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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Chicago Bulls Discipline Wade, Butler for Making Derogatory Comments About Teammates

After leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to Cleveland's first professional sports championship in over 50 years, LeBron James will probably be granted a lifetime pass by that city and that franchise to say/do whatever he wants; he recently made it clear that he believes that all of his teammates except Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are scrubs and that Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert is a cheapskate despite Gilbert spending over $150 million on salaries/luxury tax. James has received little to no backlash from the team in response to his intemperate remarks.

Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler just found out that they do not enjoy similar privileges with the Chicago Bulls.

Wade--who was a key member of three Miami championship teams before leaving the Heat to join the Bulls last summer--and three-time All-Star Butler--who is one of the top all-around players in the NBA--each blasted their teammates on Wednesday night after the Bulls fell apart down the stretch en route to a 119-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Wade declared, "I'm 35 years old, man. I've got three championships. It shouldn't hurt me more than it hurts these young guys. They have to want it...It has to change. It has to hurt inside to lose games like this." Butler fumed, "(Expletive teammates) just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the T. Be a star in your role, man."

The Bulls fined both Wade and Butler and removed both players from the starting lineup in Friday's 100-88 loss to the Miami Heat. Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo--who started alongside Boston's fabled Big Three as the Celtics won the 2008 NBA title--was not disciplined for his public comments that unfavorably compared the leadership of Wade and Butler to the leadership of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two best players on Boston's championship team. Rondo posted this on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of Garnett and Pierce: "My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work." Rondo emphasized that the only reason he went public with his thoughts is that he felt it was important that someone stick up for the team's young players.

Rondo's message is right on point. TNT's Kenny Smith had a great take on the situation as well, noting that it is cowardly for Wade and Butler to blast their teammates in the media as opposed to approaching them privately one on one. 

Wade has a mixed track record as a leader. After winning the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, Wade presided over one of the worst collapses ever experienced by a defending NBA champion, as the Bulls trampled the Heat by a record-setting margin during the Heat's championship ring night, serving as a prelude to the Heat's first round playoff loss in 2007 and 15-67 record in 2008. Later, Wade helped Pat Riley recruit LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him in Miami to form a power trio that eventually won two titles while advancing to the NBA Finals for four straight years. Wade understood that James was the team's best player by far and Wade not only willingly ceded center stage to James but he implored James to live up to the responsibilities inherent in being the team's best player.

Perhaps Wade believes that his championship pedigree gives him the right to speak out against his teammates--but Rondo and Smith are right: Wade's words and actions in this case are not the words and actions of a true leader.

Butler has no track record as a leader. He clashed with the since-departed Derrick Rose--the 2011 NBA regular season MVP who once seemed to be a great player and a great leader but recently has not met the standard in either department--last season. Butler's emergence as an individual star during the past few seasons has not correlated with increased team success; this is not to suggest that the Bulls' struggles are Butler's fault but Butler has not yet proven that he has the skill set and temperament necessary to be the best player on a championship team. 

The Bulls are paying Wade and Butler a lot of money without receiving much in return, as the team is struggling to just hold on to the eighth playoff spot. The organization has to seriously reconsider how this roster has been constructed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:54 PM

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

LeBron James Blames Everyone but Himself for the Cavaliers' Recent Skid

LeBron James has an interesting take on personal responsibility: instead of looking within himself, he looks around to find the person(s) responsible for whatever he believes is not going right. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick invariably says that he did not coach well enough. Belichick understands that, in order to achieve maximum success, responsibility inevitably begins at the top. That is true leadership and that is one reason why Belichick's players are so loyal to him and play so hard for him--a facet of Belichick's coaching success that most media members have never understood simply because they are too focused on being offended that Belichick rolls his eyes at their stupid questions. Belichick is not trying to be popular in the media; he is trying to lead his team to championships.

James thinks about things quite differently. "We're top heavy as s---," James declared of his Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost two in a row and five of their last seven but still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. In case anyone missed the point, James explained that the "top heavy" portion of the roster consists of himself, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while the other players are--in James' view--not particularly good. James urged General Manager David Griffin to not be complacent. James publicly told Griffin that he is not doing a very good job and he offered very specific instructions about what kinds of players Griffin needs to sign as soon as possible.

To his credit, instead of meekly accepting James' ungracious public attacks, Griffin fired back, noting that the Cavaliers' front office is not complacent but that he has observed some complacency on the court--a not so thinly veiled shot at James' admitted tendency to shift into "chill mode" during the regular season. Don't be surprised if James decides to sit out a few games in the very near future as a power play to suggest to the Cavaliers that they are nothing without him.

Keep in mind that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the highest payroll in the league over the past three seasons. It is not like owner Dan Gilbert is pinching pennies and assembling the roster as cheaply as possible. Not only that, we all know that James put this team together. The Cavaliers kept the players he wanted and shipped out the players he did not want. The Cavaliers fired a head coach who had led them to the NBA Finals the year before in order to promote a coach who better related to James. This is not meant to suggest that James has been a bad behind the scenes general manager--but it is meant to suggest that James has no right to act like he had nothing to do with putting this team together just because the Cavaliers have hit a rough patch three months before James feels like playing hard on a nightly basis.

Let's look at Cleveland's current roster. Irving was the Rookie of the Year (2012) and an All-Star before James returned to Cleveland. Love made the All-NBA Second Team in 2012 and finished sixth in the MVP voting that season. When you have three max or near max players, there is not a lot of money left for other players--but the Cavaliers did open up the vault for Tristan Thompson (who is represented by LeBron James' friend) to the tune of more than $15 million per year. The Cavaliers were bidding against themselves, as it is doubtful that any other team would have paid Thompson that much. If General Manager James thought that the Cavaliers were too "top heavy," perhaps he should have suggested to Thompson that he accept a little less so the Cavaliers could have more money to spend on other players. Or maybe James could have accepted less than the max (that idea apparently only occurs to the media with regard to Kobe Bryant's contract).

Griffin recently acquired Kyle Korver, who made the All-Star team in 2015 and who has led the league in three point field goal percentage three times. The team's eighth man in minutes played, Richard Jefferson, twice averaged more than 22 ppg in a season and he was a starter for two NBA Finalists. Yes, Jefferson is 36 years old but he is only playing 19 mpg; he is a wily veteran who has shown that he still has some bounce in his legs.

The Cavaliers have spent a ton of money to surround James with two All-Stars in their primes, a (recent) former All-Star, a role player who is represented by James' friend and several other specialists who have been hand-picked by James. Does James think that a $127 million payroll is a sign of complacency? How much talent does James need around him so that he feels like he can contend for a championship?

One fascinating aspect of this is how the media either supports James' criticisms or, at worst, simply deems these outbursts as the inevitable price the Cavaliers must pay for signing James--a price that most say is well worth it. That take is only acceptable if it comes from people who apply the same reasoning toward other superstars--for instance, Kobe Bryant.

Center and point guard are historically the two most important positions in basketball. During Bryant's prime, his L.A. Lakers surrounded him with Kwame Brown at center and Smush Parker at point guard. During the 2006-07 season, Brown split time at center with Andrew Bynum, a second year injury prone player whose conditioning, work ethic and maturity left much to be desired at that time. Bryant carried the Lakers to back to back playoff berths in the tough Western Conference but he was understandably frustrated by how horrible his supporting cast was. Some fans encountered Bryant in a parking lot and Bryant, unaware that he was being recorded, accurately described how poorly Andrew Bynum was playing. Bryant's comments became a huge national story and were cited as proof that he is a bad teammate and a bad leader. The reality, as Bynum told me years later, is that Bryant was a tremendous mentor for Bynum. Bryant helped mold Bynum into an All-Star. How many players have developed in that fashion while playing alongside James? James likes to team up with already formed stars such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

It is also worth noting that Bryant did not publicly blast his general manager and his teammate to the national media but rather he let his guard down while talking to some fans. The Lakers later added one one-time All-Star to the mix, shuffled around some of their role players, and--behind Bryant's extraordinary play--advanced to three straight NBA Finals, winning back to back titles in 2009 and 2010.

James thinks that his current team is "top heavy"? Do you remember who was the eighth man in mpg for Bryant's 2009 championship team? Luke Walton, an injury-prone career journeyman. The seventh man was Jordan Farmar, a young player who was not even in the league three years later. Heck, the third man was starting point guard Derek Fisher, who would not have started for any other championship contender in recent memory. When the Lakers won the 2010 title, their eighth man was Farmar and their seventh man was Shannon Brown, who just two years earlier had been the 15th man for James' Cavaliers (who are still mocked as a team that was supposedly bereft of talent and depth).

Yes, Bryant had a private moment of frustration (that was then publicized because the fans recorded his off the cuff comments) after two years of playing alongside subpar teammates during his prime but he also took it upon himself to mold the Lakers into a mini-dynasty in the next three seasons. Years later, Bryant joked that the Lakers started Parker at point guard because they were too cheap to sign a true NBA caliber starting point guard--but when Bryant was going to battle with Parker he was not berating him in the press the way that James has indicated that everyone on his team not named Irving and Love is essentially worthless.

Speaking of Bryant and the Lakers, boy it sure is a good thing that the Lakers no longer have that Bryant albatross around their necks. Now all of their young players can show the world just how great they are and just how much Bryant's selfish gunning held them back. I mean, at the very least they can roll over a bottom-feeding team like Dallas, right? Dallas owner Mark Cuban loves "analytics" and has expressed theoretical support for tanking, so it is reasonable to assume that his Mavericks are at least considering heading into the tank pretty soon. The rising Lakers should have no problem with the Mavericks, right? Hey, wait--that must be a typo: Did Dallas really beat the Lakers 122-73? I know what happened; the Lakers are still so traumatized by the way that Bryant selfishly outscored Dallas 62-61 after three quarters of play several years ago that the mere sight of Dallas uniforms induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Yeah, that's the ticket, because no matter what happens the key narratives much stay intact: LeBron James is a great teammate who is a pass-first player (even though he publicly belittles his teammates and ranks fifth in pro basketball history in career points per game), while Kobe Bryant is a bad teammate whose selfish gunning cost his team (even though Bryant won five championships and was annually his team's best playmaker despite playing in a system that does not produce high individual assist averages).

It really is OK to acknowledge that James is a great scorer who likes to shoot the ball. Those indisputable facts do not in any way diminish the equally indisputable fact that James is a great passer. It really is OK to acknowledge that Bryant's strong-willed ways might not be everyone's cup of tea but he was a great leader and champion.

Regarding James' recent public comments, maybe James is a master motivator who has the pulse of his team. Maybe James will lead the Cavaliers to another championship; that certainly would not surprise me. My point in comparing the media coverage of James' career to the media coverage of Bryant's career is that the media members who killed Bryant for his alleged basketball sins are hypocritical for twisting themselves into knots to try to justify words from James that they would declare to be unacceptable had Bryant uttered them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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