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Thursday, February 20, 2014

LeBron James Explains How Dwyane Wade Helped Him to Develop a Championship Mentality

LeBron James' All-Star Weekend interview with Steve Smith has received attention regarding James' selections for a hypothetical all-time pro basketball "Mount Rushmore" (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson)--but what I found most intriguing was James' explanation of how he transformed his game during his second season in Miami (2011-12), particularly in terms of his relationship with Dwyane Wade:

It's easy when you sit around in the summertime and say, "Let's team up." That's the easy part. The hard part is when you actually get on the floor and see how similar both guys are and how both guys are used to having the ball in their hands. Two or three possessions go by where you're like, "I've been playing defense for three straight possessions. I need the rock." It's just two alpha males going at it...

We weren't playing good basketball, we were out of sync and me and D. Wade were looking at each other like, "Did we make the right choice, man? Is this what we really want?" Can two guys who basically held franchises on their shoulders and decided to team up give one shoulder to each other to make this happen? There was a clash for sure.

If we can look back on it, I'm surprised we even got to the (2011) Finals. I'm still surprised we even got there...

D. Wade called me (after Miami lost in the 2011 Finals) and we went to the Bahamas...I felt like, if I don't win this year, I'm going to get buried under every cemetery that they've got. So, we went to the Bahamas and had some great conversations there. D. Wade was like, "In order for us to be great, you have to be the guy." I was looking at him like, "What? What do you mean by that? I am the guy but what do you mean by 'the guy'?" He was like, "In order for us to be great, in order for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish while we are playing together, you have to be the guy that you were in Cleveland and I'll take a step back."

Many commentators asserted that what went wrong with James' Cleveland Cavaliers was that James did not have a good enough supporting cast--an excuse that completely went out the window after he lost in the 2011 NBA Finals while playing alongside perennial All-Stars Wade and Chris Bosh plus a host of solid role players--but the reality is that on several occasions as a Cavalier when James was challenged in the playoffs by elite level opponents he quit and complained; James went to Miami trying to escape the responsibility of posting dominant numbers in the playoffs against elite teams, so it is very ironic that in order to win championships James had to adopt the very mindset that he was reluctant to have in Cleveland: instead of griping about a supposed lack of help, James--and any other MVP level player who aspires to win a championship--must embrace the necessity to dominate the game and to impose his will on his teammates and the opposition. This is what Wade implored James to do and this is what Kobe Bryant consistently did while winning five championships with the L.A. Lakers; until the past couple seasons the difference between Bryant and James was that James was reluctant to accept this responsibility. It is fascinating to hear James now admit that before he had that fateful offseason conversation with Wade he did not fully understand the necessary mentality to be a champion; if James had developed that mentality in Cleveland then he could have led the Cavaliers to a championship but he deserves credit for being introspective enough to accept and learn from Wade's sound advice.

James' explanation echoes what Tim Grover told me: "When he was in Miami, Dwyane Wade--having gone through all the trials and tribulations with the Miami Heat, from the (2006) championship to all the way down to being a Lottery team--learned how to deal with all the different levels of adversity and success. He was able to teach LeBron or when he would see LeBron in certain situations playing or in practice he knew how to put LeBron in position to succeed." Prior to Miami winning back to back titles, I often made the point that the only way for the Heat to be successful is for James to accept the responsibility to be the best player on the court. James should never take a back seat to Wade or anyone else--and the idea that the Heat could win a title with James in a secondary role never made any sense to me.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 PM

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All-Star Weekend Impressions

NBA All-Star Weekend is by far the best event of its kind--the comparable NFL, MLB and NHL talent showcases are not nearly as entertaining--but it is not as great as it used to be or as great as it could be. The best thing about NBA All-Star Weekend is that it provides a platform to show the world just how fast, strong and explosive NBA athletes are. I am not a big fan of the Rising Stars Challenge--mainly because the event is characterized by a serious lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness--but the game provides national exposure for some talented young players who are members of small market teams. The Shooting Stars competition enables current NBA players to compete with and against NBA legends and WNBA players. The Skills Challenge is fun to watch, though during a real game one does not need to master the "skill" of passing a ball into a barrel or dribbling through cones. The Three Point Contest is a pure demonstration of a fundamental basketball skill being executed at the highest level by some of the sport's top marksmen. The Slam Dunk Contest lets fans live vicariously through the exploits of some of the league's best gravity-defying leapers. Sunday's Legends Brunch pays tribute to the players who built the sport from the ground up and was my favorite event to attend during the six years that I covered All-Star Weekend.

Team Hill defeated Team Webber 142-136 in the Rising Stars Challenge. Detroit's Andre Drummond grabbed MVP honors, leading Team Hill with 30 points and a game-high/Rising Stars record 25 rebounds--but suffice it to say that video of this game will not be used at any basketball camps as an example of fundamentally sound basketball, particularly at the defensive end of the court. Chris Bosh won his second straight Shooting Stars event, leading Team Bosh (including Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash) over Team Westbrook in the championship round. The problem with this event is that each team is required to make a half court shot in each round, which is much more a matter of luck than skill; I'd prefer that either the half court shot is scrapped or else the entire event is morphed into a HORSE contest, maybe pitting a retired player versus an active player (with no dunking allowed). Damian Lillard and Trey Burke won the Skills Challenge; it is the second such title in a row for Lillard, who took top honors last year when the Skills Challenge was a solo event. Journeyman Marco Bellinelli--who has played for five teams in his seven season NBA career--outgunned a host of All-Stars (including Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson, Damian Lillard and Kevin Love)--to win the Three Point Contest.

The Slam Dunk Contest is the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday night but I about fell out of my seat when I saw the TNT graphic touting the Slam Dunk Contest judges. Who is "Julius Irving"? How is it possible that one of the league's primary networks cannot properly spell the name of one of the sport's all-time greatest players? Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins joined Erving as judges. Team East (Paul George, Terrence Ross and John Wall) defeated Team West (Harrison Barnes, Damion Lillard and Ben McLemore) and Wall was selected by the fans (via online voting) as the Dunker of the Night. Wall's clinching dunk, a double pump after grabbing the ball out of the hands of the Wizards' mascot, was impressive but overall the event lacked star power, excitement and suspense. Almost every year, Kenny Smith, Magic Johnson and/or some other prominent figure proclaim that the Slam Dunk Contest is "back" and they once again said that after Wall's victory but I don't buy it. The reality is that there is not likely any way to make the Slam Dunk Contest as great now as it was in the 1980s. Back then, many of the league's brightest stars competed on an annual basis and a missed dunk all but eliminated a player from winning the contest; competing in the Slam Dunk Contest was like doing a trapeze act without a net but that did not deter all-time greats like Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler from participating on multiple occasions. The two biggest problems now are that most of today's biggest stars don't participate and that the format removes suspense/anticipation by permitting players to miss multiple dunks without any penalty. During a recent "Open Court" program, Wilkins cut to the heart of the matter, declaring that today's players do not really want to find out who is the best dunker, because they might risk not earning that title. Erving amplified this excellent point, mentioning that players have agents and marketing advisers who tell them that the downside of not winning the contest outweighs the potential upside of emerging victorious.

Some people suggest that putting a million dollars--or some other similarly extravagant sum--on the line might motivate more stars to participate but that is ridiculous: these are highly paid professionals and if they don't want to test their skills against their peers while also entertaining the fans then that is really a shame. Erving participated in his final two Slam Dunk Contests when he was 34 and 35 years old; he did not win either event but he defied Father Time by proving that he could still take off from the foul line and dunk. There is no way that any 34 or 35 year old all-time great would compete in the Slam Dunk Contest today; even all-time greats who are in their prime--most notably, LeBron James--refuse to put their dunking reputations on the line.

In addition to being a Slam Dunk Contest judge, Erving also participated in a panel discussion honoring Bill Russell during Sunday's Legends Brunch. Erving described how much he looks up to Russell and how Russell has been providing sage advice to him since he was a student athlete at the University of Massachusetts; Russell told young Erving that the most important building on campus was not the gymnasium but rather the library and Russell told the then-50 year old Erving that as one ages one should pare down one's life to essential people and activities, focusing on what is most meaningful and letting go of that which is less meaningful.

Russell was not a great shooter, he did not possess the all-around skill set of Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson and he was not as statistically dominant as Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan--but a strong case could be made that Russell is the greatest individual performer in team sports history; his teams won the championship in almost every season of his basketball career, extending from high school to college to the 1956 Olympics to the NBA, where he led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 seasons, including a record eight straight crowns (1959-66).

The All-Star Game itself was record-setting (most combined points, most points by one team, most combined three point field goals made, etc.) but watching it felt more like gorging on junk food as opposed to feasting on gourmet fare. The East's 163-155 victory over the West lacked competitive spirit. I know that this is an exhibition but I like what Kobe Bryant--who did not play due to injury--said during his in-game interview: "The fans want to see us do what we do best, which is compete hard, and to go up here and run up and down and just play the game in a silly way, I don't think that shows much respect to the basketball gods." All-Star Games are often high-scoring affairs just because both teams have so much offensive firepower but in the past players competed harder at the defensive end of the court. The previous highest scoring All-Star Game (the West's 154-149 overtime win over the East in 1987) featured a combined 63 fouls and 14 blocked shots, two indicators that the players played at least some defense; the 2014 All-Star Game included just 21 fouls and no blocked shots--that's right, in 48 minutes of action the sport's best players did not manage to block even one single shot! In 1987, the teams combined to shoot 6-17 from three point range; in 2014, the teams shot 30-100 from beyond the arc. At times, the 2014 All-Star Game looked like a very high level pickup game with players shooting uncontested three pointers and driving through the lane unimpeded, not a competition pitting the world's greatest athletes against each other.

The 2014 All-Star Game featured several outstanding individual performances, though the gaudy numbers would have meant more had they been posted against greater defensive resistance. Kyrie Irving had a fantastic game (31 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 14 assists), winning MVP honors after leading the East to a come from behind win. Carmelo Anthony scored 30 points, set the All-Star single game three point field goals made record (eight) and he committed three fouls, including one to stop Blake Griffin from scoring in the open court (Anthony playing defense at any time, let alone an All-Star Game, may be a sign of impending apocalypse). LeBron James made a solid all-around contribution to the East's win (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists). The West's Kevin Durant (38 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Blake Griffin (38 points on 19-23 field goal shooting) both made serious runs at Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star single game scoring record (42 points).

NBA All-Star Weekend is a lot of fun, whether one experiences it in person or just watches it on TV. If the league tweaks the Shooting Stars competition and the Slam Dunk Contest and encourages the All-Stars to elevate the competition level of Sunday's game then All-Star weekend will be even better.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 PM

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The LeBron James-Kevin Durant Narrative

The narrative during the NBA All-Star Weekend centered around Kevin Durant all of a sudden becoming the best player in the NBA. Statistically, Durant has been a beast, and he has outclassed Lebron James on paper. However, the MVP award and NBA championships are not handed out based off of production in one day fantasy sports leagues. Instead, Durant is going to have to show in the second half of the regular season that he can not only lead a team to the NBA finals but also win it.

With back-to-back championships already under his belt, Lebron James has taken it slightly easy in the regular season so far this year. His numbers in one day fantasy sports are down, but that is mostly because his minutes are down. The Miami Heat have played a lot of games in the last few years, and James also participated in the Olympics in 2012. Even though he seems to be indestructible, Miami is making sure that he is well rested so that he can have success when it matters most.

For Durant, he has been dealt a tough hand so far this season. Not only is he in the deeper Western Conference, but he has had to play most of the season without point guard Russell Westbrook. Those two factors have made him focus more on putting up big numbers so that his team can have success. It is certainly not a given that they can just coast to the playoffs and have home court advantage. That is why Durant is playing and scoring more when compared to James.

When it comes to the NBA, it takes time to get the title as the best player in the league. It took Lebron James a few years before he was pretty much unanimously considered better than Kobe Bryant. There is a chance that Kevin Durant never gets to that point when compared to James. There are certainly people who feel like he is better, but it is hard to compare when both players are trying to accomplish different things this regular season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM

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