Cleveland Cavaliers

Steve Kerr on LeBron's latest record performance: He's 'playing basketball at a level that I'm not sure anyone's ever seen'

Steve Kerr on LeBron's latest record performance: He's 'playing basketball at a level that I'm not sure anyone's ever seen'

What LeBron James is doing in the 2018 NBA Playoffs is nothing short of miraculous. In his 15th season, the 33-year-old James has singlehandedly led an underwhelming Cavaliers team to their fourth straight Finals appearance - and LeBron's eighth straight.

So it shouldn't have come as any surprise that James began the 2018 NBA Finals in Oakland with a bang.

James took the Warriors, a 13-point favorite, down to the wire in regulation thanks to his 51-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist night. A slough of head-scratching calls and decisions by the officials, George Hill and most notably J.R. Smith cost his team a Game 1 victory, but James did all he could to keep it close.

He shot 19 of 32 from the field, made three 3-pointers and went 10-for-11 from the free throw line. He was sensational, just as he's been the entire 2018 postseason and recevied some pretty high praise from Steve Kerr after the game.

"They have a guy who's playing basketball at a level that I'm not sure anyone's ever seen before when you consider everything he's doing," Kerr said after the Warriors' 124-114 victory.

Kerr's comment is notable for a few reasons. No, he wasn't making a declaration in the goofy LeBron vs. MJ debate. But Kerr was also a teammate of Jordan's during the Bulls' second three-peat. Jordan was pretty incredible during that three-year stretch, and still Kerr believes LeBron's current stretch might be the best ever.

Game 1 also had some Jordan connections in itself. LeBron's 51 points marked the sixth time a player had reached the half-century mark in a Finals game, and the first since Jordan did it in 1993 against the Suns.

LeBron also tied Jordan's mark of 109 playoff games scoring 30 or more points. Odds are he'll break that record at some point in the series.

Jordan's 51 poinst were also tied for the second most points in a playoff game loss. The most? Of course, Jordan's 63 points against the 1986 Celtics, which is still perhaps the greatest playoff performance in NBA history.

Whether LeBron can knock off the Warriors is a different question, but it's clear everyone is taking notice of one of the most incredible stretches in NBA history.

Mismatches abound in Warriors-Cavaliers IV that (probably) not even LeBron can overcome


Mismatches abound in Warriors-Cavaliers IV that (probably) not even LeBron can overcome

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet yet again for the Larry O’Brien trophy, the fourth installation in what has become the most decorated rivalry in the NBA.

While each of the last three matchups were highly anticipated, this year’s series seems to be met with a collective yawn—even after compelling, if not unfulfilling, seven-game conference finals series for both finalists.

The storylines have been exhausted since 2015, even though each series took on a different life on its own compared to the pre-series expectation. Even LeBron James’ unheard of streak, reaching the Finals eight straight years, hasn’t been celebrated as much as it has been scrutinized for the lack of competition within his conference.

And the perceived mismatch between the two clubs makes it feel even more anticlimactic with a less-than-stellar bunch James dragged through the East, along with Kevin Love’s status due to a concussion he suffered in Game 6 of the East Finals.

The Warriors, battered and perhaps a bit vulnerable after a tough series against the Houston Rockets, are still rightfully heavy favorites even as Andre Iguodala doesn’t appear to be ready to return from a bone bruise in his left knee.

Iguodala and Draymond Green put the “Death” in the Warriors’ famed “Death Lineup” and now with Kevin Durant, the “Hamptons 5” crew that can switch everything defensively, shoot and create mismatches on the offensive end.

Perhaps it’s a bit fitting because James looks like he’s leading the “Jackson Five” into Oracle Arena for the series opener, and not even having a wingman as talented as Jermaine to help shoulder the load.

Four of the five best players in this series play for the Warriors, even without Iguodala in play, and usually that’s a recipe for a stinky, unfulfilling quick series. But then again, the Boston Celtics had an even greater advantage, with six of the seven best players in their series, home court advantage and a wizard for a coach in Brad Stevens.

It still didn’t matter as James made sure Game 7 was played at his pace, an ugly finish as the Celtics’ threw up brick after brick with the weight of such a game choking off their oxygen.

No such thing will happen to the Warriors, as they watched the Rockets, a team built to beat them, miss 3-pointer after 3-pointer to lose a Game 7 at home while the champions killed them with a third-quarter surge and title-styled poise.

Short of complacency or another critical injury from the Warriors, it looks like a quick series. Kevin Durant gets juiced whenever he sees James on the other side, and even though last June’s triumph didn’t seem to give him the validation he so craved, going against his lone competitive equal has to bring out the best in him.

Stephen Curry nearly averaged a triple-double in last year’s Finals but nobody noticed due to the singular brilliance of James, and Durant’s MVP performance.

He was one rebound short of the feat in Game 7 on Memorial Day, and has the greatest talent disparity in his matchup against George Hill. If he needs individual motivation, putting his stamp on a Finals series could be it although last year’s numbers (26.8 points, 9.4 assists, 8.0 rebounds) were stellar.

For James, all the superlatives have been used to describe his playoff performances and almost all of them apply. The game-winners his critics said he was mentally incapable of producing has only added to his lore.

If there's one way the Warriors have enhanced James' current standing, their rocky road to the Finals, battling lulls and bouts of boredom, illustrates the concentration James has exerted mostly every day for nine months just to get to the Finals. The Warriors have been fixtures since 2015, changing rosters and adding a supernova in Durant that almost feels unfair in the way of competitive balance. 

James has owned the decade, being a contender in his presence alone, carrying all types of franchises into June.

And while some of the mythmaking and rewriting of history can be a bit extra, any series with James gives him and his team a chance—and they know there is zero margin for error.

The Warriors, even though history will look at them as one of the best teams ever, have a tendency to play around with the game. They create openings with their laissez faire approach, giving away a Game 4 against the Rockets that started the downhill spiral nearly costing them that series.

And let’s not forget, a 3-1 lead blown to a James-led team is in their history, a stain only remedied by their acquisition of Durant weeks later.

As undermanned as this Cavaliers team is, it is resilient. Coach Tyronn Lue battled a health scare that prompted a temporary leave of absence, the roster underwent a massive overhaul at midseason and had been left for dead multiple times over the last four months.

But here the Cavs are, here James is, standing at the precipice of history.

They can make it ugly, they can make it interesting.

They could make it look competitive…if they had Kyrie Irving.

They don’t.

They won’t.

Warriors in 5 (or 6).

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


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.