Rajon Rondo Unleashes 3 Passes You Never Saw Him Make with Boston Celtics

Rajon Rondo may have just been dealt to the Dallas Mavericks, but Boston Celtics fans will have fond memories of the star point guard.

Rondo spent one of his final days in Boston showing off three passes he has yet to unveil in an NBA game.

Which is your favorite? Do you think he’ll try any of these with the Mavericks?

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San Antonio Spurs: Ultimate goal has never been harder

As the NBA season is now in full swing, the San Antonio Spurs appear to be exactly the team they were expected to be coming into this season. They’re the defending champions, playing classic Spurs’ basketball, and slowly working towards their ultimate goal of winning back to back NBA titles. For a team like the Spurs, a team with incredible leadership, several hall of fame players, and one of the greatest coaches in league history, such a goal is always within their grasp. However, if the Spurs are to win their sixth title in franchise history this year, then in the process they will need to accomplish a feat that will quietly go down as one of the most underrated accomplishments in NBA history: winning the West.
Never has the road to the NBA finals been more treacherous and steeped with difficulty. Forget winning a championship for just a moment. Whoever wins the western conference this year, will have accomplished something special.
Winning the West has never been harder for Gregg Popovich and the Spur

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Allen Iverson Says His Team Would Never Practice If He Coached, Gives His Top 5

Even though his playing days are over, Allen Iverson still knows how to entertain. Reporters in the Philippines caught up with The Answer and got him to touch on a number of topics.

For starters, Iverson made it clear that his 1996 NBA draft class is the greatest of all time. The Philadelphia 76ers made Iverson the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, but he was hardly the only star selected that night.

The 1996 draft also produced Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, just to name a few.

Iverson was also asked if he would be interested in coaching the Philadelphia 76ers. His answer: No, because his team “would never practice.”

The Answer also went on to name his all-time starting five. Check out the video to see whom he lists.

[YouTube, h/t BallisLife]

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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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It Matters That San Antonio Spurs Will Never Fly Under the Radar Again

SAN ANTONIO — The last three years have been a reintroduction of sorts for the San Antonio Spurs.

After two opening-round defeats in 2009 and 2011, the Duncan-Popovich era appeared destined for decline until 2012′s march to the Western Conference Finals. A 2013 Finals appearance and 2014 championship restored a legacy that had all but been proclaimed a thing of the past.

It’s been a gradual and eventually irrefutable reemergence.

Even after 2013′s remarkable collapse in a seven-game series against the Miami Heat, there remained a very real sense that San Antonio had finally run out of gas after one last, admirable quest for glory.

And such is existence for the Spurs, no matter how thoroughly they destroy their competition,” Hardwood Paroxysm’s Andrew Lynch wrote in Nov. 2013. “They’re constantly winning, yet rarely celebrated. Hell, forget celebrations—they’re hardly even acknowledged.” 

Consider 2014 the Great Acknowledgement, a year in which we were all reminded what an exceptional and enduring story Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have quietly authored since they came together in 1997.

On the heels of a five-game series decided by the widest margin of victory in Finals history, this especially deep roster of Spurs has turned doubts into expectations.

Recently named the best organization in all of the four major professional sports in ESPN’s Ultimate Team Rankings, there’s suddenly a prevailing belief that San Antonio isn’t finished just yet.

The Spurs were more recently voted most likely to win the 2015 Finals by NBA.com’s 2014-15 survey of league general managers.

In a landslide, 46.2 percent of the GMs picked the Silver and Black to win it all, a sizable margin over the 15.4 percent who chose the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As you might imagine, the franchise hasn’t taken those expectations to heart—even as back-to-back championships remain the one thing standing between these Spurs and Phil Jackson’s definition of a real dynasty.

“Why haven’t we repeated? Because we haven’t,” Popovich said at the team’s media day in September. “If we do, it would be great. If we don’t, life will go on and everything’s cool.”

“Just to be clear, we’ve never had any goals whatsoever in the sense of winning ‘X’ number of games or this year is our year to win a championship,” he added. ”All we’ve said is that we want to be the best team we can be at playoff time and that starts with the very first practice and it’s a building block sort of thing.”

It’s a predictable talking point from the process-oriented skipper.

The Spurs are renowned for never getting too high or too low, and they certainly aren’t ones to get too far ahead of themselves. This season’s primary objectives will look like every other’s. There’s always room for in-house improvement.

So while this franchise encounters a hype rarely afforded understated, small-market teams, the Spurs themselves will make every effort to ignore media-driven narratives. They’ll say as much as they have to say, and they’ll do their jobs without asking for credit.

When confronted with choices about what kind of players they want to be, they’ll probably ask themselves what Duncan would do.

San Antonio’s standard operating procedure is as indebted to the two-time MVP as it is to Popovich’s regime.

As ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz put it in June,

The most gifted players have every right to leverage their talents into power and have a voice in where and with whom they want to work. Duncan claimed that authority and chose to spend his capital on establishing a culture. He wants pro basketball to be about the work and to sell itself on the strength of the game’s actual appeal rather than the atmospherics or drama. That’s Duncan believing in the craft of basketball.

That rejection of theatrics will be tested this season.

The Spurs have been good before—perhaps great—but they’re more interesting now. The motion-based offense has become a thing of selfless beauty. For the first time in league history, no one on last season’s roster averaged 30 or more minutes per game. Everything that happens on and off the court is defined by seamless execution.

While there are no contract controversies or off-court distractions grabbing headlines, this team still makes for a good story. It draws attention in spite of itself.

All the more attention as Duncan and Popovich pursue a sixth title together.

Following up last season’s masterpiece won’t be easy. Whereas the 2013-14 Spurs were motivated to avenge Ray Allen’s clutch three-pointer in an unforgettable Game 6, this season’s group is coming off a historically one-sided achievement.

“I’m worried for one reason,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-NewsBuck Harvey in September. “They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied.”

If there’s a source of inspiration guiding this season’s effort, it may be that Duncan and Popovich won’t have many more opportunities to do this. The latter signed a multiyear extension this summer, but the former is in the last year of his contract—and could conceivably retire in 2015.

Popovich could very well outlast his legendary big man, overseeing the emergence of Kawhi Leonard and whatever’s left of Tony Parker’s career, as he told reporters this month:

That’s very possible. I always said that [he'd leave with Duncan], because it’s kind of a funny line. It seems pretty logical and smart to do that. I know where my bread is buttered.

But I basically made the same commitments to Manu [Ginobili] and to Tony that when they signed contracts, they wanted to know if I’m going to be here and I tell them I am, so it’s pretty tough to go ahead and leave.

Popovich will turn 66 in January, and the Spurs should remain a force so long as he’s around. Leonard is only beginning to come into his own after being named Finals MVP a season ago. With a timely addition or two, there’s nothing stopping this team from contending at the outset of the post-Duncan era.

In any event, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if they do—irreplaceable as Duncan is.

It’s the kind of predictability we’ve come to expect given general manager R.C. Buford’s track record since 2002. The front office’s penchant for savvy decision-making has made success a norm even as so many faces have changed over the years.

We’ll continue caring about the Spurs for the foreseeable future—even if they prefer otherwise.

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Kyrie Irving Gives LeBron James Asset, Challenge That Kobe, Jordan Never Had

INDEPENDENCE, OHIO — There are many ways to assist a basketball team or organization, other than a pinpoint pass. Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ on-court assist leader the past three seasons, did so with a pen stroke.  

LeBron James made that plain again as the Cavs opened training camp, as he acknowledged that, while “95 percent” of his decision to return was rooted in his deep connection to Northeast Ohio, it was at least partly due to his desire to connect regularly on the court with with a 22-year old who had already appeared in two All-Star games and who had already agreed to stay in Cleveland for the long term. 

“I’ve never played with a point guard like Kyrie Irving, a guy that can kind of take over a game for himself, when we need it,” James said. 

That’s an overwhelming understatement.     

No offense to Jeff McInnis, Eric Snow, Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, Damon Jones, Mo Williams, Carlos Arroyo, Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or any of the other point guards with whom James has spent considerable time on the court over the course of his career.    

But, of that group, only Williams was counted upon to consistently provide offense while playing with James. He placed second on the Cavaliers in scoring average in 2008-09 and ’09-10. McInnis was fourth on the Cavaliers in ’04-05 after missing much of the ’03-04 season, and Chalmers was fourth on the Heat in ’11-12 and ’13-14. Others were much further down the team chart.

Typically, James has played with point guards who primarily served as spot-up shooters and secondary ballhandlers, leaving him largely responsible for initiating and finishing possessions. That renders his alignment with Irving among the Cavaliers’ most compelling storylines. Their collaboration could be cataclysmic for the NBA, if they get it right. Otherwise it could serve to suggest that another, more common model, is preferable: one in which there’s a clearer offensive pecking order between transcendent superstar and point guard.

There haven’t been many wing players anywhere near James’ stratosphere in the past quarter-century. And, whether by roster deficiency or offensive design, few from that esteemed group have played even a single season with a point guard trusted to carry a major percentage of the playmaking and scoring burden. 

One advanced statistic, usage rate, is useful—if not definitivein illustrating this trend. As defined by Basketball-Reference.com, usage rate attempts to quantify the percentage of offensive possessions that a player impacts, or “uses.” Its formula includes three standard measures: field goal attempts, free throw attempts and turnovers. While it is imperfect in assessing playmaking responsibilities, because it does not include touches, passes or assists in its tabulation, it does give a snapshot of a player’s overall offensive involvement. 

It also shows that James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have not played with especially involved point guards. (Neither, for that matter, did Allen Iverson, unless you classified him as the point guard.)

Start with Jordan, whose primary point guards in Chicago included Ennis Whatley, Wes Matthews Sr., Kyle Macy, John Paxson, Sam Vincent, B.J. Armstrong, Steve Kerr and former two-guard Ron Harper, who, at that state of his career, concentrated mostly on defense. Jordan’s usage rate ranged from 29.8 percent to 38.6 percent, while the primary point guard on his team ranged from 12.1 percent to 19.3 percent, with Vincent hitting that mark in 1988-89 (Armstrong got up to 19.0 percent in ’94-95). Paxson started all but three of 243 games between ’89 and ’92, and recorded the lowest usage rate among regulars in each of those three seasons. 

Bryant’s point guard partner history, like his speech pattern and baseline fadeaway, resembles Jordan’s.

The Lakers great became a starter in his third season, ’98-99, recording a usage rate of 25.3 percent. He has not been under 29.1 percent since, rising to as high as 38.7 percent in ’05-06, a season he largely spent scowling at Smush Parker. Since Phil Jackson shaped many of Bryant’s teams, it shouldn’t surprise that many of Bryant’s point guards fit the Paxson/Kerr profile. The closest replica was Derek Fisher, whose usage rate was less than half of Bryant’s in five of the six seasons they started together, and always near the bottom of Lakers rotation players. Only twice has a Lakers point guard topped 20 percent in usage rate during the 13 seasons Bryant has regularly started; one was a Hall of Famer (Gary Payton’s rate was 20.4 percent in his one season as a Laker), and the other (Ramon Sessions, 20.5 percent) was a late-season addition. Everyone else, from Derek Harper to Ron Harper to Lindsey Hunter to Chucky Atkins to Jordan Farmar to Fisher to Parker) topped out in the teens. 

Wade? You’ll find similar data. His lowest usage rate (25.0 percent) came when he played point guard as a rookie, soaring to 34.9 percent and 36.2 percent, before tapering some after James’ arrival in Miami in ’10. Chalmers has been his backcourt sidekick for most of the past six seasons, with a career usage rate of 16.5 percent, and a high of 17.4 percent. Jason Williams was Miami’s most active point guard during Wade’s run, and his numbers (18.5 percent and 18.2 percent) weren’t especially high in his two Heat seasons.

Carmelo Anthony diverges from his peers a bit, in that, while pegged as a gunner, he has been paired with some high usage point guards. Andre Miller was right around 20 percent for three of their seasons together in Denver, and Iverson was at 27 percent while playing a lot at the position for a season-and-a-half with the Nuggets. Chauncey Billups was at 21.8 percent, 24.3 percent and 21.4 percent over a three-season span, and Denver thrived with the Billups-Melo combination. (Jeremy Lin was at 28.1 percent for the Knicks in ’11-12, but some of that magical 35-game run came in Anthony’s absence.) 

But the true outlier is Kevin Durant, who has had a lower usage rate than Russell Westbrook in each of the past four seasons—30.6 to 31.6, 31.3 to 32.7, 31.8 to 32.8 and 33.0 to 34.4. And while Durant has reached an NBA Finals, he hasn’t done what Jordan, Bryant, Wade or James did while playing with more subdued, somewhat subservient point guards.

He hasn’t hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy.  

“You look historically, over the last 20-plus years, in terms of teams that have won the championship, very few have had point guards who dominated the ball,” said former pass-first point guard Avery Johnson, who now works for ESPN. “You know, Chauncey Billups did (for Detroit). And the team that won with the Mavericks (in ’11), Jason Kidd a little bit, very little. But it was more guys like J.J. Barea and Jason Terry. So it’s a different game. You look at the Spurs, Tony Parker dominates the ball, but he’s had to learn how to play over the years when (Manu) Ginobili has the ball. Finding his spots. Becoming a better shooter.” 

 


 

So, back to James and Irving. 

Will they instantly become a dynamic duo?

Each may need to sacrifice some.

James’ usage rate has ranged from 28.2 percent to 33.8 percent over his 11 seasons, while his primary point guards have ranged from 10.9 percent to 23.4 percent, with Williams recording the highest and second-highest (22.0 percent) numbers. Snow, Jones, Gibson and even West were generally ornamental, rather than essential, to offensive sets—Snow was last among regulars in usage in both of his seasons as a Cavaliers starter. 

In Miami, James played with a point guard in Chalmers whose usage rate was a bit higher than James’ typical Cavaliers point guard, if not as high as McInnis or Williams. And, of course, James played with an off guard whose usage rate was astronomical compared to any of his Cleveland complements. Wade actually had a higher usage rate than James in their first season together (31.6 to 31.5), before taking a small step back (31.3 to 32.0, 29.5 to 30.2, 27.9 to 31.0) over the next three seasons.

You know whose usage rate was roughly the same as Wade’s each of the past three seasons?

Kyrie Irving.

The Australian import recorded rates of 28.7, 30.2 and 28.2 percent, as he led his Cavaliers in several standard statistical categories but failed to take it to the postseason. (Antawn Jamison was second at 26.2 percent in ’11-12, and Dion Waiters was second at 26.1 and 26.9 percent, respectively, the past two seasons). 

So it is James’ experience with Wade that he will draw most upon now, as he and Irving determine how to divvy up the dribbling, distribution and shooting in new coach David Blatt’s European-style offensive sets. Blatt sounds like a bit like James’ former coach, Erik Spoelstra, in his shunning of specific position definitions; he characterizes Irving, James and even slasher Dion Waiters as “ball guards.” He hopes that Irving’s presence in particular will “take some of the load” off James, “in terms of having to initiate offense, having to bear the brunt of the physical load of getting the ball to places, and [of] making plays for himself and for others. We do have some other guys that can do that, and hopefully that will serve him well, as far as making it easy for him to get some easy ones. But also as the game goes along and the season goes along, to keep him from wearing down. Just because there are other people sharing the load.” 

James grew physically and mentally weary of that burden last season, one made heavier by Wade’s frequent absences. So he doesn’t intend to stifle Irving’s activity or creativity.

“For me, I handle the ball when I get the ball off the backboard,” James said Saturday. “I’m a good rebounder, I like to rebound and I kind of push it from that instance. In certain sets I’ll probably handle the ball a little bit, but it’s Kyrie’s show. He’s our point guard. He’s our floor general and we need him to put us in position to succeed offensively. He has to demand that and command that from us with him handling the ball.”

Yet James did acknowledge that playing together may be more of a work-in-progress for Irving than for himself, “because I just spent four years doing it, playing with D-Wade. We had our adjustment period where we both had to move off the ball. It was something we weren’t comfortable with going into it. My coming here doing it four years in a row where I played off the ball a lot, and I developed my inside game, and I developed my catch-and-shoot jumpshots and things of that nature. So it will be more of an adjustment for him, not for me.”  

Avery Johnson agreed. 

“The biggest adjustment is going to be for Kyrie playing off the ball,” the former Mavericks and Nets coach said. “You look at Kyrie, for the most part here in Cleveland, he’s been on the ball. You look at him this summer with the World Cup team, on the ball. Even playing with some of the other guys like Derrick Rose and Steph Curry, he was on the ball. That’s why he had such a terrific summer.”

Johnson identified Irving’s three-point accuracy as a critical component in Cleveland’s success, after a dip to 36 percent from that distance last season. Cavaliers players, while still acclimating themselves to Blatt’s offensive principles, do expect it to be predicated on ball movement, precision and most of all, spacing.

“So (Irving’s) ability to space the floor and make open shots (is important),” Johnson said. “Because LeBron James is going to draw double teams when he’s posted up, he’s going to get trapped on pick-and-rolls. When he tries to isolate, teams are going to load up or zone. So there are going to be a lot of opportunities with Kyrie on the floor for him to make some plays. I also think that’s why LeBron recruited guys like Mike Miller and James Jones—spacersbecause the game is all about space.” 

Irving will have those players at his disposal, too, when he penetrates. He has sounded positively giddy about all the possibilities, after taking considerable heat for the struggles of limited rosters in his first three seasons. He spoke Friday of being “OK” with “all the things I did kind of terrible” last season, because, as a “young guy figuring it out,” it will help him as he plays with a more veteran group now. He joked about how “weird” it is to be the youngest on the team again, but was serious about his appreciation for the upgraded roster.

“It’s just going to make my job that much easier,” Irving said. “Regardless of what people [are] saying, how my role is going to change, and all the scoring. I mean, I only did the scoring because I was asked to do it. I mean, I had to do it to be in the best possible place to win. And changing my role, it’s not necessarily changing. I’m going to continue to be myself but now that we have other great players, it just creates more space and opportunity for me to make other people better. That’s how I look at it, as an opportunity to grow as a player and as a point guard, and be who I feel I’m destined to be, and that’s a great point guard.”

No doubt he’s a different point guard than James has ever had. Than Bryant has ever had. Than Jordan ever had. But it’s unreasonable to expect James to defer all the time, and especially down the stretch. So how will Irving handle it, when James is handling the ball and triggering the offense? 

“I’ll be ready to shoot every single time,” Irving said, laughing. “If I’m off the ball, I’m ready to shoot. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to win. Obviously he’s the greatest player playing the game right now, so if he’s on the ball, like I said, I’ll be ready to shoot.”

In those scenarios, that would be his best way to assist.

 

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

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If Superstar Derrick Rose Doesn’t Return This Season, Then He Never Will

Derrick Rose is one of the most overanalyzed players of his generation. The Chicago Bulls star means too much to his city and to the NBA world at large to not be talked about, so his game stays under the microscope even when he’s playing only 10 contests over two seasons.

This makes for some very hypothetical, theoretical conversation. Rose has become more of an idea than an actual human athlete since tearing his ACL in the 2012 NBA playoffs, and we’re at a bit of a loss with understanding who he is as a player anymore.

But the buck has to stop somewhere. And this, the 2014-15 season, is just where it will. The proving ground for Rose has arrived. If he doesn’t return to superstar form this year, it should be safe to say that he never will. Rose can still be an effective, useful point guard (a remade could’ve-been in the style of Grant Hill) but reaching the level he was at before his body broke down (twice) is another issue.

The most important factor in Rose’s return to prominence is still his health. Being robbed of his on-court continuity is arguably just as devastating to Rose’s career as losing two years in the prime of his youth. He can’t become one of the game’s best players again without a critical mass of continuous action. Playing through mistakes over and over is how anyone gets to be elite at what they do.

So long as Rose doesn’t have more hiccups in his process, he has the chance to be who he once was, again, this season. But if he goes down with a serious ailment again, the basketball jury will largely settle on Rose—once an MVP, he faces the realm of fleeting nostalgic legend if he can’t get another full season under his belt.

Rose’s singular, lane-penetrating moxie—the trait that, above all, makes him so valuable—will likely take time to return. From Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes:

Rose’s jumper won’t matter quite as much if he scores in transition and attacks the rim like he did three years ago. The problem: Chicago still doesn’t know if he can do those things. Deferential to a fault in the World Cup, Rose offered up only the briefest flashes of his old head-down, run-through-a-wall style. A little discretion is probably a good thing for a player coming off two seasons lost to injury, but even just one sustained stretch of vintage Rose would have eased the Bulls’ concerns about his physical health and mental state.

Rose’s ability to get to the rim before defenses have time to turn their necks can be as much mental as it is physical. Luckily for Bulls fans, the point guard looks to still have his extreme speed and acceleration. But seeing the holes in coverage and instinctively cutting through them is also a matter for master strategists, and we can’t call Rose that until he’s had the opportunity to go through the ceaseless mental gruel of the 82-game season again.

Patience is still the No. 1 virtue in Rose Watch. It could be well after Christmas until we’re able to say what kind of player he is in 2014-15. Regaining his edge will take Rose a while—through the World Cup tournament, he certainly looked hesitant at times. Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski even said as much, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

He’s being very unselfish, trying to be a good teammate. It all comes from a good place. He knows the defensive ball pressure is there. He wants to distribute the ball. He’s in a lot of times when DeMarcus (Cousins) is in to try to get him the ball. We would like for him to look for his stuff as well.

Basketball is more complicated than it often looks, especially at the professional level. Derrick Rose was once one of the best in the world at it, but now he’s looking up a high mountain as he struggles back to its summit. If he can’t stay healthy and focused enough to go through some prickly trials and get there—or close to it—this year, we might be better off saying goodbye to our MVP vision of Rose.

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For JR Smith, It’s Now or Never to Succeed with New York Knicks

It’s tough to say without smiling crookedly, but this Phil Jackson triangle offense might actually help lift J.R. Smith‘s game.

It better for Smith’s sake. I’m not sure how long he’ll last under Jackson after the All-Star break if the New York Knicks have broken down, again, and Smith’s shot chart looks like a worn-out dartboard. 

The window of opportunity is closing for Smith in New York—the opportunity to prove he’s more than just a streak scorer or unpredictable microwave.

Cue the triangle, the last real hope for curing his erratic offensive attack.

On paper, it’s a system that should play right to Smith’s strengths and hopefully minimize his weaknesses as a shot-selector. 

The triangle emphasizes ball movement and off-ball player movement—two motions that don’t occur when Smith or Carmelo Anthony are sizing up their men before falling back into long, two-point hero shots.

Instead of heavy one-on-one action, something Mike Woodson’s offense often called for, the triangle should result in a lot more catch-and-score chances.

And only seven players in the entire NBA averaged more points per game shooting off the catch than Smith did (6.8) last season, according to NBA.com. He hit a rock-solid 45.6 percent of his spot-up jumpers and 46.5 percent of his spot-up threes, which ranked No. 4 in the league behind Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Stephen Curry

On the other hand, Smith hit just 33 percent of his pull-up jumpers, a shot he’s gone to frequently despite his poor conversion rate. 

If the triangle works according to plan, we’ll hopefully be seeing less play off the dribble and a lot more shooting in rhythm. 

Maybe the intensified competition at the 2-guard position in New York will also provide some additional motivation. Tim Hardaway Jr. isn’t a rookie anymore, while Iman Shumpert will be targeting a bounce-back season.

All three should be competing for minutes, or even a starting position, something Smith has expressed desire in winning, under new coach Derek Fisher. 

Outside of his experience, Smith’s underrated passing might actually give him an edge in the triangle. His lack of willingness to give the ball up is another story, but in terms of hitting the open man, he’s the superior passer on the depth chart. 

Smith averaged a career-high three assists last season, while Shumpert dished out only 1.7 a game and Hardaway struggled as a creator and ball-mover. 

Everything seems lined up for Smith, between the new coaches and system, an incident-free offseason and a heavy workload that’s up for grabs. 

But he’s running out of chances to shine in a featured role. Where else could he pose as a No. 2 option for a marquee franchise?

He probably won’t get another opportunity as good as this one, assuming he values the spotlight.

Ironically, the Knicks need Smith just as much as he needs them. They were 18-12 last season when Smith shot over 45 percent. When he didn’t, they were 16-28. 

The Knicks won 54 games in 2012-13 behind Smith’s 18.1 points per game—a career best. That was before he shot 28.9 percent in a second-round series playoff loss to the underdog Indiana Pacers

He’s been the team’s X-factor, which for the Knicks is far from ideal considering his inconsistent approach. But they’ve been desperate. With the Knicks paying Amar’e Stoudemire $20 million a year, they don’t exactly have the flexibility to go out and make seamless roster upgrades. 

However, Stoudemire’s contact, as well as Andrea Bargnani’s, comes off the book next summer, when the team is expected to hit the reset button. And it would be hard to imagine management including Smith in its long-term plans if he implodes under Jackson next season, though it would likely require a trade to move him, given Smith’s 2015-16 player option.

For what it’s worth, he’s been saying the right things this offseason. 

“Be a leader,” Smith said in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley at his foundation’s annual golf fundraiser. “We’ve got so many younger guys around. A lot of the older guys left within the last two years. So be more of a leader and help out.”  

Begley thinks Smith has the experience to take on a leadership role in Year 11. 

Entering his final NBA season under 30 years old, this could end up being the most important one of Smith’s career—one that could make or break his team’s season and ultimately his individual value across the league. 

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Let’s Hope Russell Westbrook Never, Ever Changes

Russell Westbrook is the first and last of his kind, and I’m good with that.

He is the best point guard in the league while being its most overrated. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is a physical specimen unlike any I have ever seen, and he blends in those attributes with a mental toughness that probably rivals Kobe Bryant’s.

Westbrook is the most athletic point guard the sport has ever seen, and I’m talking about a league that’s housed the likes of Steve Francis and Baron Davis. Russell will jump over and through you if he deems it necessary.

What’s more, his speed and quickness are simply breathtaking. There isn’t a person alive who can stop, contain, slow down or catch Westbrook. He’s the NBA’s version of the Road Runner, except he dunks on you when you finally think you’ve trapped him.

Call me selfish, but I’d like for things to remain as is.

Westbrook’s natural gifts are impressive in their own right, and they only stand out more because he comports himself like the best player alive.

Russ might ignore teammate Kevin Durant a bit too much for the liking of others, but it’s fascinating to watch. Westbrook does way too much at times, but it never feels like he’s doing enough.

Westbrook will pull up for a trey early in the shot clock, make one bad decision after another and occasionally freeze out his teammates. He just wants it so bad that at times he takes his entire team out of sync.

And yet, he’s the guy who gives the Thunder everything.

He gives OKC scoring, playmaking, passion, intimidation and heart. The Thunder play with an edge whenever Westbrook is on the floor, and it makes the team better.

Still, I can’t merely gloss over his warts because, much like Westbrook, they show up in spectacular fashion.

Russ plays at a speed that’s vastly different to everyone else’s on the floor, which in turn makes him often seem out of control. To be fair, sometimes he is.

Westbrook will run up the court before his teammates are set and throw himself into a wall of defenders inside the paint and live with the results, no matter how porous they might be. One could argue he’s just a bad decision waiting to happen.

“It’s not just that he’s selfish or that his shot selection is borderline psychotic or that his fight-or-flight instinct keeps screaming ‘four-point play!’,” wrote Brian Phillips for Grantland in May. “It’s that he can do anything, so he tries to do everything.”

He seemingly has no conscience whatsoever. It’s a trait that allowed him to attempt more field goals per game than gunners like James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins.

It’s worth noting that his superstar teammate (KD) has collected four scoring titles during his career and is a career 47.9 percent shooter.

Forgetting about your comrades during the regular season is somewhat of a forgivable offense, but such issues become magnified during the postseason in late-game situations. But Russell being Russell, it matters not.

ESPN.com’s Skip Bayless, one of his biggest detractors, kind of came around in March based on information from a confidant:

My source had told me Westbrook actually was Batman to Durant’s Robin — that the point guard built like (and who often played like) a strong safety was the one with the killer instinct, the assassin’s clutch guts. Westbrook, my source had insisted, was mentally tougher than Durant and more feared by opponents late in games.

He has very little regard for time and score, which can be infuriating but also prevents him from shrinking in big moments.

Westbrook takes huge risks and lives with the consequences. He’ll repeatedly call his own number down the stretch of games and ignore open teammates, which, you know, isn’t what point guards are supposed to do.

What’s more, he won’t make any apologies about it, either.

“Obviously you want your teammates to be great and make shots,” Westbrook said in late April, per NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. “But when the game is close and on the line, you’ve got to make decisions.”

The expectation from the position is steadiness, leadership, getting teammates involved and only calling your own number when open or if the situation demands it.

Chris Paul, arguably the best floor general in basketball, fits that description perfectly. Well, Westbrook eviscerated him during the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The perfect Westbrook sequence occurred in Game 5 of that series, with the Thunder trailing by seven points with 49 seconds left.

After blowing two layups, Westbrook registered six points, a steal, an assist and a rebound to close out the contest. Trailing by two, he stole the ball from Paul and drew a foul on a three-point shot. Russ nailed all of his free throws and won the game for the Thunder.

One might consider that a great display of intestinal fortitude given how he bounced back, but that’s just Russ being Russ.

I’m not sure there’s another player in the league who can match both his ceiling and floor. He’s capable of outshining Durant or demonstrating the worst point guard play in a championship game, according to Magic Johnson back in 2012.

And yet, I hope Westbrook never changes.

Sure, he might look like an oncoming train wreck every now and then, but he also lights up the tracks. Nothing is ever dull or even average with Westbrook. All of his plays are executed at 120 miles per hour, and that makes him susceptible to sensational highlights and spectacular blunders.

Westbrook is a nerve-wracking experience all by himself, and I certainly enjoy it.

As someone who once enjoyed watching wrestling, I see parallels between Westbrook and wrestling superstars.

Russell has his own signature move (six-shooter holsters), a swagger that borders on arrogance and the ability to recover from whatever pitfalls he suffers during play (this dude had three knee surgeries and it’s impossible to tell based on the way he flies around the court).

Why would anyone want any of that to evolve? A more conventional Westbrook would be a less entertaining one.

The fact that he always looks like he’s battling for control of a team that is effectively his is a joy to watch. Russ being Russ, he’s always looking to prove that he belongs and that “I got this.”

Westbrook possesses the traits of every (yes, every) great or borderline-great point guard who came before him, and it makes him an easy target for criticism. There are times when I feel like there’s an expectation for him to play better simply because Westbrook was built with seemingly every skill needed.

Baron’s athleticism, Tony Parker’s speed, Gary Payton’s competitive spirit, Magic’s confidence and Allen Iverson’s decision-making.

There’s no reason for anyone to want any of that to go away. Remember, Westbrook came out of UCLA as a 2-guard and was asked to become a point guard. All he did was go with the flow and become an All-NBA guard while playing out of position. To top it all off, he is often the No. 1 target whenever Oklahoma City loses.

With that in mind, why would I or anyone want him to allow others to dictate his fate? If my words can’t convince you, perhaps Durant’s will.

“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player, and I’m the first to have your back through it all,” said Durant in his brilliant MVP reception speech. “Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here. I love you.”

Get yours Russ, because really, doing so gives me one of the greatest joys possible while watching basketball.

I can only hope he takes this advice: Borrow a chapter from Kobe and never conform. Instead, make others adjust to you.

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Kevin Love Instantly Gives LeBron James Something Chris Bosh Never Could

LeBron James left Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat behind because he wanted to play with younger talent, save northeast Ohio and right the wrong of his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010—in some order.

Playing alongside Kevin Love, a big man with skills that exceed Bosh’s in a number of key areas, would be a pretty nice bonus as well.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports confirmed the whispers that had been floating around since before James even officially rejoined the Cavs, reporting Love would soon be in Cleveland as part of a blockbuster deal sending Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-rounder to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It’s easy to think of Love and Bosh as similar players, as both spread the floor and fit the mold of next-generation stretch bigs. But those similarities exist only on the surface. A deeper look reveals just how much more Love brings as a sidekick to LBJ.

 

Bombs Away

Bosh made a leap as a perimeter threat last year, firing off a career-high 218 triples and hitting 74. Prior to last season, Bosh’s career high in attempts was 74. In hitting 33.9 percent of those threes, Bosh proved he was evolving into exactly the kind of perimeter threat teams covet in the frontcourt.

Love, though, is already the paragon of that player type.

He pumped in 190 three-point shots on a whopping 505 attempts last season, good for an accuracy rate of 37.6 percent. Opposing defenses worry about Bosh’s outside shot; Love’s jumper is an anxiety-inducer of an entirely different sort.

Not only that, but also Bosh’s improved accuracy was just as much a result of his own hard work as it was the wide-open looks he enjoyed while playing for one of the league’s best passing teams. Love, on the other hand, attempted far more shots in far worse offensive circumstances. He drew the attention of entire defensive game plans, whereas Bosh was more of an afterthought.

Despite all of that, Love was more efficient. Imagine what he could do with James attracting attention.

 

Giving Back

Love won’t just mooch off James next year. He’ll also return the favor in a way Bosh never did: by moving the ball.

“I don’t even really care about the 26 [points] and 12 [rebounds], I care about his basketball IQ. His basketball IQ is very, very high,” James said of Love, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.

Don’t be mistaken: Bosh was never a poor passer with the Heat. And his assist percentage cracked double digits in his final five seasons with the Toronto Raptors, per Basketball-Reference. As was the case with outside shooting, though, Love is simply more skilled than Bosh.

That’s because the Heat big man isn’t the only player whose game has evolved. Love, who spent his first five seasons putting up passing numbers very much in line with Bosh’s career marks, made enormous strides as a facilitator last year.

In racking up an assist percentage of 21.4 percent, per Basketball-Reference, Love nearly doubled his previous career high. No surprise, then, that he racked up 4.4 dimes per game in 2013-14. While it’s true the Heat’s offensive system rarely called for Bosh to make a play, it’s hard to argue he could have equaled Love’s distribution output under any circumstances.

When you also note that Bosh’s and Love’s career turnover percentage is nearly identical, Love’s value as a passer stands out all the more starkly.

 

And Then There’s the Rebounding

Shooting and passing aside, Love has crushed Bosh’s production on the glass throughout his career. Bosh took some heat last season as his rebound average stayed below seven per game for the second straight season, but it’s probably not fair to say he’s an outright poor rebounder.

Miami moved Bosh away from the bucket with increasing frequency over the past four years, effectively eliminating many of his chances at easy boards. When looking to defend Bosh’s rebounding decline, that has always been the first piece of evidence.

Love, though, proves perimeter bigs can still do work on the glass. He averaged 12.5 pulls per contest last season. And though an increasing percentage of those rebounds came on the defensive end, we know Love can be a beast on the offensive boards when he’s in position.

For proof, we need only look at his first two years in the league—seasons in which he spent almost all of his time in the lane. He led the NBA in offensive rebound percentage in both of those years, per Basketball-Reference.

The caveat, of course, is that Love’s refusal to defend often leaves him in excellent rebounding position. He’s not alone; David Lee has been padding his rebound totals the same way for years. Bosh is a far more active and committed team defender than Love has ever been, and his rebound chances suffer because he doesn’t give up easy buckets in hopes of snaring a miss.

That’s not to say all of Love’s boards are cheapies. He grabbed 4.9 contested rebounds per contest last year, third in the league according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com. Nonetheless, not all of the differences between Love and Bosh weigh in favor of the former.

James will likely find himself missing his former running mate on defense.

Tyson Chandler, NBA scout extraordinaire, has the book on Love:

That’s a small price to pay for everything else Love brings, though.

 

A New Toy

On paper, and by virtually any comprehensive statistical measure (PER and win shares, in particular), Love is a better player than Bosh. The fact that Love is also four years younger can’t be ignored either. What remains to be seen is whether James’ new teammate can adapt as effectively as his old one did.

That’ll be a tough act to follow, as Bosh completely altered his game to fit within a unique Heat system that was built to maximize James’ strengths. We don’t know if Love can be as effective when he doesn’t get the sheer volume of looks a No. 1 option typically enjoys. And he’s not known for contributing in ways that don’t show up in the box score—particularly on defense.

Ultimately, there’s a lot Love can give James that Bosh couldn’t. But there’s also something James will give Love: a chance to prove his gaudy stats actually represent a skill set that leads to wins.

If Love makes the most of that opportunity, he and Bosh, for all their differences, may eventually end up sharing something in common: a championship trophy earned as James’ sidekick.

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