James, Love, Irving have first practice together (Yahoo Sports)

INDEPENDENCE, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Kevin Love #0 Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers pose for a photo during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 25, 2014 in Independence, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — All-Stars LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were on the court together for the first time as the Cleveland Cavaliers opened training camp.


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Heat’s First Step After LeBron James’ Departure Is to Move out of His Shadow

MIAMI — When you’re one of the most photographed men in America, you can be selective with your self-portraits, only posting those that say something significant to you. Such was the case Monday, when LeBron James sent out a shot of his slimmer frame hugged by a gray suit, apparently the appropriate attire for some sort of acting shoot. But, in his caption, he chose to draw attention to something other than his physical being. Rather, he sought symbolism in the dark, sinewy shadow behind him, cutting across two elongated parking spaces in a sunny California lot.   

“Throughout adversity, trials and tribulations. When you think you’re alone know your shadow will stand tall and always have your back! #OverComeItAll #StriveForGreatness”

That’s what the photo spoke to James, those 21 to 28 words, depending on how you count what he put inside the hashtags:

Perseverance and self-reliance.

But if every photo is worth 1,000 words, that leaves another 975 or so to spare. And so the Heat, weary as they are already of reading and hearing and talking about James, might actually find something of value in this particular social media missive.

Do they see that shadow?

That’s what they need to somehow get out of.

Or, at least, not get lost in.

That’s likely to be one of the themes of Friday’s “media day” in Miami, with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra scheduled to address reporters roughly 45 minutes before Cavaliers coach David Blatt addresses a much larger throng in Independence, Ohio.

No, it won’t be possible for the Heat to entirely escape the past, not as James continues to be omnipresent. Short of turning off all of their televisions, radios, computers and smartphones—as well as turning away meddling media membersthey can’t avoid all questions about his departure, all highlights of his exploits and all comparisons to their current condition.

They can’t control what they were with him, or what they could have been had he stayed.

They can define, however, what they are.

Pat Riley used the word “reinvention” even before James left, to characterize what some in the organizationfrom himself to Spoelstra to Dwyane Wadeneeded to do, following the NBA Finals flameout against San Antonio. But what was truly needed was reinvigoration. The team around James had gotten tiredemotionally, mentally, physicallyand that ultimately wore on him, too, as he was often expected to carry them off the couch.

As it turned out, it may have taken his sudden, unexpected departure to stir some from their sloth. It seems that the Heat have spent the summer one-upping each other with their workout regimens, with five playersincluding newcomer Josh McRobertstaking Wade’s invitation to work out at Indiana University, and Chalmers and Norris Cole among those who have shared inside looks at their regimens with their social media following. And one who wasn’t there, Chris Bosh, has been toiling tirelessly to tailor his game to his retro, expanded role, as he shared in this Bleacher Report story.

Nor have Heat players been shy about sharing their excitement about the upcoming season. They were shocked when James left, for sure; one player even lamented that he “got used to be looked at as the Heatles.” They won’t be, not like they were, not with James gone. But they seem to have come around to being hunters, rather than hunted. Chalmers, in a recent interview with Bleacher Report, referred to “a totally different energy.”

“Four years,” Chalmers said of being targeted by the league and the public. “And now we’re the forgotten team. So it’s good. We all accept it. I’ve talked to D-Wade several times, I’ve talked to CB several times. We’re ready.”

That’s what matters. Not hashtags like “#heatlifer,” which Wade introduced and owner Micky Arison has embraced, but which also can be taken as a backhanded dig at James. Not videos, such as the one Riley appeared in for Heat.com, strong-selling the fans on the organization’s strong prospects after James.

What matters now is whether the current players and coaches, catalyzed by the doubts about their capabilities, can use that as fuel to be more. That Wade can be more than a part-time player. That Bosh can be more than a second or third wheel on a contender. That Chalmers can be more, much more, than he showed in the NBA Finals. That Luol Deng, with tread on his tires, can be more than he seemed during his uninspiring stint in Cleveland. That Danny Granger can be more than he’s been since his first significant knee injury.

That Spoelstra can be even more than he was before James arrived, even though he did take two different teams, with only one star (Wade), to the playoffs.

Last spring, James described his leadership style this way:

“If you’re a part of this culture, I believe you’re here for a reason. Part of being a leader is making people also believe that sometimes they can do more than they actually can do. Giving them a sense of belief and confidence. And for me, I’ve always kind of done that. And I’m not downgrading what that individual can do. I’m just letting them know that they can do more than what they even thought they can do, and bring more to the game, and bring more to who they are as an individual than they thought they could.”

Now those still part of the culture need to believe in his absence, that they can do more than they thought they could do. More than anyone else thinks they can do.

Further, they need to think and talk about him as little as possibleand if they do, only in the context of his absence allowing all of them to grow more. To expand their own opportunities. To demonstrate their own measure of self-reliance and perseverance.

To step out of his shadow some.

For the Heat, it’s the only way to step forward. 

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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Time Warner Cable agrees to first Lakers deal

These deals offset $2 billion Time Warner spent to get Lakers rights

      
 

 

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WATCH: Joakim Noah redeems himself after awful first pitch

Joakim Noah failed with his first pitch for the Chicago White Sox, but totally redeemed himself.

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Remembering LeBron James’ Best Moments from First Stint with Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which means a return to prosperous times for the recently troubled franchise.

Whether it be from an individual or team standpoint, James brought a level of success to the Cavs that no one had ever accomplished before him. MVP awards, multiple playoff trips and even a Finals appearance headlined many of the highlights from James and the Cavaliers from 2003 to 2010.

Times were good in Cleveland and appear to be yet again.

Before he begins Round 2 with the Cavs, let’s take a look at a timeline of James’ seven best moments wearing the wine and gold.

Begin Slideshow

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Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo: Which NBA Point Guard Will Change Teams First?

It’s not a good time to be a point guard looking to be traded.

It’s hard to say whether Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics or Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets actually want out, but it’s just a difficult market either way.

Only a few teams may be interested in either player, and with that being the case, it’s difficult to imagine any team offering something more than 50 cents on the dollar to the Celtics or Nets.

 

But as has been the case for quite some time with Rondo, and more recently with Williams, trade rumors will live on. After winning a championship with the Celtics and watching every piece of that team go elsewhere, it only makes sense that Rondo is predicted to leave a rebuilding team entering the final year of his contract.

And with Williams struggling mightily in Brooklyn and largely unable to stay healthy because of those nagging ankle injuries, his giant salary may be the first thing Brooklyn decides to move if it all starts to come apart.

Here’s Howard Beck at Bleacher Report with more on Williams:

It’s hard to say what the Nets might get for a former All-Star with bad ankles and $63 million left on his contract, but it’s worth exploring. The Houston Rockets tried to acquire Williams last December, so it’s not inconceivable that another team desperate for point-guard help might inquire.

The Nets’ rise began with Williams’ arrival. Their future hopes may depend on his departure.

The biggest challenge in moving Williams is that max salary that runs through the 2016-17 season. Williams absolutely hasn’t been worth that lately, and his durability is a huge question mark.

The incentive to trade Williams is there for Brooklyn. Both Brook Lopez‘s and Joe Johnson’s massive deals come of the books after the 2015-16 season, so the Nets could have loads of cap room to play with in the 2016 offseason if they find a home for Williams.

From the sound of it, Williams might be amenable to changing locations, especially since it doesn’t seem that Brooklyn has any realistic chance of competing for a title. Here’s what Williams recently told Resident Magazine about living in New York:

I’m not going to lie. I don’t really feel so much like a New Yorker. I grew up in an apartment in Texas where you could send your kids outside like ‘yeah, go play in the sun.’ Here it’s more challenging. The process of getting them into school is a nightmare. Even private schools where you pay are an ordeal. In Utah, you just send your kids to the first public school in the area because they’re all great. Truth is, we enjoy getting away from the hustle and bustle and going back to Utah every summer.

Again, even if Williams wants out, the suitors should be limited and the massive salary will make things difficult.

What about Rondo? His deal is up after this year, and he’s one of the more affordable stars out there with a salary of $12.9 million this season.

Of course there are complications here as well. Rondo has been involved in trade rumors for years and years now, and Celtics GM Danny Ainge has always held on to him. Still, with free agency looming, now might be the time to cash in.

On the topic of trading Rajon Rondo, Hall of Fame sportswriter Jackie MacMullan said this on ESPN’s Around the Horn:

“Oh, I hope so. Just get it done. And it will happen because he’s told them he wants out. And no one believes me, but that’s the truth.”

Of course, as is the nature of these sorts of things, conflicting reports on Rondo’s desire to leave this year have come out.

Here’s Sean Deveney of the Sporting News:

For Rajon Rondo, little has changed. He and those around him have long held that his intention for the final two years of his contract with Boston is to play out the deal, first showing that he is healthy after returning from ACL surgery last year, then bouncing back into All-Star form this year as he heads into 2015 free agency.

Thus, sources on both sides disputed the suggestion that emerged this weekend that Rondo had requested a trade from the Celtics — it is still his intention to play out his contract in Boston, and it’s still the Celtics intention to begin the season with him as the starting point guard.

Most likely, any team trading for Rondo will need to be assured that the point guard will re-sign with them long term in the offseason. That’s always risky business, and it would seemingly eliminate teams in need of a point guard like the Milwaukee Bucks from sacrificing future assets for a player who could walk. Rondo won’t be traded for if he’s just a rental.

With all that being said, here’s guessing that neither player is dealt this season. Williams will likely have to prove he can stay healthy for a full season and improve his play remarkably before he’s a real threat to be a trade acquisition, and Boston may be holding out hope that it can re-sign Rondo in the offseason and bring in quality players around him.

If you had to guess who will leave first, though, Rondo is the safer bet. He’s on an expiring contract and could easily hit free agency and choose his next destination. There are less hoops to jump through then there are with Williams, and for that reason, Rondo is more likely to change uniforms first. 

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Derek Fisher’s First Season with NY Knicks Will Reflect Directly on Phil Jackson

As the New York Knicks embark upon the first full season of Phil Jackson‘s reign as president of basketball operations, they’ll have a permanent reminder of the Zen Master’s presence stalking the sidelines.

New head coach Derek Fisher instantly becomes the most tangible symbol of the Jackson era, a very visible litmus test by which Knicks fans will judge the new regime. To be sure, the 39-year-old would have been a natural choice for any front office.

The career-leader in playoff games (with 259) has an esteemed reputation as a leader and teacher. An 18-year-veteran who finished his career as a valuable bench piece for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Fisher knows a winning culture. He claimed five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to three deep postseason runs with OKC—playing the role of a savvy backcourt shooter with a knack for timely plays.

The former National Basketball Players Association president knows what it means to succeed at the highest levels on and off the floor.

But Fisher’s selection wasn’t just about his credentials. It was about his philosophy and—more importantly—his familiarity with the kind of system Jackson wants to implement in New York.

In short, it was about keeping things in the family.

“In his nearly three months as team president, Phil Jackson has made it very apparent—in word and deed—that he wants to rebuild the Knicks by relying on his own network of associates and alliances,” wrote The New York TimesScott Cacciola in June. “He has gone so far as to underscore the importance of his ‘inner circle,’ although it might make more sense to refer to his inner triangle.”

Fisher spent the majority of his playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers, making him abundantly familiar with Jackson and his Triangle Offense.

Cacciola adds, “Choosing Fisher can easily be perceived as a gamble by Jackson, but he has always been clear about his preference to hire a young coach whom he could mentor. Fisher fits the bill.”

Indeed, choosing Fisher registers as a gamble in several respects.

First, Jackson could have gone with a more experienced candidate, perhaps even pulling ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy away from the broadcast booth. He could have snagged player-favorite Mark Jackson after the Golden State Warriors parted ways with him. Settling for a first-time coach translates into ready-made criticism in the event New York gets off to a slow start.

Second, Fisher reasons to be even more of a reflection on Jackson that other candidates would have been. Though his relationship with Jackson will officially be labeled one of “mentorship,” more cynical perspectives will view Fisher as a puppet.

In turn, everything Fisher achieves—or fails to achieve—will be a reflection on the guy pulling strings behind-the-scenes.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

There are plenty of reasons to believe Fisher will turn the Knicks around, perhaps sooner rather than later. Though the roster won’t undergo significant restructuring until next summer, New York’s culture may be subject to immediate change.

“Fish’s career lasting until he’s almost 40 years of age is a remarkable feat,” Jackson said during an MSG Network special, per the New York Post‘s Marc Berman. “He talked about the fact that he never was the quickest, never could jump the highest, never was the tallest. He always was kind of in an underdog role, but he was so well prepared. He spent the offseason working on what he had to do, and he’s going to bring that mentality to our players.”

And this is really important for this group particularly here with the Knicks. They have to embrace the fact that this profession requires a total dedication, it’s a total thing, and to do that it’s an immersion,” Jackson added.

Fisher’s fresh perspective and winning pedigree may well rub off on his players. 

But those kind of transformations are rarely instantaneous—even as New York’s collective patience wears increasingly thin. A more experienced coach may not be more equipped to effect overnight improvement, but more accomplished resumes typically elicit longer leashes.

Perhaps Fisher deserves some time, as well.

Having just walked out of Oklahoma City, Fisher now walks into a situation that, despite the Knicks’ bloated payroll, will come with low expectations as New York waits for several highly paid players…to come off the salary books,” notes The Wall Street Journal‘s Chris Herring (subscription required).

Then again, are low expectations even possible under the New York spotlight?

After a 37-45 season that wasn’t good enough to crack the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, the organization needs to demonstrate progress. 

Writing for Forbes, David Lariviere observed that, “It’s a market where fans want to see immediate results, which will make it difficult for Fisher.”

And yet, the real pressure remains on Jackson. If Fisher isn’t ready to take the helm in New York, that’s something Jackson probably should have seen coming.

Moreover, one can’t expect Fisher to work miracles. He’s only going so far as this roster takes him, which again means the onus is on Jackson. His ability to surround seven-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony with an elite supporting cast will define his front-office legacy just as much as the Fisher hire.

That task just became a lot taller with the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ recent consolidation of superstar talent (including LeBron James’ return to the franchise and the organization’s subsequent acquisition of forward Kevin Love via trade).

“In order to compete with Cleveland, Jackson will have to spend the Knicks’ cap space wisely in free agency in 2015 and/or 2016,” writes ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley. “The challenge for Jackson will be to build a team centered around Carmelo Anthony that can compete with the LeBron-Love-Irving trio. And to do so while taking advantage of Anthony’s prime years.”

Of course, it will take some time before we can issue a final verdict on Jackson’s personnel decisions.

Until then, Fisher’s debut is all we have to go on.

As the New York Daily NewsMike Lupica put it, “This is all about faith now for Knicks fans.”

For his part, Anthony is keeping that faith.

“I don’t think we will have another season like we had last year,” Anthony told reporters in August. “When I say, ‘I believe that we will make the playoffs,’ that’s where I’m coming from. I think we will have a much better season than we did last year.”

Should Melo’s prediction come to fruition, Fisher will deserve plenty of the credit.

And by extension, so will Phil Jackson.

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Who Will Win an NBA Title First: Lakers or Celtics?

With 33 championships between them, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are without a doubt the cream of the NBA crop. But after decades of consistent dominance, both franchises have fallen on hard times.

How hard, you ask? Last season saw the Lakers and Celtics miss the playoffs in the same year for just the second time ever. With both teams on the rebuilding path, that got us wondering: Which of the two has the best chance of nabbing its next championship?

Two of Bleacher Report’s NBA columnists, Dan Favale and Jim Cavan (neither of whom are Lakers or Celtics loyalists), took up the debate. What follows are the fruits of the two’s three-day email exchange.

 

Dan Favale

This, to me, is really a case of what’s going to be more effective: the Celtics’ core or the Lakers’ free-agent ambitions. By conventional rebuilding standards, Julius Randle is really L.A.’s only cornerstone. Perhaps Ed Davis sneaks his way in there, but even if he does that’s rather unimpressive.

The Lakers’ ability to effectively rebuild hinges on their ability to recruit free agents. Restructuring through free agency has its incentives—see the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers—but at what point do the Lakers become appealing enough? It took LeBron James to render the Cavaliers real free-agency threats. The Lakers are in a similar situation.

Kobe Bryant isn‘t a selling point at this stage. That realistically means it could take until summer 2017 for the Lakers to land a big fish and start playing for something other than draft-pick retention.

This gives the Celtics a head start. They have a younger star in Rajon Rondo and an actual core to build around. To be sure, we don’t know who Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk really are yet. But at its heart, having plenty of overlapping and unproven youngsters beats having nearly none at all.

Question is, do they actually believe in this core?

Investing a max contract in Rondo, given how the roster is currently structured, would be a huge mistake. And if they lose him—however justified his departure is—they lose all their star power.

They also lack the immediate financial flexibility to replace him; they could have close to $50 million on the books in 2015-16 even without him, per ShamSports. Jeff Green’s and Gerald Wallace’s contracts constrict them in ways the Lakers don’t have to worry about.

They’ll eventually reach a point where they have to make Bradley-like decisions with Sullinger, Olynyk and even Smart. Are any of them potential stars, or do the Celtics risk dooming themselves to mediocrity?

At first glance, the Lakers’ blank slate is better than the Celtics’ semi-full plate. Kevin Love’s trade to the Cavaliers certainly hurt them, but Los Angeles’ market mystique—with and without Bryant—is going to help more than most people realize.

Superstars win NBA championships. Armed with cap space, free from the worry of having to overpay an incumbent star for the next four to five years (Rondo), the Lakers are on a faster track to getting that star than the Celtics and, effectively, completing their rebuild.

 

Jim Cavan

If you’re talking about the sheer pull of mystique, the Lakers and Celtics are on a plane apart from the rest of their peers. On this, my friend and I agree. But where Dan misses the mark is in assuming that L.A.’s superstar pull and cap space are more important than something in which Boston clearly has the edge: front-office competence.

Ever since the passing of longtime owner Jerry Buss, the Lakers have been something of a rudderless vesselKobe Bean Bryant’s $48.5 extension being exhibit A in the case.

Perhaps Jim Buss will eventually find his front-office voice. Perhaps last season—and the painful few in front of it—will help L.A.’s brain trust better identify the direction they want to go. But here’s the thing: Boston, while outwardly haphazard, actually has a plan in place.

Like the Lakers, it starts with cap space. Lots of it, per ShamSports. In fact, as things stand right now, Boston only has $16 million committed for the 2015-16 season. And while the team is sure to exercise a number of its options (Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger being the most likely candidates), merely having that bounty of options puts them on a much sounder footing than their L.A. nemeses.

As for Rondo, I agree the Celtics see him as having one foot out the door. They drafted Marcus Smart for a reason, after all, and no matter what Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens might have you believe, they aren’t playing them in the same backcourt long-term.

Unless Rondo’s willing to come back at a steep discount, my guess is Boston bids adieu to its mercurial floor general next summer. Even if Smart doesn’t quite pan out, the C’s will have more than enough cap space to chase an elite-level point guard if and when the time comes.

Boston might not boast Tinseltown’s Hollywood nightlife or SoCal sunshine. What they do have, now that the Lakers have lost their philosophical North Star in Jerry Buss, is a decided front-office advantage—from Danny Ainge down to Brad Stevens.

If teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have taught us anything these past few years, it’s that having talent in the boardroom is just as important as having it on the hardwood.

  

Dan Favale

That a Celtics proponent like Jim (rightfully) points out the importance of cap space is what worries me most.

Kobe Bryant won’t appeal to free agents interested in playing for the Lakers. His imminent departure is perhaps the team’s greatest weapon. But the Celtics don’t offer much more.

I, too, see Rajon Rondo leaving Boston. But without him, what are the Celtics selling prospective free agents on? Jared Sullinger? Avery Bradley? Smart himself? That’s not much different than the Lakers using Julius Randle’s potential ceiling to attract available superstars.

Often overlooked, too, is how flexible the Lakers really are. Next summer, or the summer after, the Celtics should be able to afford one first-rate addition if they play their cards right. However, the Lakers will have the ability to pursue two between 2015 and 2016 if they spend accordingly. They could sell LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol or Rondo himself on the prospect of teaming up with Kevin Durant is one year’s time.

That’s going to mean something.

The Celtics don’t have that kind of flexibility. Sullinger will be eligible for an extension soon. Before you know it, so will Olynyk. The Celtics have to worry about paying those guys in addition to whatever star they might acquire.

It usually takes superstars to get superstars. Few all-world talents want to be the only all-world talent, left with only the hope another one arrives soon. If we’re to assume neither the Lakers nor the Celtics will have that incumbent star to sell, which team is more likely to reel in new superstars: the Lakers, who will have the flexibility to add a second rather quickly, or the Celtics, who will be waiting for one of their up-and-comers to maybe, quite possibly, develop into that second star?

This rebuild Ainge is staging remains, at its core, unproven. He’s done well acquiring draft picks, but he hasn’t turned those selections into anyone substantial yet. Of all the prospects the Celtics have now, not one of them appear on the cusp of significantly turning Boston’s fortunes around.

If this, in fact, comes down to both teams promising the delivery of something or someone not yet in their possession, I’m rolling with the party that has more immediate flexibility and, therefore, the means to turn things around in a more timely fashion: the Lakers.

 

Jim Cavan

I don’t disagree that the Lakers stand to have more cap space—and thus an ability to attract more top-tier free agents—sooner than the Celtics. I just think they stand a much better chance of making the wrong decision about who they reel in.

This isn‘t about who can “turn it around” more quickly; it’s about who can win a title first. While it might take years, and while the Lakers might well skyrocket back to relevance more quickly, I worry that said relevance will have been built on a faulty front-office foundation. For all the banners, this team has made terrible free-agent decisions before (Dwight Howard, anyone?).

Even if Boston’s youngsters don’t turn into stars overnight, they’ll boast more than enough in the way of redemptive promise to make for attractive trade pieces—perhaps in a deal to land a legitimate, proven star.

Pieces. Assets. Call them what you will, but Boston has recognized the best path forward lies in flexibility. And while cap space is certainly necessary to that equation, it isn‘t by itself sufficient.

We’re obviously still waiting to see what the prospect crop will look like, but suffice it to say Boston—with five picks in next year’s draft, per RealGM—should have even more intriguing prospects by the time training camp rolls around in 2015.

That’s not simply collecting assets for the sake of itself; that’s keeping with what’s proven to be the most effective path to competitive relevance. Add Boston’s fabled mystique to that equation, and you have a destination most should immediately recognize as easily the more promising and viable of the two.

In the end, Dan’s biggest arguments in L.A.’s favor are 1) the bullion, and 2) the beaches. We’ve already discussed the first, but let’s deal with No. 2 for a moment, shall we?

It’s 2014. Kevin Love—a West Coast kid through and through—just forced his way to what looks to be a long-term deal to play in Cleveland, Ohio. Do you know what they used to call Cleveland? “The Mistake on the Lake.” The Cuyahoga River once caught on fire, for crying out loud! It is not what we call a “destination city.” And yet, here he is. Why? Because Cleveland is built to win.

Make no mistake: L.A. will always be an attractive destination, both for its tremendous basketball legacy and its quality of life off the court. Considered in the full context of how the modern NBA team should operate, L.A. is still far too dependent on cultural clout and cap space alone magically saving the day.

 

Dan Favale

Drafting Smart reeks of uncertainty to me. While Rondo seems good as gone, why select his, for lack of a better word, clone to rebuild around? If the Celtics let Rondo walk, it will be because they don’t believe he can effectively headline their pool of assets. What makes Smart so different?

Banking on the Celtics’ ability to flip Smart—along with their other assets—into a cornerstone also feels counterintuitive. The time to do that is early, before ceilings are realized. Trading Smart three years down the line because of uneven performances equates to the Celtics slinging leftovers as five-star meals.

None of which means Smart, or any of his compadres, will go bust. Jim’s argument that the Celtics have more developing assets is fair and, frankly, correct. But while the Lakers—and the entire NBA—witnessed firsthand how less-desirable markets can turn assets into a position of power (into Love), look at what the Celtics are now up against.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love may not figure it out all at once, but assuming James is sincere in guaranteeing he’ll retire in Cleveland, the Cavs—like the Miami Heat before them—are a team that will remain perched atop the conference totem pole for the next six-plus years.

The Western Conference is more wide-open. It’s deeper, and thus harder to win, but it’s also approaching a new dawn. The San Antonio Spurs will wind down sooner rather than later. Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder—thanks to shallow pockets—may have peaked; Durant himself could leave in 2016 if he hasn’t won a title by then. That’s going to matter.

It also, in a way, gives the Lakers more time to build from the ground up. Their draft-pick situation is in limbo these next few years, but once out of the commitment doldrums, the Celtics will still be chasing the uncatchable Cavaliers.

Finally, the Lakers have options outside cap space and historical awe. Their next two seasons may be largely fruitless, but the Celtics aren‘t looking at anything different—especially with James’ Cavaliers’ primed for lasting dominance.

Even if Boston executes its nebulous rebuild more quickly, the Lakers’ conference hierarchy—which, unlike that of their rivals, isn’t set in marble—makes their championship chances far more likely than Boston’s.

 

Jim Cavan

Regarding Cleveland: While its prolonged dominance feels like a foregone conclusion, there’s a reason James opted for a two-year contract—he wants to keep his options open.

Point being, if Miami’s Big Three taught us anything, it’s that nothing in the NBA is permanent. If James wins a pair of titles for Cleveland, who’s to say he won’t take on an altogether different challenge?

Moreover, I don’t think you’re giving nearly enough credit to just how deep the West really is. As you stated earlier, stars go to play with other stars, and the Western Conference is loaded with them. To my mind, I don’t see the West relinquishing hemispheric hegemony anytime soon. That is bad news for the Forum Blue and Gold.

Getting back to Boston’s rebuilding efforts, allow me to flip my own logic on its head for a moment and assume Rondo actually stays. By all accounts, his recovery from injury has gone pretty smoothly. Unlike Derrick Rose, Rondo has never been a point guard who relies almost exclusively on explosive athleticism.

If you’re a top-tier NBA talent staring down the barrel of free agency, who would you rather team up with: Another alpha-dog scorer or a player proven to make everyone around him better? Even if you’re getting a Rondo at 85 percent, that’s basically the Rondo we saw in the 2008 Finals, before he really rose up the league ranks.

Now, I still think there’s a good chance Rondo bolts. But if Ainge is hammering away at the phones the way I think he is, gauging the temperatures of every first- and second-tier free-agent star from now until 2020, Rondo has to entertain the possibility of sticking around.

With as many assets as Boston has, all Ainge would have to do is orchestrate a trade for a disgruntled star (say, DeMarcus Cousins), and use the resulting Rondo-Player X core to entice a third star—Durant, for instance—to join the fray in free agency.

Easier said than done? Sure. But unlike Jim Buss, Ainge has proven he can strike the game-changing deal while the iron is hot.

Is L.A. just as hell-bent on pulling themselves up by their basketball bootstraps? Absolutely. I fully expect the Lakers to reel in a star or two at some point in the next two or three years.

Rather, it’s in giving up what little the Lakers already have in order to attract those stars and—more importantly—what the Lakers will have left to surround them, that makes L.A., to my mind, much further from nabbing banner No. 17 than the Celtics are from No. 18.

 

So, where do you stand? Does L.A.’s impending cap space make it more likely to reel in title-ready talent? Or will Boston’s more coherent rebuilding plan prove the sounder path to a championship?

Feel free to continue the discussion down in the comments section. But as always, please be respectful.

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Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves Ace First Test in Post-Kevin Love Era

Kevin Love gave Minnesota Timberwolves president-coach Flip Saunders no choice.

After unofficially officially demanding a trade at the start of this summer, Love made a few things clear: He needed to be moved sooner than later, and he had to sign off on the destination.

Nothing about the situation was unique.

Love was following the footsteps left by stranded small-market stars before him, and the Wolves scoured the NBA landscape for the best possible return package. That was where the narrative changed for Saunders and his organization. While their superstar loss hurt just as bad as the rest, they were the first ones to leave the negotiating table with a star of their own.

As Saunders noted at the press conference discussing the deal, he deserved a pat on the back for potentially squeezing out a premier player in top pick Andrew Wiggins.

To be clear, Wiggins is not a best-case scenario. The only one that existed in this situation was not being forced to give up the player who posted 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists a night last season.

But Love took that option off the table, forcing Minnesota to act. And no matter which potential trade partner the Wolves tabbed, they weren’t going to find another Love.

History had already taught that lesson.

Teams in Minnesota’s position don’t win these trades—they simply hope to survive them. That almost always means gambling on potential (Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Derrick Favors, Chris Paul etc.), but never before has it yielded someone with Wiggins’ ceiling.

“He’s raw, but his ceiling is high,” reigning MVP Kevin Durant said of Wiggins last November, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. “He can be like a Hall of Famer, All-Star, for sure.”

Granted, there’s a pretty wide gulf between All-Star and Hall of Famer, but Durant’s words do a good job of framing Wiggins’ intrigue.

Physically, he is a generational freak. He has terrific size (6’8″, 200 lbs), great length (7’0″ wingspan, per DraftExpress) and better genetics (his dad played in the NBA, his mom was an Olympian track star).

The 19-year-old is still learning how to consistently maximize his natural gifts. He needs a lot of work. But he has already flashed a devastating combination of instinct and athleticism that hints at his massive potential should he ever fully figure things out.

His future is packed with promise, but his present isn’t without its own perks. He could play an impact defensive role out of the gate, and his transition offensive game could be among the best in basketball.

“Offensively, the way this game is played, he was by far the best finisher in college basketball,” Saunders said at the press conference. “His ability when he got the ball on the break, he finished at the rim as well or better than anybody. Those are things that transcend into the NBA with the open-floor games that we play.”

It’s a style the new-look Wolves should wear quite well next season, and one that helps Minnesota earn its best possible marks for the transaction.

The Wolves didn’t just find a talented player in Wiggins. They may have discovered their personality.

“Adding Wiggins gives Minnesota an immediate direction, and that was the single most crucial element of any trade involving Love,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver. “Floundering without a foundational piece would have been a cataclysm.”

Wiggins was the backbone of Minnesota’s return package, but he wasn’t the only piece headed to the Gopher State. The Wolves also picked up Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, and Thaddeus Young, who averaged 17.9 points in the Philadelphia 76ers‘ fast-paced attack last season.

Along with newcomer Zach LaVine, the 13th selection in June’s draft, Minnesota’s arrivals bring with them an identity.

The Wolves—thanks to Saunders’ discipline, patience and savvy negotiating skills—now know what they’re building. And with Love no longer building the pressure to perform, they can construct something substantial at their own pace.

This isn’t exactly like hitting the reset button. That option doesn’t exist for a franchise trapped in a 10-year playoff drought.

But their moves will no longer be viewed under the lens of helping or harming their chances to keeping Love. The 2014-15 season will be a chance to see what Minnesota has assembled, not an 82-game recruiting pitch to keep the second best player in franchise history happy.

And it should be the debut for a young, athletic core that could form the franchise’s nucleus going forward. As Saunders told reporters, there is a pattern behind Minnesota’s roster reshaping:

With the additions of Wiggins, Bennett and Zach LaVine this summer, we have brought in three exciting young athletes who all have the potential to have an impact in this league. All three of them complement each other very well and we believe they will be foundations of our team for years to come. In Young we are getting a proven NBA player who is entering the prime of his career. Our fans will enjoy watching these exciting players this coming season and beyond.

This team should be looking to run at every opportunity, and that should only help athletic incumbents Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. Dieng is the oldest of these six at 24, so the Wolves’ facelift should fit for years to come.

That potential sustainability is important to remember, because things are likely to get worse before they start getting better.

Minnesota’s roster features an awkward mix of win-now pieces and future assets, but the majority of its most prominent players fall into the latter.

That could lead Saunders and Co. to eventually turn more of these proven commodities into parts to be used at a later date. If the Wolves want to build around Rubio (23 years old) or Wiggins—or both—they have the time to manufacture the right environment around them.

It’s a daunting task for a franchise forced to practice patience for this long, but the team’s work this time around litters the road with high hopes. The Wolves were put into a situation they could not win. They emerged with their dignity in hand and a possible star within their ranks.

More tests are sure to follow, but Minnesota aced the one that matters most. The Wolves might not be better without Love now, but they gave themselves a chance to be just that in the future.

 

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Kyrie Irving on his first three years in Cleveland: ‘I didn’t really have help from anybody’

The Cavaliers guard spoke about the changes in leadership and his own role.

      
 

 

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