LeBron James May Never Match the Feats of Michael Jordan, and That’s Just Fine

When he was just a teenager, not yet a legend, Michael Jordan stamped his aspirations on a personalized license plate: It read, “Magic Mike.” Yes, long before anyone wanted “to be like Mike,” Mike wanted to be like Magic Johnson.   

Indeed, when he arrived at North Carolina, Jordan introduced himself with that moniker, to which a scolding Dean Smith replied, “We already have a Magic.”

“You’re Michael,” Smith said.

This tale comes from Roland Lazenby, author of Michael Jordan: The Life, and it resonates today, as fans and pundits continue to ponder the most grating, mind-numbing question in sports: Who is the next Michael Jordan?

The question ruined Harold Miner, shadowed Kobe Bryant and now haunts LeBron James, who, as it happens, will stare down MJ‘s ghost on Halloween night, when the Cavaliers play the Bulls at United Center.

James can hardly move a muscle without triggering comparisons and criticism.

LeBron left his team to join another star? Michael would never have done that.

LeBron passed the ball for the final shot? Michael would have shot it.

LeBron switched teams, again? Michael was more loyal.

LeBron lost in the Finals, again? Michael was 6-0.

LeBron, still just 29, may one day match, or even trump, Jordan’s six championshipsthe modern barometer for greatness—and the response will inevitably be: Yeah, but he also lost three times.

Michael, of course, never lost in the Finals. To hear commentators rhapsodize about him now, you’d think Jordan never lost a game, period.

Two points:

1. No, LeBron James is not Michael Jordan, however one defines the standard.

2. It doesn’t matter.

The debate has grown tired and comical, to the point where another book had to be written just to shut up the chattering classes. There Is No Next is the latest tome from Sam Smith, the former Chicago Tribune reporter and author of the best-selling The Jordan Rules.

Smith, who covered the entirety of Jordan’s Bulls career and remains the foremost authority on all things MJ, makes his case through personal observation and interviews with countless others, from Magic and Larry Bird to Isiah Thomas, Grant Hill and President Barack Obama.

Smith would be the first to tell you that LeBron James will never “be” Michael Jordan, whatever that means. He would also tell you the comparisons are pointless and should probably cease.

“LeBron is boxing with clouds,” Smith said. “You can’t grab a hold of this thing, this guy, his mystique.”

James temporarily quieted critics by winning back-to-back championships with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. James fell short in his bid for a “three-peat” (Jordan did it twice!), but that failure was quickly eclipsed by the wave of good feelings elicited by his decision to return to the Cavaliers, his original team.

Yet even as Cleveland celebrated LeBron’s second coming this week, Jordan’s ghost lingered.

“Can LeBron James surpass Michael Jordan as the NBA‘s best ever?” asked a headline in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

There is even an entire web page devoted to comparing the two.

It’s a strange construct that we, NBA fans and media, have created. It doesn’t exist in other sports. There is no urgent demand for the Next Hank Aaron or the Next Joe Montana or the Next Wayne Gretzky. Young pitchers don’t face daily comparisons to Roger Clemens.

Only in the NBA do we turn one player into a deity, and then insist that every great young player live up to the standard.

“It’s not logical, it’s not fair and it is unprecedented,” Smith said. “It didn’t exist before Jordan came along.”

Before Jordan collected six titles with the Bulls in the 1990s, the NBA’s standard for winning was Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships between 1957 and 1969. The standard for offensive dominance was Wilt Chamberlain. The standard for filling up box scores was Oscar Robertson. And the standard for clutch was, of course, Mr. Clutch, Jerry West.

But Russell lacked an offensive game, and the others lacked the jewelry. Magic and Bird established the modern standard for greatness, but Jordan was the first to check every category—scorer, champion, iconand the first to cross over as a pop-culture and marketing phenomenon.

“It’s what pop culture determined: Here’s the best guy,” Smith said.

So while Jordan did try to adopt Magic’s name as a teenager, he was never asked to match Magic’s feats or to be the “next” anyone. He was often compared to Julius Erving, for his high-flying theatric and dunking artistry, but Dr. J never cast the same shadow, because his best years were spent in the ABA.

There was a time, early in Jordan’s career, when he was derided as a ball-hogging gunner, as a great scorer but not a winner. Critics wanted him to be more like Magic, the ultimate team player.

“So that used to be held up to him, and it used to really piss him off,” Smith said, chuckling. “He hated that.”

The comparisons effectively ceased after Jordan knocked off Magic’s Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals.

“There was no ‘Jordan’ for Jordan,” Lazenby said. “Michael owned the game like no one ever has. LeBron doesn’t own it like that yet, but he’s very close.”

To an extent, the modern stars have invited the comparisons. They all grew up idolizing and imitating Jordan. Bryant patterned his game, and even his speech patterns, after Jordan. James adopted Jordan’s number, 23. (When he moved to Miami, James took No. 6, which of course evoked Jordan’s ring count.)

And though outwardly they might eschew the comparisons, Bryant and James both badly want to match Jordan’s six titles.

Lazenby has spent time interviewing influential people in James’ background, “and they insist that LeBron’s entire motivation is to win more championships than Jordan.”

“They’re not on the floor at the same time,” Lazenby said, “but I do think they’re sort of competing across time, across the decades.”

And so we all get trapped in these ridiculous debates the moment that Bryant or James (or soon, Kevin Durant) fails to live up to some immeasurable, possibly mythological standard.

LeBron gets leg cramps in the Finals and can’t return? Critics point to Jordan’s “flu game” to prove LeBron is unworthy.

LeBron passes to an open Chris Bosh in the critical moments of a playoff loss? Critics say he lacks the “Jordan gene” (and never mind that Jordan won championships by passing to Steve Kerr and John Paxson).

It has come to the point where the entire Jordan legacy has been distorted. You would think that Jordan took every big shot, made them all and discovered cold fusion during the timeout. Based on the mythology, you would think Jordan alone won those titles, without the aid of Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman.

The Cavaliers never got a Pippen or a Rodman, and so James left for Miami to find his own. If the Bulls had been as inept in the 1980s, perhaps Jordan would have done the same.

No, James cannot match Jordan’s 6-0 record, and to some folks, that alone disqualifies him from “Next Jordan” status. But this discussion is pointless, and the comparisons were misguided from the start.

James entered the NBA as a selfless, playmaking wizard, in the mold of Magic, not Michael. He has evolved into a dominant scorer, but it’s not what defines him.

Comparing players across eras is an inherently fraught exercise, because of changing rules and salary caps and expansion. But Jordan’s statistical feats stand alone. He averaged 33.6 points in his Finals career, a number that James (24.3 average) will likely never match. Jordan once averaged 37 points for an entire season and had eight seasons of averaging at least 30, a plateau James has reached just once.

As a scorer, James will never be Jordan. As a champion, perhaps not either. Yet he already stands apart in his own right, as the only player who ever combined size, speed, agility, scoring, playmaking, rebounding and defense at this levela mashup of Magic and Jordan and Karl Malone.

We can keep obsessing over Jordan and making impossible comparisons, or we can choose to appreciate James for his own unique brand of greatness.

There is no Next Jordan. There is no debate. But the suffocating comparisons will inevitably persist, to the detriment of us all.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009, Jordan peered out into the audience and glibly declared, “I wouldn’t want to be you guys if I had to.” He was addressing his children. He might as well have been saying it to every young basketball star until the end of time.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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Kemba Walker and Charlotte Hornets Are Right Match at Right Price

Good for Kemba Walker—and good for the Charlotte Hornets

The two sides agreed (per Marc Stein of ESPN.com) to what seems like a pretty fair deal on a four-year, $48 million extension—a number that doesn’t quite break the Hornets‘ bank, and one that Walker, who had plenty of doubters not too long ago, should feel satisfied with. 

Despite leaving college on a high note after leading Connecticut to a national title, there were questions surrounding Walker’s NBA outlook, like how would a score-first guard under 6’0″ in socks fare at the point in the pros? 

But Walker has managed to adapt, and after three years in the league he’s established himself as a legitimate asset.

For the Hornets’ management, it’s gotta be refreshing knowing they targeted, drafted and groomed Walker themselves—especially after all the duds they went with over the years, from Raymond Felton and Sean May to Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright and D.J. Augustin.

It’s just so rare for the Hornets to actually reward one of the players they drafted this early in the process. The Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell highlighted the driving force behind the team’s motivation to get a deal done:

The Hornets haven’t typically extended players on the rookie wage scale at least until they reach restricted free-agency. In this case, Walker’s asking price figured to keep going up, in part because of the anticipated rise in the salary cap from the NBA’s new television deal.

With big man Al Jefferson looking at an opt-out clause after the season, signing Walker now prevents what could have been a scary situation: Charlotte’s two best players both entering free agency this summer (Jefferson would be unrestricted, Walker would have been restricted).

Now with Walker locked up and the addition of Lance Stephenson, who should help improve the team’s credibility by adding toughness, defense and playoff experience, the Hornets’ sales pitch to Jefferson—the one they’ll give in hopes of convincing him to stick long term—just got a little bit stronger.

You’d also like to think Walker’s extension will be approved by the majority of the fanbase, considering he guided the team to a 43-win season and a playoff berth after they went 28-120 over his first two years.

While Walker’s value around the league might differ, his value to the Hornets is enormous, given the roster’s lack of playmakers. Josh McRoberts and Ramon Sessions finished No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in assists last year for Charlotte—and neither player is back with the team in 2014-15. 

Walker averaged 17.6 points and 6.1 assists last season, numbers that ultimately reflect the offensive firepower he brings to the table.  

He’s also proven to be a guy you can give the ball to on final possessions—someone who can create scoring opportunities out of nothing. And that’s a quality that will continue to hold tremendous value in Charlotte as well. 

“No question, I am definitely the leader of this team,” Walker told Stephen Brotherston of Probballreport.com last season. “I wouldn’t have it no other way.  Guys look to me. Basically, the way I go, the team goes. I definitely wear that hat and I am excited to.” 

It’s obviously nice to see Walker take on a bigger leadership role. But while his maturity and likability, along with his production and impact, likely factored into Charlotte’s decision to further invest, the extension wasn’t just a reward for what he’s accomplished so far. It’s also a reflection of the growth they expect from him over the next few seasons. 

Not to dampen the mood, but $12 million a year is a big chunk of change for a starter whose player efficiency rating ranked No. 18 last year among active point guards. 

Walker has some limitations out there. Without much size or strength, he shot a poor 46.9 percent within eight feet from the hoop last season, a likely reason for him taking a whopping 544 shots from 10-24 feet away.

Feel free to point to Walker’s shot selection as a reason behind his 39.3 percent field-goal clip last season.

His low-percentage attack and high usage rate (finished top 10 among starting point guards last year) probably had something to do with the Hornets finishing No. 24 in offensive efficiency.

And with a so-so assist-to-turnover ratio and pure point rating (18 starting point guards from last year finished with better ones), Walker has work to do as a decision-maker and facilitator as well. 

But you can’t argue with the production he’s put up or the impact he’s had on this team. And at 24 years old having gotten a little bit better through three years in the league, there’s reason to believe we have’t seen Walker peak as an NBA pro. 

This extension seems like a win-win for everyone involved. Walker gets paid and remains the man—he led the NBA in touches last year with 101.8 per game, 4.6 more than Chris Paul, per NBA.com. 

And the Hornets get to lock up a franchise building block at a somewhat reasonable price. Plus, they finally get to build with an asset they acquired from scratch and developed themselves. 

You can argue whether or not the Hornets overpaid by a million or two a year, but this was a deal that really makes everybody happy. Now it’s on Walker to continue his gradual ascent. 

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FIBA World Cup match preview: United States vs. Finland

Team USA begins their quest for the FIBA World Cup.

      
 

 

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Team USA Big Men Proving They Can Match Up with Spain at 2014 FIBA World Cup

If their last two FIBA tuneups are any indication, Team USA’s template will be as follows: author a somewhat forgettable first half that gives the opponent a modicum of confidence, before steadily pulling away behind a balanced scoring effort.

So long as Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to load up on frontcourt talent yields the desired result—a win over the Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka-led Spain—it’s a trend the Team USA coach is more than willing to live with.

Playing in their lone exhibition in the Canary Islands just two days after announcing their final round of roster cuts, the Americans rolled to a breezy 98-69 win over the Goran Dragic-led Slovenia Tuesday afternoon.

From here, Team USA will head to Spain, where they will face Finland in the opening round of group play on Saturday.

Ahead of what many believe will be his global coming-out party, Anthony Davis led the way with 18 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and four blocks. More amazing still, Davis’ most impressive number might’ve been the lowest one possible:

Meanwhile, Davis’ frontcourt mate, Kenneth Faried, registered a fine outing of his own, tallying 14 points and nine rebounds.

Headlining one of the deeper American frontcourts in recent memory, Davis, in particular, is serving notice that Team USA has every intention of matching Spain’s formidable size with a dose of its own.

And while his offensive repertoire only continues to grow, it’s at the other end of the floor that Davis has made his domain.

As they had in their second and final pre-FIBA tilt against Puerto Rico in Madison Square Garden this past Friday, head coach Mike Krzyzewski and company struggled early to keep the opposing guards from wreaking havoc on the perimeter—this despite the struggles of Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic, who finished with six points in limited action.

And, just like Friday, the second half saw Team USA throw it into a gear the opposition simply couldn’t match.

Beginning with a pair of technical free throws by Stephen Curry—awarded following a halftime outburst from Slovenian coach Jure Zdovc—Team USA commenced what’s become its strategic bread and butter: ratcheting up the pressure and turning its defense into offense. By the 4:50 mark of the third quarter, the Americans had opened up a 69-39 lead.

But it’s in his cast of big men that Krzyzewski has staked his team’s fortunes.

Krzyzewski clearly has the host country on his radar screen. And rightly so: Not only are the No. 2 ranked Spaniards brim-loaded with quality big men; they have a two-headed point guard monster in Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio that itself boasts oodles of international experience.

All of which invites the question: In preparing exclusively for Spain—and, to a slightly lesser extent, Brazil—have Krzyzewski and Team USA president Jerry Colangelo painted themselves into a corner (no pun intended)?

In a recent column, Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley raised precisely that point:

The international stage tends to promote floor spacing, both to take advantage of shorter three-point arcs and to break opponents out of zone defenses. USA has stretched opposing teams thin in the past, but this super-sized attack doesn’t offer the quantity of perimeter-oriented players as those clubs did.

Of course, what it lacks for quantity in terms of three-point snipers, it may completely compensate for in quality.

Taken together, Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and DeMar DeRozan would seem to offer Team USA plenty of backcourt firepower. Where the quintet falls a bit short, however, is in the dual combination of perimeter size and playmaking—two areas where Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, two of Krzyzewski’s final cuts, could’ve paid significant dividends.

During a July press conference, Krzyzewski sounded adamant in his belief that beating Spain didn’t necessarily own a monopoly on Team USA’s strategic radar screen.

“Everyone talks about matchups (with big teams such as Spain), people have to matchup against us, too,” Krzyzewski said. “What you have to do is put your best 12 together and then make adjustments with the best 12. Obviously we’re not going to have 12 guards, but that’s what we’ve done.”

It’s difficult to say whether Krzyzewski’s shift amounts to a strategic about-face, or a natural reaction to what he sees as a FIBA fact: Spain remains the only real threat to Team USA’s six-years-long hardwood hegemony.

Here’s what we know: Of this year’s four FIBA groups, Spain—with France (No. 8 in the FIBA rankings), Brazil (10) and Serbia (11) all in its midst—has by far the toughest draw. Team USA, by contrast, could be in for a cakewalk, with Turkey (7) and New Zealand (19) being the drawing’s most formidable competition.

Might Krzyzewski be banking on a banged-up Spain being a team of walking wounded headed into tournament play? It’s certainly possible—even strategically clever.

Then again, if Krzyzewski can rely on this kind of consistent performance from Davis and Faried—ditto backup bigs DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee—looking like a genius might never seem so easy.

Given the level of competition it’s about to meet, Team USA is bound to encounter a handful of teams built, either by design or happenstance, to give it fits.

From Krzyzewski’s perspective, though, the philosophy is all too obvious: better to weather the small storms, so long as you’re boarded up tightly for the big one.

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Can Kobe Bryant Match NBA History’s Best 36-Year-Old Wings?

Succeeding in the NBA is hard enough for young studs fresh out of college, but—with a few notable exceptions—it’s downright impossible for a 36-year-old to excel.

Kobe Bryant, who celebrates his 36th birthday this Saturday, will attempt to join a handful of standouts throughout league history as a veteran who simply won’t conform to the mandates of Father Time.

Bryant has always been one of the league’s best scorers, but he’ll have his work cut out for him if he hopes to join Alex English, John Havlicek and the rest of the premier point producers who suited up at either shooting guard or small forward when they were 36: 

There’s a clear conflict here. 

No 36-year-old wing player has ever touched the 20-point milestone, although Michael Jordan averaged 22.9 and 20.0 points per game in 2001-02 and 2002-03, respectively. Jordan was 38, 39 and 40 in those two seasons. Of course, he retired for the second time after the 1997-98 campaign and missed his age-36 season.

Bryant averaged 27.6 points per contest during the two campaigns prior to his injury-plagued 2013-14 go-around. 

How about passing, which the Lakers 2-guard has done better and better as his career has progressed?

Matching Scottie Pippen’s mark will be rather difficult, though Bryant has been above 5.9 dimes per contest each of the past two seasons. Admittedly, one of those years saw him play only six games, so his role as a de facto point guard might have been a small-sample-size fluke. 

He’ll have a better chance at the No. 1 spot there than as a rebounder, though. 

Bryant’s career average of 5.3 rebounds per game is barely higher than Pippen’s record for wing players at 36 years old, and most players have tended to trend downward in rather definitive fashion. Coming off a season in which he averaged only 4.3 boards per contest, he could have his work cut out for him. 

Finally, we have the catch-all stat—win shares: 

Reggie Miller is the clear-cut winner in this category, but Bryant will be hoping to get somewhat close. That would mean the Lakers are far more competitive than most expect, seeing as win shares require wins. 

Of course, Bryant is doing more than playing at 36 years old in 2014-15; he’s doing so while coming off a second major injury in two years. The odds aren’t exactly in his favor, but we’ve also learned that betting against this particular veteran is never a good idea. 

So, what are you expecting from Bryant during his age-36 season? Where will he place in these rankings? 

 

Note: All statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com

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The Most Difficult College Basketball Players to Match Up with in 2014-15

In college basketball as in the NBA, some players are able to create mismatches no matter who tries to guard them. Even with the likes of Jabari Parker and Cleanthony Early off to the pros, there are plenty of stars remaining in the college ranks who have the physical tools or unexpected skill sets to keep any defender back on his heels.

One of last year’s biggest success stories, Frank Kaminsky, poses an inside-outside threat on par with Parker or Early. Now heading into his senior year, the Wisconsin center is too tall for perimeter defenders, but he’s too skilled a shooter for big men to handle.

Herein is a closer look at the challenges posed by Kaminsky and the rest of the 12 most intimidating matchups in the college ranks for the 2014-15 season.

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How Do Warriors Match Up vs. Likely First-Round Opponents, Clippers and Rockets?

The Golden State Warriors have been on a tear since the All-Star break, winning 10 of their past 12 games and raising their profile in the packed Western Conference. The Warriors (41-24) are now 17 games over .500 for the first time since April 1994.

With recent victories have come rising expectations, but they remain a second-tier Western Conference playoff team, hot stretch or no. That idea wasn’t lost on Dirk Nowitzki after the Warriors 108-85 win over the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night.

The Warriors now find themselves in sixth place in the Western Conference standings, 4 games behind the L.A. Clippers, 3.5 games in back of Houston and L.A., and 1.5 games behind the Blazers.

Yes, there are five weeks of regular-season basketball left, but a realistic look at the situation leads you to one conclusion: The Warriors are going to open with either the Houston Rockets or L.A. Clippers. Question is: Which team does Golden State prefer?

That’s a tough one.

On the surface, it would seem like the Warriors would want the Rockets, a less established, less experienced team than Los Angeles. But it’s a tough call, and there’s plenty to consider.

Why the Rockets:

 

Iguodala’s presence: Yes, the Rockets defeated the Warriors two out of three times this season, but Andre Iguodala didn’t play in the losses. He did play in the Warriors’ overtime win against Houston late last month, and had a part in Chandler Parson’s 8-for-23 shooting night.

If you’ve watched the Warriors, you know they’re a better team with Iguodala, who owns the best plus-minus of any NBA player. If need be, the Warriors can use Iguodala to defend James Harden in stretches.

Not scared of Howard: The Warriors feel like they can handle Rockets center Dwight Howard, whether they play big or small. If the Warriors play their traditional lineup, they believe Andrew Bogut is more than capable of matching up with Howard.

 

Bogut didn’t play on Feb. 20, when the Warriors beat the Rockets in overtime. Using some small lineups over the course of the game, the Warriors hurried Howard into a 4-for-13 shooting night.

Why the Clippers:

 

Psychological stalemate: The bottom line is the Warriors don’t view themselves as underdogs against the Clippers. Nor should they. Golden State has beaten the Clippers in five of the past seven games and are 7-4 against them in the past 11. In other words, the Warriors like their chances against the Clippers and would seem to hold a mental edge.

Two key matchups: While Chris Paul and Blake Griffin form a scary twosome, the reality is that the Warriors have matched up well with them over the past couple of seasons. Stephen Curry, who has worked out with Paul in offseasons past, looks more than comfortable going up against him.

Warriors power forward David Lee has also proven troublesome for Griffin. Lee has shown he can get his offensive numbers against Griffin and, perhaps surprisingly, he and Andrew Bogut have gotten under Griffin’s skin at the defensive end.

Favorable pace: The Clippers have been playing at a faster pace than they did a year ago. They’re getting up and down the court to the tune of 98.3 possessions per game (6th in league), compared with 93.6 in 2012-13. While this may make the Clippers’ style more pleasing to the eye, it also plays into the Warriors’ hands.

Why? Because the Warriors are at their best when they’re in transition, spacing the floor and allowing their 3-point shooters terrific looks.

 

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Suns no match for Jazz without Dragic

SALT LAKE CITY — Gordon Hayward had 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists to lead a balanced Utah Jazz offense in a 109-86 win over the slumping Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.
Richard Jefferson scored 17 points and Diante Garrett had a career-high 15 points as the Jazz had seven players with 10 points or more in Utah’s largest margin of victory this season.
The Jazz shot 57.5 percent from the field, the highest mark of any Phoenix opponent this season.
Gerald Green had 17 points and rookie Archie Goodwin matched his career-best with 16 for the Suns.
Playing their only road game in a nine-game stretch, the Suns have been looking to improve their playoff position. However, with a third straight loss, Phoenix leads Memphis by just one-half game the eighth and final Western Conference berth.
Hayward, mired in a shooting slump (31 percent in his previous 13 games), made plays all over the court in this one.
Some fans chanted to put Hayward back in the game to get his first-ever triple-double. He just smil

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Duke Basketball: How Blue Devils Match Up vs. ACC’s Elite Teams

You can count the number of college basketball teams in the entire country with more talent than Duke on paper with one hand.

The Blue Devils have won 11 of their past 13 games, including a thriller over Syracuse, and are poised to make noise in March with a top-10 ranking. However, they find themselves in third place in the ACC regular-season standings with only two games remaining.

That begs the question, where does Duke stand in the ACC pecking order as we head down the stretch run?

For one, all of that talent will be critical in the one-and-done formats of the conference and NCAA tournaments. With Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins and Amile Jefferson among others, Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t have to rely on just one player to score.

It makes an off night for a given star at an important time much easier to overcome as a team.

On account of that talent and the overall production of the season, one team we can definitively say Duke is better than is Pittsburgh.

The Panthers were ranked highly at one point, but they have nose dove with three straight losses heading into the contest with Boston College. In fact, the only wins Pittsburgh has in the past seven games both came in overtime against Virginia Tech and Miami.

Pittsburgh has zero marquee wins and is a combined 0-5 against the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

Speaking of the Cavaliers, no team in the ACC has a better conference record. The upcoming game with Syracuse will likely determine the No. 1 seed in the league’s tournament, and if you ask Notre Dame’s head coach Mike Brey, he would say Virginia is the best team in the conference.

At least that’s what his postgame comments after the Cavaliers beat the Fighting Irish indicated (via Notre Dame’s official athletic website):

That is an example of how fragile a game can be. For thirty minutes, I really liked what we were doing. Virginia is really good, they are really, really good. I think they are the best team in the league and they put it on us twice. Their big guys hurt us tonight. Their two big guys were fabulous. The whole team is so explosive. It is a beautiful facility and a great atmosphere.

Virginia might be the best team right now talent wise. They are very physical. They are really good at guarding you and they dictate the tempo of the game. I think they are a really confident group. Their team knows who they are on both ends of the court.

Despite Virginia’s impressive turnaround from a nonconference schedule that included losses to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee by a whopping 35 points, Duke gets the edge here.

For one, the Blue Devils already beat the Cavaliers in their only game. It came down to the final few possessions but only because Coach K’s squad nearly collapsed down the stretch of a contest it absolutely controlled for 35 minutes.

What’s more, the fact that Virginia has only played Duke once, hasn’t played Syracuse yet and doesn’t have to travel to North Carolina this year has played a factor in its impressive league record.

The Blue Devils did have to go to North Carolina and came away with a difficult loss.

Based on the one head-to-head contest, it’s hard to give the advantage to Duke in the rivalry right now unless it beats the Tar Heels in the rematch. The Heels have won nine games in a row heading into the contest with North Carolina State.

Let’s give a tentative edge to North Carolina for the time being. If the talented Blue Devils win the rematch, we can revisit, but the Heels’ physicality and prowess on the boards plays right into one of Duke’s few weaknesses.

That leaves Syracuse.

Jim Boeheim’s tantrum aside, the Orange and Blue Devils have treated college basketball fans to two of the best games of the entire season. It is safe to call the matchup a potentially budding rivalry at this point, and talent-wise there may not be two teams in the ACC more poised to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

However, the Orange have lost two of their past three games, and their last three wins have come by a combined five points against Maryland, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh.

There are two ways to look at the close calls—Syracuse isn’t good enough to create separation against teams it should beat handily, or it will be battle-tested come tournament time. With seemingly every game in the postseason a tight one, the thinking here is that the close game experience will come in handy come March.

Taking the two tightly fought head-to-head contests that went to the home team, Syracuse’s two-game lead over Duke in the loss column and the Orange’s recent struggles all into account, let’s call the Duke versus Syracuse debate a push for now. 

Here’s to hoping we get a decisive rematch in the ACC tournament.

 

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Takeaways from Los Angeles Lakers’ Grudge Match vs. Houston Rockets

The Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t provide their fans with the beatdown of Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets they so desired and ended up getting trounced themselves by a final score of 134-108.

The Lakers’ porous defense was no match for the Rockets, as James Harden, Dwight Howard and company were able to manhandle the Lakers on their home court, proving that this injury-riddled team has completely lost its edge and has very little left to cling to for the remainder of this lost season.

The Lakers crowd expended plenty of effort making sure Howard knew how the City of Angles felt about him, but the on-court product lacked any of the venom and vitriol of a proper grudge match.

This is mostly due to the fact that the players who could provide the true adversarial edge this night required, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, were in street clothes.

The Howard storyline was edged to the margins somewhat before the game as news broke that the Lakers had traded Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. 

The Lakers played like they expected nothing but bad news all night long. 

Harden finished with 29 points and was the obvious star of the show, but explaining his continued assault on the league’s perimeter defenses can be a bit redundant after a while.

He makes the spectacular routine, and there were plenty of other notable takeaways from this grudge match that ended up decidedly one-sided.

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