Boston Celtics

NBA Buzz: If GOAT debate matters to LeBron James, he needs to stay in Cleveland

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: If GOAT debate matters to LeBron James, he needs to stay in Cleveland

No matter what happens in the upcoming Finals, LeBron James has earned worldwide acclaim for carrying a disjointed Cavs team to the NBA’s biggest stage for the fourth straight season.

And, make no mistake about it, James has been brilliant during these playoffs, averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists while playing the most efficient basketball of his postseason career. But even in the midst of this remarkable playoff run, the topic of where James will be playing next season has been a constant theme.

James will be playing in the Finals for an eighth straight year, and there’s no question he’s been helped by facing a weaker Eastern Conference field in most seasons. So why would James consider leaving Cleveland and the East if his ultimate goal is to match Michael Jordan’s total of six NBA titles?

Did you happen to catch the video of the Cavs marching in to receive the conference championship trophy? Owner Dan Gilbert offered congratulations and handshakes to all the players as they walked by, but James wouldn’t even make eye contact with Gilbert. Clearly their relationship has been poor since Gilbert went scorched earth on James when he left Cleveland in 2010.

James returned to Northeast Ohio for family reasons and because he legitimately wanted to win a championship for the long-suffering fans in Cleveland, not because he had made peace with Gilbert. And because James led the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit to win the 2016 title, he could justify a second departure by saying he accomplished his mission in his second stint in Cleveland.

Still, if you’ve listened to James' interviews over the years, you know he’s a basketball historian and his legacy means everything to him. History would not look kindly on James jumping franchises again in search of a better path to future titles.

Joining forces with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly? Clearly a move to create another super team. Head west to team up with Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston? Same thing. Join forces with the coach he respects most, Gregg Popovich, in San Antonio? That move might not be viewed as harshly, but he would still be joining forces with two other All Stars in Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

We know James has been frustrated with the inconsistent play of his Cavaliers teammates this season, and the midseason trades that sent out six players and brought in four new ones didn’t go far enough in his mind. According to reports, James wanted the front office to swing a deal for rim protector and rebounder deluxe DeAndre Jordan, but instead he got veteran point guard George Hill, young wing players Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood and power forward Larry Nance Jr. — and only Hill is playing significant minutes in the postseason.

Can the Cavs still be the best team in the East next season? Don’t forget they own the No. 8 pick in the upcoming draft which means they could add a rotation player like Trae Young, Mikal Bridges, Collin Sexton, Wendell Carter or Miles Bridges, or trade the pick in a package for a veteran starter. Clarkson and Nance should take on bigger roles next season, and maybe Ty Lue will finally realize how valuable Tristan Thompson is to the team’s success and stop messing around with Thompson’s minutes.

Maybe a healthy Boston will dominate the East over the next few years. Maybe the 76ers will sign another star with their available cap space and take us back to the 1980s, when Philly and Boston battled for Eastern Conference supremacy for most of the decade. But James is still the best player in the league, and if he stays in Cleveland, the Cavs will be in the mix for a conference championship.

James understands what he’ll be risking by jumping to another super team. He’s won back the media and so many fans around the country with his spectacular play and exemplary work off the court. He’s right in the conversation with Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest players of all time.

Stay in Cleveland, LeBron, and work with the existing roster to battle for another championship. It’s your best path to leaving the legacy basketball historians will be talking about forever.

Around the Association

So what about the two teams that were just eliminated in Game 7 of the Conference Finals? Houston will lament its bad luck in not having star point guard Chris Paul available for the final two games of its series against Golden State. The Rockets led both games by double digits at halftime but then were crushed by Warriors’ third-quarter onslaughts. Paul definitely would have helped the Rockets maintain their poise during those Golden State runs. Now the question is: Will he be back with the team next season?

Paul and starting small forward Trevor Ariza are unrestricted free agents, and breakout center Clint Capela is a restricted free agent. Houston would like to retain all three players. We know Rockets general manager Daryl Morey always thinks big, so don’t rule out a possible run at James in free agency. Given the team’s cap situation, Houston would probably need to work a sign and trade with Cleveland to acquire James, and they don’t have much to offer outside of Capela and veteran shooting guard Eric Gordon. Still if Gilbert wants to get James out of the conference, a deal with Houston is not out of the realm of possibility.

Paul made $24.6 million last season, and at this point of his career no one should expect him to offer Houston a hometown discount. And Capela could command a near max contract after his terrific season. Morey will face a number of challenges this summer, but he’s one of the most creative executives in the league. Houston will definitely be a team to watch.

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Similar story in Boston, where Danny Ainge still has valuable draft picks at his disposal if he wants to bring in another veteran to push the Celtics over the top. Boston already looks like the Eastern Conference favorite for next season with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injuries. Head coach Brad Stevens could move explosive wing scorer Jaylen Brown to the bench to form a lethal second unit alongside Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and possibly Marcus Smart.

Smart’s free agency will be something to watch this summer. He told reporters after the Celtics’ Game 7 loss to Cleveland that he’s worth more than $12 million to $14 million a season as a restricted free agent because of all the intangibles he brings to the court. Well, intangibles are great, but Ainge has to think about his cap situation long term with Jayson Tatum and possibly Brown as max players down the line to go along with his current max stars in Irving, Hayward and Al Horford.

Since so few teams have the available cap space to offer max contracts this summer, Smart might be best served to take a one-year, team-friendly deal with the Celtics and go back into the market as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Who knows, by that time he might be able to show off a shiny new championship ring.

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With just over three weeks to go until the NBA draft, we’re seeing the usual reports of players rising and falling on teams' boards. NCAA tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo is being talked about as a possible late-teens selection after his strong showing at the combine, while decorated college point guards Jalen Brunson and Jevon Carter might have worked their way into the first round, as well.

At the top of the draft, Phoenix is expected to take seven-foot Arizona center Deandre Ayton with the first pick, even though new Suns coach Igor Kokoskov will push for international guard Luka Doncic after the two teamed up on Slovenia’s EuroBasket championship team last summer. And if the Suns pass on Doncic, he could fall all the way to No. 4, since the Kings and Hawks reportedly prefer some of the talented big men available.

What does all this mean for the Bulls? Well ultimately one of the top-tier players will drop out of the top five, and if Orlando decides to address its pressing point guard need at No. 6 with a player like Trae Young, Collin Sexton or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Bulls could have Michael Porter, Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba fall into their laps.

Trades could ultimately change the order of the top seven picks, but even if Doncic and all of the top bigs are gone when the Bulls are on the clock, Villanova’s Mikal Bridges would be one heck of a consolation prize. With Bridges' length and athleticism, he projects as the ideal small forward in the modern NBA, capable of switching to defend multiple positions, while also possessing a versatile offensive game that should expand at the NBA level.

We’ll be hearing all kinds of rumors between now and the night of the draft (June 21), but rest assured, the Bulls should be able to add another starter to their lineup with the seventh pick.

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Finally, I can’t sign off without a Finals prediction. I’ve genuinely been impressed with what James has done in leading this Cavs team to another Eastern Conference title. But unless some members of his supporting cast play out of their minds, the Cavs will be out-gunned by Golden State’s four All Stars.

Out of respect to James’ greatness, I’ll give the Cavaliers two wins. Let’s call it Golden State in six, with Steve Kerr & Co. celebrating their third NBA championship in the last four years.

The Celtics tied MJ's and the '96 Bulls' record for consecutive home playoff wins

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USA TODAY

The Celtics tied MJ's and the '96 Bulls' record for consecutive home playoff wins

The Boston Celtics have been the surprise of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, and after last night's Game 5 win against LeBron James and the Cavs are one game away from a trip to the NBA Finals.

They've done it with some of the most interesting splits in league history for a team that's advanced this far: they're 10-0 at home and  1-6 on the road.

The six road losses are something else, but with the convincing 96-83 victory over Cleveland, the Celtics tied a record held by the 1996 Bulls for the most consecutive postseason home wins in a season.

Boston earned home wins against the Bucks in Round 1 in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. They crushed the heavily favored Sixers in five games, earning home wins in Games 1, 2 and 5 (and their only road win in Game 3). They took the first two games of the series from the Cavaliers at home and then again in Game 5. If they can't close the series in Cleveland they'll have a chance to break the record Sunday in a potential Game 7. If they do close the series in Cleveland their next chance will be in Game 3 of the NBA Finals; Boston will be on the road regardless of whether Houston or Golden State comes out of the West.

Jordan's Bulls won 10 consecutive games during their historic 72-10 season. They swept the Heat in Round 1, winning at home by 17 and 31 points. In the second round they knocked off the Knicks in Games 1 and 2 at the United Center, winning by 7 and 11 points. After the Knicks earned a Game 3 win at Madison Square Garden the Bulls won the final two games of that series, including a 13-point win at home to clinch the series and a fifth straight home win.

The conference finals were no problem for the Bulls at home or on the road. They began their eventual sweep of Orlando with a 38-point shellacking in Game 1 at home. A five-point win in Game 2 gave them their seventh consecutive home win and they wouldn't be back at the United Center until Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

They smoked the Sonics by 17 in Game a 1 and held on for a four-point win in Game 2. Seattle took Games 4 and 5 at their place to avoid being swept, but when the series returned to Chicago the Bulls were back to their winning ways, earning a 12-point win - their 10th consecutive in the postseason - and their fourth NBA title.

Yes, the Bulls lost just three times (half as many as the Celtics) and actually won the title. Boston, of course, has plenty to do before they reach that status, and they'll do so with at least six losses. We're not comparing the two teams. Simply pointing out a record.

And if you're wondering, Steph Curry and the Warriors have simply been too good to get to 10 wins. Last year they swept all three rounds of the West playoffs, giving them six straight home wins. Then they only needed five games to beat the Cavaliers in the Finals, with three of those coming at home. So they went 9-0 at Oracle Arena before winning it all. They recently had their streak of 16 consecutive postseason home wins, regardless of year, snapped when the Rockets earned a Game 4 win on Tuesday.

NBA Playoffs' youth movement makes clock on long rebuilds tick quicker than ever

NBA Playoffs' youth movement makes clock on long rebuilds tick quicker than ever

New blood has injected life into the opening week of the NBA Playoffs as youthful newcomers have found the bright lights just to their fitting.

For those on the outside looking in, half-decade rebuilding plans appear tougher to sell to fan bases and ownership groups watching players on rookie scale deals outperform their contracts.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren’t expected to lead the Boston Celtics this season, but they’ve been thrust into leading roles after Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury on Opening Night and Kyrie Irving’s knee troubles shut him down weeks before the postseason.

But they’ve shown there’s no need to be treated with kid gloves, that redshirting is for the minor leagues. Tatum hasn’t gotten the extra publicity of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, but he’s not to be forgotten about in the playoff equation.

Brown had the benefit of being a rookie for the Celtics last season, and was more bystander than active participant.

But he’s still 21 years old, months younger than Mitchell and Simmons.

The two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year are certainly franchise players, and although they have major help on their respective rosters by way of veterans or fellow phenoms, one could argue the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers would have made the playoffs regardless.

The playoffs used to be a place reserved for the veterans, a higher plane of air that young lungs weren’t yet prepared for.

But Simmons is posting numbers that have statisticians scrambling for box scores from the tape-delay era for reference, while Mitchell is showing the teams who passed him up they should check their scouting and decision making.

And even though we could be in store for more of the same in the Finals if LeBron James’ Cavs meet Stephen Curry’s Warriors in June, the road to get there will be filled with so many new faces sure to be more than potholes in the years to come.

Recent NBA history can’t be written without the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder having significant ink. But each is on the verge of going fishing, trailing 3-1 after four games.

Instead, the 76ers are now darlings, the Celtics are chugging along without main cogs and the Jazz aren’t far away from catching the attention of casual fans to become must-see TV.

There’s a shift going on in the NBA, with slow-moving franchises hoping for a traditional clock on a rebuild taking the risk of being passed by those more determined, more opportunistic and unbothered by job security in the pursuit of winning now.

If you have something close to a unicorn, your house better be in order. Of the rising stars who have a level of establishment in the league’s hierarchy, only Kristaps Porzingis’ New York Knicks and Devin Booker’s Phoenix Suns are sitting on the outside of the playoff party. Porzingis is recovering from an ACL injury suffered midseason, otherwise the Knicks would have likely been in contention for a playoff spot.

The Suns, well, they’re a mess.

And it’s no coincidence both franchises are on the hunt for new coaches.

The talent pool in the NBA is so vast, its players seemingly so prepared for the transition to the professional game that the clock on franchises to wait on its players ticks louder than it ever has.

Factoring in booming salaries with young players poised to cash in on restricted free agency, franchises need answers on its young players—and they need them in the form of impact, in the form of wins.

Short of the Philadelphia 76ers’ sham and scam of the league’s rules by tanking for half a decade, it’s tough to envision a team duplicating the strategy with lottery reform on the horizon.

If done right, turnarounds can happen quicker than saving yourself a seat at the draft lottery four or five years in a row.

A correct mix of scouting, coach selection and veteran influence can put teams back in the playoff hunt quicker than before—as opposed to having similarly talented players making big money without having proven much.

For some fan bases, it represents hope.

For some front offices, you wonder if a shudder of fear is seeping into their buildings, knowing their clock is ticking.