Marcus Smart

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.

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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.

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

The Celtics took care of a Milwaukee Bucks team without their four leading scorers on Wednesday night, securing the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2008, when they won 66 games en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title.

Just four years after entering rebuilding mode following the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have regained supremacy in the East under Brad Stevens.

Conversation about the Celtics begins and ends with Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-9 point guard who took the jump to super-stardom in 2016-17. He finished the regular season second in scoring (29.1) behind Russell Westbrook, and was fifth in usage (33.8%), ahead of players such as Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and LeBron James. Simply put, the Celtics rely on their All-Star guard plenty. Thomas set a Celtics record by scoring 20 or more points in 43 straight games, and his 9.8 points per fourth quarter were second in the NBA. Thomas knows how to close games, which could be crucial in the postseason.

After missing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the Celtics found the next best option in free agent Al Horford. The four-time All-Star saw a slight dip in his shooting numbers but dished out a career-best 5.0 assists and solidified the center position on a team that desperately needed it. The only other players to reach Horford’s thresholds in points (14.0), rebounds (6.8) and assists (5.0) were Russell Westbrok, James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those could be four members of the All-NBA first team. Good company indeed.

Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have always been plus defenders, with the latter earning All-NBA Defensive first team honors a year ago. But both players made a jump on the other end of the floor this year that helped Boston jump to the top of the East. Bradley averaged a career-high 16.4 points while Crowder shot a career-best 46.2 percent from the field and became a dependable 3-point shooter, connecting on 40 percent of his triples.

Bradley played in just 54 games while dealing with an Achilles injury during the season’s second half, and Horford missed time in November with a concussion. Both players are back and logging 30+ minutes, putting the Celtics at full-strength heading into the second season.

Other contributors include defensive standout Marcus Smart, though his shooting (35.9%) remains an issue. Rookie Jaylen Brown saw an increase in minutes with Bradley sidelined and proved to be a capable player on the second unit. Amir Johnson does the dirty work inside, while Kelly Olynyk’s stretch-four capabilities give Stevens a different look. Terry Rozier, Gerald Green, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller all could see spot minutes during the series, but won’t have a direct impact on its outcome.

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Boston sat third in the East following a late January three-game losing streak. At 26-18 they were safely into the playoffs and still in shouting distance of the Cavaliers and second-seeded Raptors.

Then, on Jan. 25, the Celtics knocked off the Rockets – one of their most impressive wins of the year – to begin a stretch of seven straight wins, and 11 of their next 12 total. It pulled them within 2.5 games of the Cavs. They maintained that second seed despite Washington’s resurgence – Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury in Toronto helped, too – and eventually caught struggling Cleveland by winning 12 of their last 16 games.

Having the East’s best road record (23-18) helped, and only Cleveland (31-10) was better than Boston’s 30-11 home mark. Thirteen other NBA teams finished with a winning record; Boston beat 11 of them at least once, with only San Antonio and Oklahoma City sweeping two-game series against the C’s.

Boston finished the year seventh in net rating, which trailed only Toronto in the East. They were one of five teams to finish in the top-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Golden State, Toronto, San Antonio, Utah).

Offensively they use the 3-pointer as much as any team in the league not named the Houston Rockets. Their 33.4 attempts per game ranked third in the NBA behind Houston and Cleveland (33.9 attempts), and they made a respectable 35.9 percent.

Where the Celtics are best is distributing and taking care of the ball. They ranked second in the NBA in assist ratio (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) and assist percentage (percentage of field goals that were assisted). Though Thomas, their leading passer, handed out only 5.9 assists per game, Boston’s 25.2 assists per game were fourth in the NBA. Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier can all handle the ball, while Horford is one of the game’s best passing centers.

They also take care of the ball. Boston’s turnover percentage (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) ranked 8th in the NBA, and third among playoff teams.

If there’s one area where the Celtics struggle, it’s on the glass. Despite adding Horford, and having one of the better rebounding guards in Bradley, the Celtics finished 27th in rebound percentage (48.5%). Only the Mavericks, Pelicans and Nets were worse (Note: Rebound margin is not a thing). Horford and Bradley missing a combined 41 games may have contributed to that, but between Horford, Johnson, Olynyk and Zeller, there aren’t many plus rebounders on the team.

Outside of the Warriors and Spurs, there isn't a more balanced team in the league than the Celtics. They can play big with Horford and Amir Johnson, or play Crowder at power forward in a small-ball lineup. The combinations of Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier give Stevens, one of the game's most respected head coaches, plenty of options. They'll be a tough out in the postseason if they can overcome their rebounding woes and, of course, remain healthy.