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On appreciating LeBron, the hype of the draft lottery, and the latest second-guessing of Mike D’Antoni

I find myself imagining the NBA of the future, when LeBron James is no longer the greatest star. It helps me appreciate what I’m seeing today.

The last time I felt this way was the 1990s, when Michael Jordan was winning championships in each of his last six full seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Back then, everyone was very much aware of Jordan’s excellence. We were taking mental snapshots to remember him after he was gone. We were saying goodbye while he was still on top of his game.

LeBron gets very little of that appreciation, even though he – very much like Jordan – is raising our expectations for the way basketball should be played.

In the beginning of his career LeBron was up against a hard choice: His instinct was to make plays for others like Magic Johnson, but the audience wanted him to finish those plays like Michael Jordan. Now James enters his final years as the second-coming of both Magic and Michael. LeBron is the most effective passer (like Magic), the most complete scorer (like Michael) and the most reliable leader in the NBA. His pursuit of eight straight NBA Finals is the best run the NBA has seen since Bill Russell was winning 11 championships in 13 years a half-century ago. Anyone else would be exhausted physically and emotionally after playing into June for so many years in a row, but LeBron – in his 15thNBA season – responded by playing every game and leading the league in minutes.

This flawed Cavaliers roster is loaded with overpaid role players who don’t defend at an acceptable level. More than ever, LeBron is being asked to do everything. 

He effectively plays and defends every position on the floor, depending on his team’s need at any given moment. Of Cleveland’s eight postseason wins so far, six have been decided in the final minute – including three on shots by LeBron in the last 30 seconds to force overtime or steal victory at the buzzer. His job is to singlehandedly keep Cleveland close so that he can win the game at the end. 

Trailing 0-2 in the conference finals to the Celtics, who have never lost a best-of-seven playoff series after winning the first two games, James is in danger of falling short of the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. As far as I can tell, we’ve never seen anyone carry a team so far in so many ways with so little help. Shouldn’t LeBron be viewed with the same sense of appreciation that greeted Jordan a quarter-century ago?

The margin is thin. It was no surprise when LeBron opened Game 2 Tuesday in Boston by scoring 21 of his team’s first 27 points. He attacked the basket, fed his teammates cutting inside and knocked down jumpers – and there was nothing the Celtics could do to stop him.

The telltale sequence was generated by Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ most aggressive defender, who succeeded in bullying LeBron away from the elbow. LeBron gave up the ball and got it back, only to be pushed out even further by Smart. At the shot-clock buzzer James had no choice but to swish a demoralizing 3-pointer while falling out of bounds. As he ran to the other end LeBron could hear all the Boston booers talking among themselves. It was the same sound of buzzing conversation that used to be heard in those years before music was played during every timeout. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird used to take pride in hearing it, and now LeBron was experiencing it too – thousands of fans chatting in awe of what they had seen him do.

Boston was the city that drove LeBron out of Cleveland eight years earlier, convincing him and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join together in Miami in hope of overcoming the Celtics’ trio of Hall-of-Famers (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen). It was in Boston that LeBron was forced to come up with the 45-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern finals that transformed him from victim to NBA champion. The tide of his long career keeps bringing him back here.

As LeBron came out onto the court for Game 2, he was preceded by four TV cameramen backing away while surrounding him like a school of remora fish following their shark. Their presence was a reminder that the best way to not take James for granted at this late stage of his basketball life is to watch him as if you may never see him again. There was his upfake from the foul line, when he leaned in-between the double-team as if peeking through an open door – he missed the contested layup but followed the ball for a tip-in. There was a defensive rebound that he instantly converted into a fullcourt pass ahead to Kevin Love, who merely had to turn and find the open basket awaiting his layup. Most splendid of all was the assist he delivered with his back to the basket from the top of the key: He backhanded a bounce pass through traffic to Love, who had sneaked backdoor behind Terry Rozier for a layin that few in the history of the game could have created.

Love had 22 points and 15 rebounds, and James finished with a triple-double of 42 points, 12 assists and 10 boards. And it still wasn’t enough. In the second quarter, while struggling to maintain balance on a drive to the basket, James was shouldered accidentally across the jaw by Jayson Tatum. James retreated to the locker room for medical tests. “When he came back, I don't think he had the same punch that he had before he left as far as attacking the basket, playing with that force and power,” said coach Tyronn Lue, who watched Boston outscore his Cavaliers 32-16 to end the third quarter.

A triple-double turned out to be insufficient. The Cavaliers can’t survive unless LeBron dominates every quarter.

James can still win the series. Three days of rest leading up to Game 3 should help. And then, if the Cavaliers win Saturday at home, the point of view will change. The pressure will switch onto the Celtics to win Game 4 at Cleveland – and don’t forget that Boston is 1-4 on the road in the playoffs. 

During his first seven years in Cleveland, when he had yet to win a championship, James grew frustrated with the absence of talent around him. Now there is a sense of joy to his struggle. He knows how to win and there is nothing to be lost from the current experience. If Cleveland cannot advance, it will be because his teammates were lacking; if the Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals, his achievement will rank up there with his 2016 recovery from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals against the favored Warriors.

Either way, what James is doing – and all that he is trying to do – should be appreciated. Watch him as if you will never see anything like him again. Because when he retires, you won’t.

In other news, another draft lottery is celebrated. On Tuesday it was the Phoenix Suns who were looking forward to the first number 1 draft pick in their 50-year history. Their hope is that the player they select next month – most likely either big man Deandre Ayton or wing Luka Doncic, both 19 – will team up with 21-year-olds Devin Booker and Josh Jackson to give them a trio of stars for the future.

Will those three young talents be ready to instantly drive Phoenix to the playoffs next year? The Suns led the NBA with 61 losses this season, so the answer is probably not.

Now consider the Sacramento Kings, who won the rights to the number 2 pick after losing 55 games. They also will be rebuilding around a teenager from this draft. As will the Atlanta Hawks, holder of the number 3 pick, who lost 58 games.

Over the next five weeks there will be a lot of hype about this draft. The likelihood is that none of these players will be in the playoffs 11 months from now.

Of the teams with the top seven picks, only the Memphis Grizzlies – picking number 4 – are positioned to compete for the postseason next year, based on their older roster and the expected return of point guard Mike Conley.

The most important result of the lottery involved the Brooklyn Nets’ pick that belongs to the Cavaliers (via the trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston). That pick will be number 8 in the draft next month. The Cavaliers will be expected to trade it for experienced help in their hope of re-signing LeBron James last summer.

The other lottery result of immediate impact involved the Lakers’ pick, which landed at number 10 – and therefore will be transferred to Philadelphia, providing the young 76ers with more talent. If the Lakers’ pick had been number 2 or 3, then it would have been transferred to Boston.

As it is, the Celtics will now have access to the Kings’ first-round pick next year (so long as it isn’t number 1 overall). Changes to the lottery rules in 2019 will make it more difficult than ever to anticipate the outcome of the draft order, but the Celtics can be assured that Sacramento – committed to rebuilding with youth – figures to be one of the losingest teams for at least another season.

More second-guessing for Mike D’Antoni. No coach tends to be questioned more often than the leader of the Houston Rockets. 

When D’Antoni has had talented rosters, he has tended to squeeze out as many wins as possible during the regular season. This is because he plays to the strengths of his players. His contending teams in Phoenix were focused mainly on scoring, because his best players were poor defenders. His current lineup in Houston is much better defensively – thanks in no small part to defensive leaders Luc Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon – but after their Game 1 loss at home to the defending champion Warriors, the new criticism was that the Rockets were playing too often in isolation.

The Rockets won a league-leading 65 games this season because D’Antoni changed his offense to suit the isolation skills of James Harden and Paul, who are among the NBA’s best at breaking down defenses off the dribble. Harden has been transformed into a likely MVP by D’Antoni’s tactics. 

Why is it that so many winners of the Coach of the Year award wind up being fired? It’s because they generate more wins during the regular season than they should, which earns them the award while also raising expectations for the postseason. In the playoffs, however, the dynamic changes. It becomes much harder to win against superior talent in a seven-game series.

In the Western finals, the two stars of the Rockets are trying to overcome the four stars of the Warriors. I would argue further that Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are more talented than Houston’s duo of Harden and Paul. If the Rockets fall short of reaching the NBA Finals, the main reason won’t be the nature of an offense that is an expression of their stars’ personalities. If they lose, it will be because Golden State has better players.

A change to the betting laws in America. This was a big story in American sports. In the near future it could be legal to bet on any sporting event anywhere in the United States. I’ll have a deeper look at this next Monday at NBAnswers.

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