and attempt to find a solution, rather than hoping that it doesn’t show up in a big Finals game. Unlike most idiots on social media, all burying LeBron for “deserting his team”. All complete bullcrap.

LeBron is in horrible company in having to come out of a Finals game because of cramps. Michael Jordan would never do something like that because… Wait a second… My editors (I don’t have an editor, I’m my own editor, but I wanted to say that because one, it sounds cool, and two, it makes it sound better) are telling me something… Oh! MJ also came out of a Finals game because he had cramps? Yeah, but still. My point from before is still relevant because, you know, only the best player ever did it.

You know maybe they’re actually onto something here: someone who led his team in all relevant statistical categories (i.e. points, rebounds, assists, etc.) while carrying the team on his back the whole year and who led his team during that game in points, was tied for second in assists, and was second in rebounds, despite playing merely 33 minutes because his whole left side started seizing up, isn’t a good teammate because when the whole left half of his body is immobile, obviously, he should be out there, limping along, playing like garbage (wow that was a really long sentence). But it doesn’t matter if he did that because, of course, if he did, the Twitter-verse would tell him that he should have taken himself out so that he wouldn’t harm the team by playing badly. It’s a lose-lose situation for LeBron.

In fact, it’s commendable that LeBron took himself out. He could have tried to be the hero and sucked. Rather, he recognized his limits and decided that a lesser, but healthier teammate would be better than a hobbled version of him. Again, how is that a bad thing?

Anyways, so after Game 1, my pick isn’t changing. It’s still Heat in 6. I expected that the Heat would lose twice in the first three games in San Antonio, so this loss isn’t devastating for my pick. Of course, I really, really want to change my pick to San Antonio in 7 but that would lose me whatever respect you had for me in the first place, so I’ll have to refrain.

So, after a preamble of over 900 words, onto the actual article! This article is, I suppose, a Finals preview, but it’s not in the usual format and it’s not about the usual stuff, so I’m not counting it. This column is about what this Finals means to everyone important who’s involved in it and how it affects the legacies of those people.

LeBron James:

All that’s at stake for LeBron James is his third title, a three-peat, the inside track to the title of most dominant team of the decade, a few spots up the all-time list, and much more. Only MJ (twice), Bill Russell (multiple times), and Shaqobe (once) have ever managed to get a three-peat. That’s the best player ever, a top-five player, and the best pairing ever, between two top-twenty players. Not too shabby a list.

In addition, although he’s already accomplished this, it’s worth mentioning here, the four-peat of getting to the Finals. The last team to get to the Finals four straight years was the 1984-87 Celtics. Before that, it was the 50s and 60s Celtics. That’s another prestigious list.

Also, should he win this title, LeBron will move up the list, definitely to the top 10, or possibly even higher. My rankings of all-time players is MJ, Kareem, Russell, Magic, Bird, Duncan (although he’ll move up a couple of spots if he wins the title, although we’ll get to him later), Kobe, and then some order of Oscar, The Logo, and Wilt. Does LeBron move past those three to get to the Kobe-Duncan tier if he wins the title? I think so, especially as Wilt, West, and Oscar only won a combined four titles.

Another important thing that I’d like to talk about, something that I’ve talked about briefly in the past, is how winning this championship will affect LeBron’s potential free agency. No important player on, let alone the undisputed leader of a championship winning team, has ever walked away after winning it all. Ever. From that we can assume that he won’t leave Miami if they win this series, especially as they’ll have a chance for a four-peat, something that only Russell ever did (and he did it in a much weaker era). The question is whether or not LeBron will win more titles if he stays in Miami or if he goes to, let’s say, the Clippers. If he stays in Miami then he has a potential four-peat, but after that, with Wade’s deal clogging up the cap, he’ll have to carry the team by himself every night. Alternatively, if he loses, he can go to the Clippers and have a great supporting cast, not have to play his best game every night, live in Los Angeles, and win five straight titles as a superstar, if not more, before becoming a supporting player and winning a few more after that.

If he wins this year, I hope, rather than resigning a long contract with Miami that he just accepts his player option for next year, before going into free agency in 2015. If he wins the title with Miami next year too… Well, I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The main risk for LeBron is that he becomes a historical nomad, like Roger Clemens. Clemens is a superstar, but Boston hates him, Toronto has no love for him, New York regarded him as a mercenary, and he only spent three years in Houston. If LeBron leaves Miami, then that’s the risk he runs. Is it worth it to sacrifice fan loyalty for more rings? Who knows, but it’s an important conundrum for LeBron, and one that he’ll have to figure out.

With the three-peat, all-time list, and everything else that we talked about, there’s certainly a lot at stake for King James these Finals.

Tim Duncan:

Tim Duncan probably has the most at stake other than LeBron. He and Kobe are locked in a duel for the title of the most successful post-Jordan superstar (I’ll talk more about Kobe later, but first, Duncan). He won four titles, he’s won more than 50 games every year of his career (except for the shortened season in 1999 in which he went 37-13, although that’s a 61 win pace), and he’s done it all without once bottoming out and getting a good draft pick, he’s consistent, he knows where to pick his spots (as in, he knows when he needs to score 20 and get 15 rebounds for his team to win), he’s loyal, and he’s lasted for more than 15 years, all of them above average.

In my opinion, a fifth title pushes him past Larry Bird and probably Magic as well (as Magic had a far better supporting cast and didn’t truly become the alpha dog of the team until 1986 or 1987), to become the fourth best player ever. A fifth ring also pushes him into a tie with Kobe for the third most rings ever from an alpha dog, behind Kareem and MJ (with six) and Russell (with eleven). The alpha dog distinction is important as a number of supporting players lucked into rings by playing alongside great players, like Robert Horry (with seven rings), Dennis Rodman (with five rings), and any player from the 50s and 60s Celtics.

Another interesting subplot with Duncan is that it seems as though he’ll retire if he wins. While it’ll be sad to see him go, after years as an elite player, leaving at the pinnacle of his profession is a pretty nice way to go. I like that Duncan will leave after this year if he wins because it shows how smart of a player he is: he won’t demean himself by holding on too long, like, for instance, MJ with the Wizards.

Another storyline to watch is how last years brutal Finals loss affected the Spurs. Most teams wouldn’t be able to come back from that but the Spurs just kept on rolling, destroying teams efficiently, as always. A historical parallel is the late eighties Pistons. The Pistons lost brutally in both 1987 and 1988. In 1987 they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics after Bird’s famous steal. The next year, in 1988, they made it to the Finals, against the Lakers, and were up in Game 6, about to close the Lakers out to win their first title, when Isiah sprained his ankle but still managed to notch a 25 point third quarter. Then, they lost in excrutiating fashion, losing by one point, 103-102, before losing the Game 7, 108-105. Still, after two seasons with bad breaks, they persevered and won the next two titles.

Yes, I suppose the comparison isn’t perfect; the Spurs have already won a title, but the message is the same: only truly great teams bounce back from those kinds of losses. Duncan, having done so, has already exorcised the demons of last year’s Finals, has already proven that he and his team are great. But to bounce back and avenge last year’s loss by winning another championship against the team that stole one away from him last year? That’s a damn good end to a damn good career.

Dwyane Wade:

Wade is content as no matter what happens, he’ll still have one more ring than LeBron, on the strength of his 2006 ring against Dallas. Still, another ring never hurts historically. The main thing that a ring would accomplish would be tying him with Duncan and pushing him to one ring behind Kobe. Still, that’s not as big of a deal as you might think for a couple of reasons.

One, competing with Kobe and Duncan doesn’t matter as much as competing with LeBron, Melo, and Bosh (and Darko) as they’re from a different period. Duncan and Kobe were drafted in 1997 and 1996, respectively, while the foursome (quick tangent, what’s the equivalent to trio for a group of four? Is it a foursome? Like, trio is to a group of three as ________ is to a group of four. Any suggestions?) of LeBron, Melo, Bosh, and Wade were all drafted in 2003.

Second, in 2006, he carried the Heat to the title, so there’s no argument there. In 2011, he was a big part of the runner-up Miami team. In 2012, when the Heat won the title, he was still an important component of the team, although he was no longer the alpha dog as LeBron had finally decided to assert his dominance. While in 2013, in the second consecutive title winning season, he was a good supporting player, but by no means an elite and integral player, especially as he was playing hurt for much of the playoffs. This year, he sat out for chunks of the regular season, only playing 54 games. In the playoffs, he had something of a rejuvenation, although he didn’t come anywhere near to his previous heights.

The question, of course, is how much the titles count in the grand scheme of things. Yes, he won titles, but not as the best player. How valuable that is determined to be will ultimately decide his legacy.

Ray Allen:

Allen is already a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. He already owns the most clutch, important, and challenging shot in the history of the NBA. He’s already the best three point shooter of all time. He doesn’t need another title like some of the others on this list, but his accomplishments keep on piling on and he keeps on moving up the ranks. Another record he’ll likely have by the end of the Finals is most 3s in the Finals. He has 49 to Robert Horry’s 56. Of course, this is Allen’s 3rd Finals while Horry had seven to accrue his total, making Allen’s total amount of 3s far more impressive.

Ray Allen will be remembered as one of the first great three point shooters (along with Larry Bird and Reggie Miller) and one of the clutchest (is that a word? If not, it is now) players ever, the owner of the clutchest shot ever,as well as the winner of two rings (and counting). There’s nothing more for him to prove, but winning another ring would be yet another accomplishment by a great player.

Gregg Popovich:

He’s already in the conversation, but another title would strengthen his case for the title of Best Coach Ever. He’s fighting with Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Auerbach famously coached with just seven plays while Jackson functioned as more of a peacemaker and harmonious Zen Master than as a coach, but neither of them had the same tactical aptitude as Popovich has. In fact, I personally think that Pop is already the best coach and here’s why:

The titles conversation is largely irrelevant. Auerbach won 16 titles throughout his career, but only nine as a coach, of the 50s and 60s Celtics. While, right now, it’s more than twice as many as Pop has, but they came in a weaker era with a quarter of the teams that there are today, meaning that Auerbach’s numbers are inflated. Additionally, Auerbach’s Celtics had a number of Hall of Famers while Popovich’s Spurs have had only David Robinson (only at the tail end of his prime and when he was washed up) who’s already a Hall of Famer. Obviously, Duncan is a shoo-in, but there’s no guarantee that Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili will end up making it in. Pop’s degree of difficulty is and was much greater than Auerbach’s ever was.

The same goes for Phil Jackson for his first six titles with the MJ-Pippen Bulls. The league was over-expanded and there weren’t enough good players to go around, not to mention the fact that he had the best player ever. For three more titles, Jackson had Shaq and Kobe, two of the three best players in the league at the time, another reason why he had it easier than Popovich.

Popovich has already won four titles and had 16 years straight of sustained success, all while never having a high draft pick since Duncan. He competed in a tougher league than Jackson, and a larger league than Auerbach. He won with far inferior players than either Jackson or Auerbach. That’s why I think Gregg Popovich is the best coach ever. Although some may disagree, another title will make it even clearer. That’s what’s at stake for Popovich these Finals.

Kobe Bryant:

As was briefly mentioned in the Duncan section, Kobe and Duncan are locked in a battle for the title of best post-Jordan superstar. Kobe is only in the conversation on the strength of his five titles. The problem with him is that he had a sub-500 season in his prime, along with 37 and 40 loss seasons in the two years immediately following it, not to mention another 37 loss season in 2012-13 when he had a ton of help. Also, the case could be easily made that his three titles during his three-peat from 2000 to 2002 don’t count as much as they were largely won on the back of Shaq while Kobe acted as an elite second banana.

If Duncan wins his fifth title, then Kobe loses whatever case he may have had as a better player as one of Kobe’s two big things that he was better than Duncan in (the other being points, in which Duncan is ranked 19th to Kobe’s 4th and is 7000 points behind Kobe) will be gone.

Despite his rivalry with LeBron, Kobe will be cheering for the Heat to prevent Duncan from surpassing him. In all, it’s a lose-lose for Kobe, and his legacy has never looked less secure since 2007, after three straight subpar seasons, before Pau Gasol came to Los Angeles in a one-sided deal that brought Kobe a few more elite seasons, a runner-up, and two titles.

I hope you enjoyed the article (and yes, I know, the cover picture is from last year’s Finals, but I thought it looked cool so just roll with it, okay?) and if you did, spread it around, share it with your friends and family, and anyone else who might like it. Thanks for reading and let’s hope for an amazing Game 2 tonight!