Kevin Durant: The Choice of the Millennial Generation

In mid-August, the numbers—$225 million! $300 million! $350 million!—began trickling out.

Kevin Durant, the NBA’s reigning MVP and no worse than the second-best basketball player on the planet, was looking around, maybe seeking a better fit, possibly in search of a new sole. 

Suddenly, shoe company free agency became mainstream news.

Could Under Armour—the Baltimore-based upstart founded in 1996 on $15,000 but now with $3 billion in revenue expected in 2014—actually poach Durant from Nike, the behemoth in Beaverton, Oregon, with anticipated revenue of $30 billion for 2015?

Not this time. The Oklahoma City forward stuck with Nike, announcing the news on Twitter and ending what might have been a major coup for an ascending brand. Under Armour’s high-stakes courtship and Nike’s ensuing reaction underscored Durant’s perch among the ranks of sport’s most marketable stars—a game-changer.

“He would have given UA instant credibility,” said Matt Powell, vice president of industry analysis for Sports and Leisure Trends at The NPD Group, via email. “And every brand needs credibility—that’s why they pay elite athletes to wear their products. Signing KD would have helped UA gain traction in the basketball market.”

Indeed. According to Powell’s estimates, Nike and its Jordan subsidiary comprise 95 percent of all U.S. basketball sales, with UA currently at less than 1 percent.  

So, even as Nike seemingly prints cash—and with megastar LeBron James already on board and established as the company’s top endorsee—was re-upping with Durant a matter of playing “keep-away” from a surging competitor or simply continuing to appreciate and maintain an existing relationship?

“KD’s been a Nike athlete since he entered the league and we’re proud to have a relationship with one of the most dynamic players in the game,” Nike spokesperson Brian Strong wrote in an email. “He possesses exceptional on-court talent, a strong off-court personality and the ability to connect with and inspire the athletes that we exist to serve, including the youth.”

The last three words in that statement are likely the key. 

 

A Millennial For The Millennials

Marketing to—or rather, engaging with—millennials (the so-called “selfie” generation) is mandatory. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 74 million 18- to 34-year-old Americans. It’s the country’s largest demographic. It’s also the most coveted demographic.

In short, there is product to be moved, but accessing this Internet-savvy and ethnically diverse group is difficult. 

Various studies and reports, such as this, provide context. The chief points being: Millennials don’t want to be “sold”; brand loyalty supposedly doesn’t exist; they trust the opinions of others within their social networks; passion is important; they appreciate anything organic rather than something corny and forced. 

For a company such as Under Armour, which is just 18 years old, focusing on millennials is standard operating procedure. It’s what the brand was built on—kids and athletes. It’s not an initiative but rather how business is conducted. Durant resonates with this demo, hence the high-stakes wooing. And although he passed, Durant, in addition to Nike, has a growing list of clients that includes BBVA, Sprint, Sparkling ICE, Panini, Kind, Skullcandy, 2K Sports and Orange Leaf.

“We’ve been able to leverage those attributes that KD has—he speaks from the heart, he’s genuine and he has great values—to align him with corporate America and specifically with brands that have been a big part of his life,” says Michael Yormark, president and chief of branding at Roc Nation, which represents Durant. “That’s what makes him so unique and that’s what makes what we’ve done unique. Every one of the brands he works with today, they are a part of his life and authentic to him. That’s rare in this business.”

It’s also a decidedly millennial approach: Durant is 26.

Who better, then, to help companies in their efforts to reach millennials than one of their own, albeit more high-profile?

While James remains the man around whom the NBA orbits, he also turns 30 in December. That’s hardly old, but James has racked up plenty of mileage, enough so that there is a lingering fatigue, a malaise that infected the once- and current Cleveland Cavalier, much derived from an ill-conceived “Decision” before leaving Ohio for Miami.

“To me, LeBron is much more of a polarizing figure,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “I think there is a clear attempt by KD’s folks to say, ‘How do we make him different enough that he resonates with those people that can’t find LeBron relatable?’”

For instance, no one batted an eye this summer when Durant, who is second to James in terms of NBA endorsements, decided to drop out of the U.S. men’s national team, citing the need to recharge his batteries for the upcoming season. Of course, it just so happened to coincide with his negotiations with Nike and Under Armour.

“It’s weird how you can still relate to someone who just got a $300 million contract from Nike, but you still like him, you’re still proud of him and excited for him,” says Taylor Blair, the social media and web marketing specialist for Sparkling ICE. Forbes reports Durant’s 2014 endorsement earnings at $14 million.

Adds Matt Delzell, managing director of The Marketing Arm: “People generally find him really likable because they don’t hear bad things about him.”

Ask Yormark for an explanation, and he’ll repeat the same word: authentic. 

One of Durant’s promotional efforts for NBA 2K15—he’s the cover athlete—went viral. During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Durant admits that he plays the best-selling video game not as himself but as James, causing an incredulous Fallon to wonder why he doesn’t use himself.

“Nah, that’s kind of arrogant,” Durant said. 

It was humorous, and it was honest. Such humility is endearing yet rare. 

“Authenticity is such a cliched word, but it’s what works,” Delzell says. “If you look at great endorsements in the last 25 years, the ones that fail—relatively speaking—don’t have the impact that other companies have with the same person, and that comes down to authenticity.

“Michael Jordan and Ballpark Franks? Does anyone think he’s sitting at a ballpark with normal people eating a hot dog?

It’s easy to picture Durant sitting around with his teammates and friends playing NBA 2K15, because that’s what actually happens. 

Not to compare, but do you really think James will be cruising around Akron in a Kia during the summer?

 

“You’re The Real MVP”

Balancing a cultivated image with the actual self can be, in most cases, a business decision. It’ll be impossible to ever truly know a star athlete, but there will be glimpses occasionally on display.  

Those moments, such as Durant’s epic 26-minute MVP acceptance speech, can be gold. The corresponding millennial love was thick, whether it was fans claiming unending loyalty to Durant, others saying his speech made them look like ungrateful brats in comparison or even others wishing there was a drug that recreated the feeling of watching the speech for the first time.

The speech was natural, though. Nothing was scripted. Yormark said he asked Durant about the speech that morning in May, trying to glean some insight. But there was none to offer. Durant said he was going to speak from the heart and “whatever comes out will come out but it’s going to be real.”

Thanking virtually everyone who helped him get to that point, specifically his teammates, coaches and his mother, whom he labeled “the real MVP,” Durant cried, babbled, stopped and started. He was raw, revealing and riveting. Former NBA coach and current ESPN color analyst Jeff Van Gundy declared it the best speech since Lou Gehrig, while Yormark says it helped close several deals that were close to completion.

If he wasn’t a role model before, he was afterward. 

“He has the opportunity and the potential to become a ‘descriptor’ to what brands would be looking for in the future—they’ll say, ‘I want a KD,’” Swangard says. “Maybe not him specifically, maybe he’s not a fit for what my brand represents or what my business objectives are, but a guy who is authentic, who is real and obviously plays at a level that his success on the court has a bearing on his visibility. 

“He could well be one of those great case studies that becomes the norm.”

Even if that’s not his intent.

Being a millennial, Durant sought brands to team with that were special, possibly even unique—unique to him.

Imagine how thrilled Reese Travis, CEO of Oklahoma City-based Orange Leaf, was when he heard Durant was not only a fan of his company’s frozen yogurt but that the NBA star was also interested in becoming a brand ambassador. 

It happened. Durant has a share of equity in Orange Leaf, now a part owner of a franchise that touts 321 stores in 40 states.

Or try to envision the surprise inside Talking Rain’s industrial park offices just outside of Seattle when Yormark called on behalf of Roc Nation, trying to ascertain whether the makers of Sparkling ICE, a zero-calorie carbonated flavored water, would be willing to use Durant as a pitchman. 

Delzell’s agency, The Marketing Arm, created The Celebrity DBI, a data index that ranks consumer perception of 3,483 athletes and entertainers in a variety of categories such as awareness, appeal, aspiration, breakthrough, endorsement, influence and trendsetter. 

For consumers between the ages of 18 and 34, Durant is tops in the NBA in all of the aforementioned categories except awareness. James is known to some degree by 91 percent, while only 53 percent cop to Durant. 

In everything else, though, it’s all KD, specifically trend-setter, which the index equates to trust. It’s Durant’s best attribute—he ranks 77th overall. James ranks 754th.

Basically, millennials LOVE Durant.

All of which explains why back in the summer, Nike, to borrow a slogan, decided to “protect its house” from Under Armour and hang on to Durant.

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Choice to Hand out Max Contracts in the NBA Is About More Than the Numbers

It’s a barbershop question sure to spark heated debate as neck hairs are shorn and shaving cream is slathered: Is Player X a “max” player? As in, is he worthy of being signed to the maximum salary allowed by the NBA‘s collective bargaining agreement?

For those sitting in a hydraulic-elevated leather recliner and not an NBA GM’s chair, the heart of the argument rests on the player’s statistics and his team’s accomplishments in light of his contributions. To some, for example, the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard is an automatic maximum-salary player because he not only has a championship ring, he earned Finals’ MVP honors while matched up at times against the league’s most dominant player, LeBron James, in getting it.

Yet Leonard did not receive a maximum-salary extension while Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, to name two, did, despite having marginally better statistics on less successful teams. If you were picking a least deserving simply based on those standards, Hayward would be the clear choice. The Jazz finished last in the Western Conference and he scored less (16.2 to 18.4) and shot worse (41 to 44 percent) than Thompson, whose Warriors finished as the West’s seventh seed and took the Clippers to a full seven-game series in the playoffs.

So who is the idiot mismanaging his team’s pocketbook—Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey or Warriors GM Bob Myersor some combination of the three?    

A handful of other GMs, former and present, discussed all the elements that go into a team deciding whether or not to give a player the max. Consensus? What someone has done on the court to date is a part of the equation, but only a part and not necessarily the biggest part. What a player is capable of doing in the future is far more important, which is where the decision becomes tricky because the success of that max-contract player, no matter how talented, will rest on the pieces placed around him.

“I don’t think anyone has really defined what the requirements to be a max player are,” said one former Eastern Conference GM. “From my point of view, you’re trying to get that trifecta. Teams that have won championships have all had a core of three great players who are separated no less than two or three years in age. That’s your goal: can you get your Big Three? If you think a player is one of those, you have to give him the max if that’s what it takes to keep him.”

That alone is different from public consensus, which equates a max contract with a team’s best player or, at worst, second-best player.

A current Eastern Conference GM, though, concurs. A player’s value to his particular team may warrant a max, or near-max deal, especially if there isn’t a similar player available on the market – or if a team already has invested in other pieces of that trifecta and thereby the clock is ticking on its title hopes. “Is he replaceable?” said the current GM. “How would losing him affect wins and losses? It’s never an easy question.”

There are additional factors. The amount of revenue a player generates, by dint of play or personality, also has to be considered, and gaudy statistics don’t always translate to must-see entertainment. Filling a box score is all well and good, but if a player doesn’t fill seats or is not willing or able to sell the team to sponsors, the return on the investment won’t be there. Joe Johnson, now with the Brooklyn Nets, signed a max deal with the Hawks. He had (and maybe still has) the talent to be part of a Big Three. He’s a seven-time All-Star and helped his team make the playoffs in nine of his 14 seasons. Yet he’s largely viewed as having fallen short of max-contract worthiness.

“That’s one I think Atlanta could’ve rolled the dice” and not maxed-out Johnson, one Atlantic Division GM said. “It’s not as if they were drawing a lot of fans and were going to lose them if Joe wasn’t there.” Orlando’s signing of Rashard Lewis to a max deal in 2007 because they were moving into a new arena and needed to sell luxury seats fit into the same category. Eric Bledsoe, signed to a near-max deal by the Suns this offseason, is potentially another example of a team retaining a player and an asset that ultimately looks like an overpriced investment.

“When you’re going through the process of deciding if a player is worthy of a max contract, a good organization has everybody weigh in,” says a former Eastern Conference team president. “Is the player considered marketable? Is he well-liked in the community? Does he pass the character test? You have to have a presence in your community and some players resist that.”

Ignore the character issue and you run the risk of loading up on a Gilbert Arenas, as the Washington Wizards did. Arenas checked off every other box. He proved he could be a top-five scorer (twice), an All-Star (three times) and lead a team to the playoffs (three times). Yet his decision to bring firearms into the Wizards’ locker room and subsequent mockery of criticism for doing so did inestimable damage to the Wizards’ reputation, particularly in light of the ongoing violence in some of the area’s neighborhoods, which prompted the change of the team name from the Bullets. That his accomplishments all came on his first major contract and everything went awry after the Wizards gave him a second one suggests they made the mistake of paying him for what he’d already done rather than what he could do for them in the future.

Placing too much value or importance on a player’s intangible qualities also can backfire on a team. The Golden State Warriors rewarded Antawn Jamison with a mega-sized, $80 million contract in part because they were trying to live down the stigma of their preceding headliner, Latrell Sprewell, whose last act with the team consisted of choking coach P.J. Carlesimo. That said, nobody pays NBA-level ticket prices to watch an upstanding citizen if he can’t take down an opponent. One GM cited Minnesota’s Kevin Martin as another example of a quality person who can fill a stat sheet yet isn’t max or near-max worthy.

“Some guys have great stats, but that doesn’t mean they’re great players,” the GM said.

There’s one other reason to sign a player to a max contract, even if a team isn’t convinced he’s good enough to be part of a championship core: knowing that someone else does. For one Atlantic Division GM, that’s the first criteria. “Can you trade that contract once you do it? That, for me, is the No. 1 consideration,” he said. “No. 2 is what he means to you and your team.”

With all that in mind, how do the decisions on Leonard, Hayward and Thompson meet the criteria for character, potential to be part of a championship core and marketability?

The handful of executives polled for this piece were unanimous about Thompson. The combination of his age (24), talent (team’s stopper and one of its top scorers), character (no issues since being popped for marijuana in college), marketability (combining with Steph Curry to form the “Splash Brothers”) and value around the league (Minnesota and Sacramento already made attempts to lure him away) makes him the “biggest no brainer,” said the Atlantic Division GM. “If Klay had the hit the market, he could’ve made more.”

The feelings about Leonard were more mixed. Several GMs question if he can carry a team or have anywhere close to the same success without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. He also may have a quieter personality than Thompson, which doesn’t bode well for marketability. And while there have been no citizenship issues, he hasn’t had the chance to prove he can be a leader. If San Antonio ultimately gives him a max contract next summer, who they put around him could be big in determining whether or not he lives up to it.

Making Hayward a max-salary player, though, is by far the diciest move. While Charlotte forced Utah’s hand by presenting Hayward with a max offer sheet that the Jazz matched, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a robust market for Hayward, at least not as a max player. “Sometimes teams put the offer sheet out there just to mess up your books and prevent you from doing something else,” one current GM said.

The Jazz retained an asset, and let’s face it, a wholesome talent in Salt Lake City has its added advantages as well on the marketing front. But as of right now it remains to be seen if Hayward can evolve into a player who can lead a team to the playoffs, much less be part of the core of a title contender.

“You had to match because you can’t lose that asset, but I would’ve done it only to trade him to Charlotte and get a first-round pick or something else back,” one GM said. “With the other young players they have that need to be signed, it puts them in a tough spot.”

Then again, if Hayward’s presence keeps the seats filled and the corporate partners happy, he could indeed prove to be worthy of that max deal. No matter what the standings or the guy in the hydraulic-power leather recliner say.  

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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Villanova unanimous choice to win Big East title

Villanova unanimous choice to win Big East title; Hoyas’ Smith-Rivera preseason player of year

      
 

 

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Villanova unanimous choice to win Big East title (Yahoo Sports)

Villanova head coach Jay Wright calls out to his team during the second half of a third-round game against Connecticut in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday, March 22, 2014. Connecticut won the game 77-65. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

NEW YORK (AP) — Villanova is the unanimous choice by the coaches to win the Big East championship.


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Miami Heat Have No Choice but to Live and Die with Small-Ball Blueprint

In the wake of LeBron James’ devastating departure, the Miami Heat had little choice but to retain Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—to guarantee Erik Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” philosophy remained as close to intact as possible.

Ironically, Miami’s subsequent free-agent moves may have made Spoelstra’s small-ball system, rather than his stars, the team’s most indispensable commodity.

With the NBA moving evermore steadily toward a overwhelmingly perimeter orientation, the Heat’s offseason was as much about internal continuity as it was heeding the league’s prevailing strategy.

In a recent column, Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel underscored precisely this point:

If Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts are your starting power players, and with Pat Riley already talking about Granger getting time in the power rotation, that again appears to be the direction.

And it’s not as if there is much of a Plan B, with Chris Andersen at an age where limited minutes are the preferred approach, and with Udonis Haslem having been marginalized in recent seasons.

Of course small ball is mostly an approach on one side of the ball. The reality is the Heat will face legitimate challenges against legitimate beef, be it Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, Andre Drummond or Roy Hibbert in the East. As was the case previously, there are no easy answers there.

Between the patchwork frontcourt and the loss of James’ peerless playmaking, the Heat have no choice but to live and die by Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” approach, first adopted after an impromptu visit with former University of Oregon head football and current Philadelphia Eagles skipper Chip Kelly.

As ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh writes, Spoelstra was enamored by the idea of turning a “collection of world-class athletes into a merciless scoring machine.”

Hyperbolic though that might sound, the results weren’t that far off, with the Heat finishing in the top six in overall offensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons.

James’ departure is all but certain to derail Miami’s status as one of the NBA’s most punishingly potent attacks. But that doesn’t mean the Heat can’t catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.

Indeed, one of the more underrated stories of this summer’s free-agency period was how Pat Riley—doubtless jaded over losing the game’s principal chess piece—managed to cobble together a more-than-passable board formation.

Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts? These are far from NBA also-rans.

Danny Granger, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem: a trio of eminently serviceable veterans, even if their best days are behind them.

Shabazz Napier and Khem Birch? A pair of rookies with enough palpable promise to instill within Heat fans hope for what’s to come.

Most of them fit—in theory, anyway—Spoelstra’s pace-and-space mold, albeit to varying degrees. In Deng, you have a more-than-passable LeBron analog, while McRoberts offers a better, more versatile version of Rashard Lewis. Granger gives you a classic stretch 4. Napier, meanwhile, is Norris Cole with the potential for something more.

More importantly, the man tasked with running Spoelstra’s show—the always polarizing Mario Chalmers—seems more determined than anyone to prove Miami’s offensive success was more about gestalt than any single god of the hardwood:

“I feel like I’ve finally got a chance to shine, show my real game,” Chalmers recently told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick. “Me, CB, D-Wade and the rest of the guys, we’re going to pick it up, we’re still going to play Miami Heat basketball, and we’re still gonna be a competitor.”

Playing in a historically weak Eastern Conference will only help Miami’s cause. Beyond the Chicago Bulls and James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the East remains very much a hodgepodge of hopeful upstarts and tenuous talents. What few teams can claim to have, however, is a skipper of Spoelstra’s cut and caliber.

And while the 43-year-old coach seems committed to transposing his offensive template on this year’s jarringly disparate talent, the other side of the ball could find Spoelstra scaling back his traditionally cavalier approach. From AllUCanHeat.com’s Wes Goldberg:

The last thing you will see change is the ‘gambling’ the Heat official talked about. Heat players were trained to jump passing lanes and try to get out in fearsome transition. Without James, now, the Heat won’t be as inclined to get on the fast break.

That Miami’s defense was so often the catalyst for its offense is, of course, a conundrum worth considering. Forced to rely more on wile and patience than opportunistic lane hawking, Spoelstra and Co. are almost certain to see fewer possessions at the other end of the floor.

So while the “space” in Spoelstra’s system should remain the offensive mantra, Miami’s more conservative approach on defense might result in a somewhat slower overall pace.

This will be nothing new for players like McRoberts and Deng, embedded as they’ve been the past few years with some of the East’s slowest teams (McRobertsCharlotte Hornets finished 21st in the league in pace last season, while Deng’s former team, the Chicago Bulls, have consistently ranked at or near the bottom in that category).

Similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find a duo more suited to multiple styles than Bosh and Wade, who both labored under similarly deliberate systems before joining forces with James in Miami four years ago.

As with any team undergoing a monumental roster overhaul, the Heat are bound to endure their fair share of growing pains. Whether their on-the-job-learning proves fruitful or fitful depends heavily on Spoelstra’s ability to recognize what system specifics are worth salvaging and which must be tossed by the wayside.

Still, the stratagems Spoelstra nurtured over the past three years have undoubtedly proven a strategic sword worth living by. Even if losing the player who wielded it best means possibly dying by it as well.

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Writers discuss Kevin Durant’s Under Armour vs. Nike choice

$265 million. $285 million. Two dollar amounts that represent the range that Under Armour is willing to pay as it tries to acquire the 2014 NBA MVP  in Kevin Durant as its pitchman. This sponsorship deal could prove to be one of the largest ever signed, and it would give the Maryland-based company an in-state export to lay […] The post Under Armour Vs. Nike: 11 Of Your Favorite Writers Weigh In On Kevin Durant’s Decision appeared first on The Sports Fan Journal.

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Could Phoenix Suns Be LeBron James’ Best Choice for More Rings?

By exercising the early termination option in his contract, four-time MVP and two-time NBA champion LeBron James is free to opt for a destination of his choosing once again. Re-upping with the Miami Heat—where LBJ won both of his titles with Pat Riley calling the shots—appears to be the most logical outcome.

But is it the best choice LeBron can make in terms of winning more rings?

Not surprisingly, the best player in basketball wants to sign a max deal, according to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Few teams can offer James a max contract while simultaneously keeping the flexibility to put winning pieces around him.

Miami is an obvious suitor, since the only player on its roster right now is point guard Norris Cole. The Heat have money to spend, but they also face plenty of uncertainty by having to build a new roster from scratch.

The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, have established themselves as a legitimate dark-horse landing spot for his services.

“We are in good position,” Suns owner Robert Sarver said, per AZCentral Sports’ Bob Young. “We have a lot to offer, too, with the depth of our roster compared to some of the other teams. We think we have a favorable opportunity, but obviously he’ll make his decision when he wants to make it.”

James is sure to weigh any and all options available, but is Phoenix the best choice he can make from a basketball perspective?

 

The Pitch

After finishing dead last in the Western Conference during 2012-13, Phoenix flipped the script less than a year later.

General manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek built and managed a young, upstart roster that wound up winning 48 games—more than 2010-11 when two-time MVP Steve Nash was still running the show.

Hornacek established a winning culture that started with the play of his two point guards—Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Those All-Star-caliber talents led the way, and they’re just a part of the equation that could woo James to the desert.

“The Suns are positioned with the cap space and maneuverability to chase James and the co-star of his liking without yielding Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, James’ close friend, in the process,” AZ Central’s Paul Coro wrote. “That second star pursuit could be USA Basketball buddy [Carmelo] Anthony or fellow Miami free agent Chris Bosh in free agency.”

James and Bledsoe are both represented by the same agent, Rich Paul. LeBron has referred to the 24-year-old Kentucky product as his “lil bro,” per his Instagram account.

The situation in Miami would entail re-signing the Big Three and surrounding them with a new crop of role players and veterans. Whereas Phoenix allows James to join the Bledsoe/Dragic tandem as well as choose another star teammate.

As Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal told me, “Dragic, re-signing Bledsoe, keeping Plum (center Miles Plumlee) and giving him any teammate he desires who’s a free agent? That’s unbeatable.”

Again, the Suns won 48 games despite the fact that Bledsoe missed 39 contests due to injury. Add James to the fold—as well as another star: Melo, Bosh or even a different vet like Pau Gasol—and there’s zero reason the Suns couldn’t be serious title contenders. That’d be true even while playing in the loaded Western Conference.

The Suns’ pitch to James is simple. If he lands with Planet Orange, a supporting cast will be there to help build his legacy. The Larry O’Brien Trophy would be far less elusive.

 

Longevity

Assuming that Bledsoe, James and another co-star sign long-term, financially lucrative deals, that core will be the organization’s focus for years to come.

In the short term, that includes Dragic, Gerald Green and the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus.

Down the line, the Suns have a plethora of youngsters on rookie deals: Plumlee, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis.

At the very least, management won’t have to scramble to find worthy role players because youth and upside is already on board creating a buffer.

Of course, that fails to mention the mystique of Phoenix’s incredible training staff.

Head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson kept Nash healthy well into his 30s. A perfect storm of circumstances—a small fracture of his left leg and nerve root irritation in his back leading to hamstring issues—have since derailed his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Other guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Michael Redd experienced career resurgences in the Purple Palace, so the Santa Clara product isn‘t an isolated case study.

LeBron will turn 30 years old later this year (on December 30). The appeal of playing for an organization with a history of keeping veterans in playing shape is an underrated factor working in Phoenix’s favor.

Aging gracefully isn’t the norm for NBA players. Nevertheless, after years of suffering through a slew of injuries, Hill had a very successful five-year stint with the Suns. His tenure included three seasons playing at least 80 regular-season games beyond age 35.

James has always been a durable player. The Suns can all but guarantee he stays that way.

 

Depth

Sarver noted the depth of the Suns’ roster as a net positive. Unlike the 2013-14 Heat—a team that couldn’t even attempt to rely upon guys like Michael Beasley and Greg Oden—the Suns can go deep into their bench.

Markieff Morris established himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season.

His twin brother, Marcus, scored in double digits 42 times despite only starting one game.

Green was stellar as a starter filling in for Bledsoe and as a bench player providing an offensive spark.

Goodwin capped his rookie campaign with a career-high, 29-point outburst during Game 82; even Ish Smith raised some eyebrows for his hustle in limited minutes.

LeBron doesn’t want to end his career having won two titles. If he makes the tough decision to change locales for the second time during his illustrious career, Phoenix would offer him plenty of assistance getting back to the Association’s zenith.

 

Best Option?

A factor that is often ignored when discussing the future of free agents is family. Because these stars are in a business built to entertain the masses, humanizing them can be difficult.

Take, for instance, the decision made by former free-agent guard Darren Collison. He had a solid year with the Los Angeles Clippers—and head coach Doc Rivers wanted him back, according to the Los Angeles Times‘ Broderick Turner—but he opted for a lucrative three-year deal with the Sacramento Kings.

James lives in a South Beach mansion with his wife and two sons. He still owns a home in Ohio. You may recall his wife, Savannah, caused a stir with an Akron-related Instagram post not long ago.

The question is: Would LBJ consider moving yet again?

Regardless of whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” Phoenix still provides James the best title shot.

Joining a solid supporting cast, a close friend in Bledsoe and having the opportunity to court another piece to the puzzle is, as Fromal said, “unbeatable.”

Suns fans should still temper their expectations and consider this a long shot, but a James-Phoenix pairing makes a lot of sense.

LeBron’s legacy is tied—fairly or unfairly—to the amount of rings he acquires before calling it quits. As far as the 2014-15 season is concerned, Phoenix offers his best shot at adding trophy No. 3.

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Knicks Rumors: Carmelo Anthony’s Decision a Choice Between Winning and Happiness

What makes a man’s legacy? For something that comes up so often, comes up in the morning rounds of hot-take debate shows, the types in which chirping canaries pick and pick at the same fruit until it’s nothing but a rotten core, we rarely examine what the word really means.

Is it what you accomplish as a professional? Are you forever remembered by the world for your moments on the public stage, the last-second buzzer beaters, the number of RINGZZZ on your fingers? 

Or is legacy something much simpler? Family. Happiness. Being able to compartmentalize professional accomplishments with what “really matters.” The life of a professional athlete is such that we rarely view them in three dimensions. They are mere avatars who are looking to satisfy criteria that we—those of us who cannot soar to the rim or effortlessly flick our wrists and touch nothing but nylon—have set up for them in an inane battle of good versus evil.

Carmelo Anthony, at the moment, probably knows this better than anybody. The seven-time All-Star is the prize of the NBA free-agent market—at least the one is actually seen around the league as being available. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while technically free agents, are all but certain to keep their talents in South Beach.

Melo? He’s available. He spent most of Tuesday in Chicago being courted by Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau. Wednesday marks Houston and Dallas before a trip to Los Angeles to speak with the Lakers on Thursday, per ESPN’s Marc Stein. The Knicks will probably end up with final say, but if we’ve learned anything over these past few years, when a player schedules visits in other cities, he’s looking at real-estate pricing along the way. 

The answer to why Anthony might leave the bright lights of New York City is rooted in that aforementioned and oft-frustrating noun. 

Eleven years into his NBA career, Anthony has zero NBA Finals appearances. He’s been to a conference finals just once. In this same period, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have been to five Finals, and Chris Bosh has been to four. Hell, Darko Milicic has a ring.

The playoff successes of his contemporaries have helped form a narrative in which Anthony became the NBA’s most polarizing superstar. Every defensive misstep, every contested three-pointer, every check in the loss column is an indictment on his status among the game’s best players. There is no “chill button” when it comes to Carmelo analysis. Only lava-hot takes from fans who speak in only binaries of “best thing ever” and “terrible.”

It also doesn’t help that the Knicks are a dumpster fire. Incompetency at the ownership and front-office levels left the Garden filled with overpriced wreckage they attempted to call a basketball team—and Anthony turning in the best professional season of his career trying to salvage it all.

Owner James Dolan cleaned house and brought in Phil Jackson as his shiny new face of the front office, but the NBA unfortunately doesn’t take the offerings of Zen wisdom in exchange for salary-cap space. Jackson’s moves this offseason—like the one sending Tyson Chandler to Dallas and bringing in Jose Calderon—amount to a shuffling of the deck chairs for 2014. The Knicks, at best, are going to be a borderline playoff team that competes merely because they reside in the miserable Eastern Conference.

If Anthony views his legacy in the way we’ve come to publicly define it, there is no alternative: He leaves the Knicks in a…New York minute. (Sorry.)

The Bulls have a former MVP in Rose, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Noah, another elite defensive big in Gibson, a rising two-way player in Jimmy Butler and a Euroleague stud in Nikola Mirotic whose arrival has been hyped for years. No matter how Miami‘s Big Three rejiggers its cap space to add surrounding pieces, the Bulls with Anthony are an instant championship threat.

The Rockets have the NBA’s best center (yes, still) in Dwight Howard, the NBA’s best shooting guard in James Harden, an unrelenting bulldog defender in Patrick Beverley and arguably the league’s best general manager in Daryl Morey. With some creative timing, Anthony can sign in Houston and the Rockets can retain restricted free agent Chandler Parsons. The West is a gauntlet, but Anthony can put the Rockets in the conversation with San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

The Mavericks and Lakers have admittedly less. Dallas can sell Rick Carlisle, a reunion with Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s not a core comparable to Houston or Chicago. The Lakers hold roughly the same status as an unending pit of uncertainty as New York.

The point being here that Anthony has options. Placing all other considerations on hold and focusing only on that elusive ring puts Melo in a Rockets or Bulls uniform by midweek.

But, for a second, let’s allow for consideration that Anthony is not some avatar character inside our PS4. He’s a 30-year-old man with a wife and a son who values stability in his personal life and the happiness of those closest to him. We should consider these facts because Anthony himself made it clear they that factor into any decision he makes. 

The average person just sees the opportunity to say, Melo should go here, Melo should go there,’” Anthony said in an interview with VICE Sports. “But they don’t take into consideration the family aspect of it, your livelihood, where you’re going to be living. Do you want your kids to grow up in that place? Do I want to spend the rest of my career in that situation, in that city?

Anthony’s wife, entertainer La La Anthony, spent most of her childhood in Brooklyn. Anthony, of course, was born in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn. Part of the reason Anthony forced a trade from Denver to New York was so that he and La La could settle down in the city they once called home. It’s not hard to connect the dots between his July 2010 wedding and his angling for a trade out of Denver. In fact, the plan may have been hatched within minutes of his nuptials. 

For all of the on-court frustrations, Anthony and his family have settled into the New York lifestyle. The city is one of two meccas of entertainment in this country along with Los Angeles. La La parlayed a one-off wedding special into her own reality show on VH1 and appearances in feature films like Baggage Claim and Think Like a Man Too. She’s was also cast in a television series for Starz network last year set in—you guessed it—New York City.

There have been some who have tried painting Anthony’s wife in a negative light, insinuating that her acting career is in some way affecting the way he treats free agency. Last month, La La told TMZ that “of course” she has a say in what happens with Anthony’s free agency. Please take five minutes and check the comments section of any sports website with that video embedded. It’s deserving of a seat at the big kid’s table at this year’s misogynists Thanksgiving summit.

Here’s the thing: She should have a say. The last time I checked, a marriage is a two-way partnership. They have a child together. If Anthony can play basketball in New York and La La can base her multimedia career out of the same city, that seems like a pretty plum deal for a celebrity relationship.

If you think that is unreasonable, go ahead and tell your significant other that you’re taking a job that requires he or she a) quit his or her current job and come with you or b) sees you only intermittently for eight months. Have fun taking care of the kid while you’re at it, honey!

That’s one of the major issues with sports fandom. We—a collective that includes fans and media types as well—outright refuse to acknowledge athletes as human beings with competing interests. Switching teams does not mean swapping out jerseys; it means willingly uprooting your life. Athletes do not belong to us and have no responsibility to fill the criteria that we set when making these decisions. A person prioritizing what they want over the next four or five years should not give a second thought to a collective of other people they barely know. 

It’s nonsense.

If Anthony’s priority in this moment is getting the most out of his basketball career, then he shouldn’t even give the Knicks so much as a courtesy meeting. He probably shouldn’t have taken a flight from Chicago to Texas.

If Anthony’s priority is happiness and security—both in terms of his family life and the extra $30 million the Knicks can offer—then he’ll be at MSG on opening night.

I don’t think Anthony knows which of those two things he wants at the moment. It’s why he’s taking these meetings. It’s why he is traveling to each city rather than having teams come to him. It’s why his free agency is the one that packs by far the most intrigue this summer.

When Anthony signs his next contract, he’ll be telling us far more than where he’s playing basketball. He’ll be telling us what Carmelo Anthony, 30-year-old man with a wife and a kid, wants from his next half-decade.

No matter his destination, know that there are far more nuances to it than the binary arguments bandied about on the ever-so-popular shouting shows. And that’s OK.

 

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Andrew Wiggins Is Best Possible Choice for Cavaliers at No. 1 in 2014 NBA Draft

The Cleveland Cavaliers might be paralyzed by the prospects of holding the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

ESPN’s Chad Ford relayed the details on the front-office drama regarding choosing Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker:

The Cavaliers could still try to ditch the No. 1 pick and alleviate the stress and scrutiny, but if they do keep the pick, Wiggins is the best possible choice for the team.

It’s understandable that the Cavaliers’ brass is in agony over this pick. They are still feeling the effects of LeBron James’ departure in 2010 and whiffed last year by choosing Anthony Bennett. For a tortured franchise in a city with a tortured sports history, there is no margin for error with a No. 1 pick in hand.

Choosing Wiggins over Parker allows the aforementioned Bennett the chance to grow into a solid contributor. Parker can play either forward spot, but if he fits best at small forward, his presence could swallow up any of the minutes Bennett was allotted this season to redeem himself.

Wiggins could fit in alongside Bennett by playing 2-guard and allow him the room to grow at small forward. Bennett averaged just 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game last season, hardly worthy of a No. 1 draft choice. However, his conditioning and overall play improved as the season went on. He averaged 7.0 points per game in February and 5.0 in March, according to ESPN.com.

It’s too early for the Cavs to punt on Bennett; pairing Parker with incumbent forward Tristan Thompson could soak up all of his minutes next season.

Wiggins offers more upside on the defensive side of the ball than Parker. As ESPN’s Hollinger rankings show, Cleveland was right in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency last season; it gave up 104.8 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14. 

Wiggins’ one-on-one perimeter defense is his one true ironclad commodity. ESPN’s Paul Biancardi thinks it is part of what makes him a great prospect:

Cleveland would be better served improving on defense and trying to lure a proven scorer through free agency in the next year or two. Joel Embiid offers this defensive-transforming potential as well, but the foot injury makes him too much of a risk for Cleveland.

Some have questioned Wiggins’ ability to take over in games. ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton (subscription required) wrote that Wiggins’ stats don’t reflect those of current NBA scoring machines:

In particular, Wiggins failed to showcase the elite ability to create his own shot that is a requisite for superstardom. He finished 25.5 percent of the Jayhawks’ plays while on the court, per KenPom.com, as compared with 31.8 percent for Parker at Duke. As freshmen, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony finished approximately 28 percent of their team’s possessions, and Kevin Durant was at 31.6 percent. Wiggins’ mark is more similar to Luol Deng, who had a 24.0 percent usage rate.

Wiggins may not have shown the ability to take over during college, but it’s possible that the draft scrutiny has emboldened him as a player. 

“That’s more of the competitive side just me wanting to be above everybody else, not wanting anyone to go ahead of me,” Wiggins told Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears. “I still want to go [No.] 1.”

His competitive drive shouldn’t be questioned; it should also be noted that the emerging Embiid may have taken a hit on Wiggins’ usage rate while at Kansas.

And it’s not like Wiggins was a slouch on offense in any case. He averaged 17.1 points per game in 2013-14, good enough for sixth in the Big 12 Conference. His athleticism and ability to drive to the hoop is not in question, and coaches can work on his 34.1 percent shooting from three-point range to make him more of an outside threat in the NBA.

Now that Embiid‘s foot injury will likely take him out of the top three in the NBA draft, Wiggins’ and Parker’s NBA careers will become even more intertwined. Their status as two of the best players in a highly regarded draft class will have the media comparing them for many years. 

This will only be intensified if they go first and second overall in the draft. Wiggins may be as strong as Parker in his first couple of years in the league due to Parker’s polished offensive game, but he certainly has the athleticism and ability to justify being chosen over him down the line.

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Kobe Bryant Makes Byron Scott the Right Choice for Los Angeles Lakers Coach

It’s hard to imagine anyone being cut from the same cloth as Kobe Bryant, but Los Angeles Lakers coaching candidate Byron Scott seems to be at least made up of the same material.

The two formed a bond during the 1996-97 season—Bryant’s first and Scott’s last—and its ties remain as strong as ever.

As Scott explained to USA Today‘s Sam Amick, there’s a mutual respect between him and Bryant rooted in history, transparency and a similar appreciation for the way the game should be played:

Kobe knows all about me and what I’m about. He knows that I’m an old-school coach who’s very demanding on the defensive end and knows that defense and rebounding wins championships, so I think from that point of view we see eye to eye.

Our relationship is great. We talked over the summer. We text each other. His ideas on the game of basketball and my ideas on the game of basketball are a lot alike, so we share a lot of the same views when it comes to the way the game should be played. So to me, it’s going to be fun.

Scott can check off several boxes on the Lakers’ coaching wish list, including experience with the profession and a commitment to the defensive end. Of course, L.A. could find those qualities in another candidate, like former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins or NBA lifer Mike Dunleavy.

What L.A. cannot recreate with another applicant, though, is that relationship with Bryant. That’s kind of a big deal, considering general manager Mitch Kupchak already detailed the importance of the franchise’s next coach connecting with its brightest star.

“We have to make sure that whoever we hire as a coach can really get the most productivity out of him, whether it’s scoring the ball or playmaking or the threat that he may score,” Kupchak told reporters. “That’s probably of primary importance right now.”

Bryant’s status as L.A.’s most important player might feel like a formality. After all, he’s one of just three players holding a guaranteed contract for next season, along with Steve Nash and Robert Sacre.

Yet Bryant’s position won’t change regardless how the Lakers fill out the rest of their roster. Not with the $48.5 million headed his way over the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com.

Someone will need to earn the trust of a 35-year-old who has secured five world titles and appeared in 14 All-Star Games for doing things his way. Scott, however, has already cleared that hurdle.

That’s why it comes as little surprise that he “has emerged as the leading candidate” for the position, as sources told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne. Chris Broussard of ESPN has also heard similar things about Scott’s standing in this race:

While Shelburne notes that the process still isn’t far enough along for the two sides to talk financial figures, there seems to be a consensus that Scott is the clubhouse leader at this stage.

Considering the relationship he already has with Bryant, Scott is holding that favorable position for a reason.

If the Lakers have any shot at competing for something of substance during Bryant’s twilight years, it will start with maximizing the Mamba’s production. The Lakers need him to be elite for them to enjoy a similar status.

That might seem like a stretch considering where he’s at in his career. He’s had to endure a pair of serious leg injuries (first a torn Achilles, then a knee fracture), which cost him all but six games last season.

However, in 2012-13, he was still one of the NBA’s premier producers. He averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting to go along with six assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He finished that campaign in the top 10 in both player efficiency rating (23.0, tied for ninth) and win shares (10.9, tied for eighth), via Basketball-Reference.com.

He’ll need his body to cooperate in order to post numbers anywhere close to those levels, but if it does, he could reclaim his spot among the game’s greats.

That’s what the Lakers have to be hoping for. Even if they had other motivations behind handing him that massive contract extension, they’d still love to see his production validate that cost.

While Bryant still has a shot at putting up notable numbers, he’ll likely need to continue to evolve as a player to keep building those box scores. He can’t get back the physical tools he’s already lost to Father Time. He’ll need his strength and smarts to help replace the speed and explosiveness he used to unleash.

Some might recognize that need sooner than Bryant. That could lead to some potentially awkward conversations, the kind that are far easier to have between friends than coworkers.

Scott isn’t afraid of having those uncomfortable talks. He’s already sent a challenge Bryant’s way despite not officially grabbing the coaching seat:

Scott could step in and immediately have some pull with Bryant. Mike D’Antoni spent nearly two full seasons with Bryant and never seemed to build that bridge.

Scott isn’t just Bryant’s buddy, though. He’s a well-qualified candidate in his own right, with a resume that speaks for itself.

“Scott had some success in his first head coaching gig, taking the New Jersey Nets to two straight NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003,” NBC Sports’ Brett Pollakoff noted. “He then coached five full seasons in New Orleans, peaking with a run to the second round of the playoffs in the 2008 season.”

By his own admission, he’s demanding. That’s exactly what the Lakers need after last season’s unsightly 27-win performance.

I’m not a screamer, I’m intense and I’m a perfectionist,” Scott said of his coaching style in 2000, via Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times.

An intense perfectionist? Yeah, that certainly sounds like Bryant’s style.

If Scott is such a great fit, why hasn’t a contract offer been extended yet? Frankly, there’s no need to rush.

The Lakers have a roster to build, starting with the seventh overall selection in Thursday’s draft. They have the cap space to fill their remaining ranks however they see fit and need more pieces in place before determining whether Scott is the right man to steer the ship.

He’ll wait for them to make that call. He spent 11 of his 14 seasons as a player with the Lakers, so grabbing the coaching reigns would be nothing short of a dream job.

With the knowledge that his relationship with Bryant gives him a leg up on the competition, his wait might not be as stressful as it would seem. Not when both he and the Lakers know how important it is for Bryant to approve of the next head coach.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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