In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

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NBC Sports

In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

LeBron James was done hiding it. 

After getting swept in the 2018 NBA Finals, James sat at the postgame podium and briefly rested his hands on the table in front of him. A tsunami of camera flashes began flooding the room because, there it was, for all the world to see: a soft cast covering his right hand. James picked up the microphone with his left hand and began to take questions from the surrounding media.

Sitting at his Las Vegas home, Vic Salerno couldn’t bring himself to watch. The legendary Vegas bookmaker, who is the president of USBookmaking and was inducted into the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2016 for his innovation in the regulated sports wagering industry, thought he had seen it all in his 40 years of work in the sports betting industry. But nothing quite like this. 

In that presser, James admitted he played through what he described as “pretty much ... a broken hand,” confirming the stunning media reports that trickled out within moments after Game 4 final buzzer. Salerno was blindsided by the news that James had suffered a serious injury to his shooting hand in the aftermath of a bizarre Game 1. Multiple MRIs were taken, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, for his visibly swollen hand. Still, James kept playing through the injury and averaged 28.3 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds in the final three games, all losses. No one said a word about the hand.

To many, it was a Herculean feat by James.

But to Salerno, this was something entirely different. In Salerno’s eyes, this was a devastating blow to the integrity of the game, an inexcusable breach of trust. Perpetrated by, not LeBron, but the NBA itself. And Salerno was ready to battle the league office head on, in the courts.

* * *

Even before the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) on May 14, 2018, NBA lawyers had begun lobbying in various state courts and proposing that sportsbooks (like the ones Salerno helped operate across the US) should be required to pay the NBA a small percentage of every bet placed on its games to ensure integrity is being maintained.

“Call it a royalty, call it an integrity fee,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at his annual NBA Finals press conference two weeks after PASPA was reversed. “We will have additional expenses [to further protect integrity], and it’s ultimately our intellectual property and we ultimately believe we should be compensated for it.”

Salerno was incensed at James’ revelation, and so were other sportsbook operators, he says. Here was the NBA’s biggest star playing on the biggest stage, suffering what he says was a broken bone in his shooting hand, and laboring through it for multiple games.. Millions of dollars were wagered on these games with betting lines based on, in large part, official injury reports provided by the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. 

Nothing in those reports said anything about James’ injured hand and thus bettors went heavy on the Cavs. After Game 1, 94 percent of bets to win the series at William Hill’s Nevada sportsbook were placed on Cleveland and MGM’s sportsbook took six times more bets on the Cavs than the Warriors, according to ESPN’s David Purdum. As it turns out, the Cavs failed to cover the spread in any of the remaining games (though Salerno says the sportsbooks didn’t lose money on the bets, nor did they spot any irregularities in betting). 

But the issue raises a host of questions. How soon did the Cavs know about James’ injury? Who in the organization knew? Did the league know and if not, why not? And did anyone leak that information to bettors? 

Without citing concrete evidence, Salerno believes the league was aware of James’ injury and chose not disclose it.

“Oh, they knew,” Salerno says over the phone. “They knew.”

But when contacted by NBC Sports this week, NBA spokesman Tim Frank called that claim “100 percent false” and denied any knowledge of James’ injury before it became public following Game 4. Salerno finds that hard to believe, considering the stakes and, you know, the fact that the hand belonged to LeBron James.

Dan Spillane, NBA Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel who is leading the league’s efforts to lobby for royalty fees and a compensation package in state legislature, says the Cavs followed league policy that requires teams to detail whether a player is probable, questionable, doubtful or out due to injury, illness, personal matters or resting.

“In this particular situation, LeBron [James] played in all of those games and played very well,” Spillane explained over the phone. “This wasn’t, as I understand it, an injury that was going to affect whether he was going to play or not. LeBron was going to play in the rest of the series.”

John T. Holden, a leading sports law expert and an assistant professor at the University at Oklahoma State, worries that the NBA’s policy needs to be expanded to cover injuries like James’ that could affect the gambling world.

“These things need to be disclosed,” Holden says. “Otherwise, you’re just creating a market for people with that information. And that’s where integrity really gets threatened.”

Spillane believes it’s hard to imagine the NBA expands its injury-reporting policy to include injuries that might affect performance without “hundreds of reports being filed constantly” by NBA teams. 

“While it’s a fair question to raise, it’s not obvious how you would construct a rule that would require disclosure of that kind of thing without becoming all-encompassing and requiring a much more burdensome, intrusive and wide-range of disclosures than we have today,” Spillane says.

Still, Salerno isn’t satisfied with the league’s stance.

“This really blows their whole argument apart,” Salerno says. “That proved to me that we couldn’t count on the NBA to protect the integrity of the game.”

This isn’t just an opinion of a bitter bookmaker. Salerno is one of the biggest, most-trusted names in the sports betting industry. In October, as the director of sportsbook operations for BetChicago, Salerno testified in front of Illinois lawmakers at a sports wagering hearing and raised the Finals issue as an example of why sportsbooks should not be required by the law to pay an integrity fee to sports leagues. In that meeting, a National Basketball Players Association representative defended James’ right to withhold that information.

State legislatures, so far, are siding with Salerno and the sportsbooks. None of the eight states with legal sports betting have included an integrity fee, which is currently proposed by the NBA, MLB and PGA Tour as 0.25 percent of the amount of money wagered, otherwise known as the handle. (The compensation package was initially introduced as an “integrity” fee in January but has since been called a royalty). Still, Spillane and the NBA’s team of lawyers continue to make their case that the NBA deserves a cut off the top. It’s a big ask considering sportsbooks in New Jersey, for example, took home just six percent of the handle

“It has been a part of several bills that have been introduced in various states over the course of the year including a couple that came very close to passage,” Spillane says. “We view this as the very beginning of the process, though.”

Four years after Silver wrote a groundbreaking op-ed for the New York Times, the NBA has put on the full-court press to leverage the Supreme Court ruling and boost revenues for NBA owners. The integrity fee (or royalty fee) is just one revenue stream related to gambling. 

The others will undoubtedly change the way fans will experience the sport. Already, the whole NBA landscape is shifting before our eyes.

* * *

Sports leagues and the gambling world have long been embroiled in something of a cold war. 

For years, the NFL went as far as banning the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from advertising during the Super Bowl, even without any reference to sports betting or gambling in general. Now, the NFL will relocate the Oakland Raiders to Vegas in 2020 and commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Wednesday that it will hold its 2020 NFL Draft in Sin City, saying the NFL is "looking forward to working with" that same Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in its press release. As recently as 2012, then-NBA commissioner David Stern wrote in a declaration in a New Jersey case against legalized sports gambling: “The NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams.”

Like the NFL, the NBA also reversed its position recently. In one of his first landmark moves as NBA commissioner, Silver’s 2014 Times op-ed argued in favor of legalized sports gambling. Silver’s direct repudiation of his mentor changed everything and laid the groundwork for the current gambling-friendly climate. (Stern now backs legalized sports gambling).

“Silver’s op-ed was huge,” Holden says. “It was sort of the first professional sports league change in policy in about a hundred years. It was certainly a monumental change.”

But May 14, 2018 changed tides and opened up the floodgates. That afternoon, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went on CNBC and didn’t hold back when summarizing the SCOTUS decision: “Everybody who owns top-four professional sports teams just basically saw the value of their team double,” Cuban said. “At least.”

The NBA didn’t hesitate to line up business deals that industry sources say are amounting to millions of dollars of revenue. In late July, the NBA announced that MGM Resorts would become an official gaming partner of the NBA and WNBA, marking the first partnership of its kind with a sports betting operator in the United States. This week, the NBA landed another partnership, this time with the Stars Group, which operates in New Jersey under its BetStars brand.

Things have changed so quickly that Las Vegas is now seen as a potential safe harbor for an NBA team. On Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver was threatening to move the team to Las Vegas (or Seattle) if the city couldn’t agree on an arena deal. The NBA has developed strong roots in Las Vegas, holding its Summer League there since 2004 and making it the premier offseason showcase in recent years. In 2017, it became the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League through a marketing deal with the casino giant. 

With the climate softening on Vegas and NBA gambling in general, Cuban hired the most famous NBA bettor, Haralabos Voulgaris, and brought him into the Mavs’ front office to help him win games. Voulgaris’ nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter won’t have access to his keen insights into the NBA anymore. But soon, fans might be able to attend an NBA game and legally bet on it without having to look over their shoulder. Yes, in-arena betting may be coming sooner than you think.

* * *

At the local level, teams are joining in on the betting biz boom. 

In October, the Philadelphia 76ers’ ownership group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, announced a multi-year partnership with Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Harrah’s Philadelphia just 30 minutes away from the Sixers’ home at Wells Fargo Center. Caesars also operates sportsbooks in Atlantic City, which will be the destination for Sixers in-game promotions such as “Score For The Shore” half-court shots or “Live Like A Caesars VIP” social media contest on the team’s official feed.

Was it a coincidence that they struck a deal just months after PASPA was repealed?

“It’s not,” says Caesars SVP Marketing & Chief Experience Officer Michael Marino. “For us, we think there’s a lot of value in meeting sports fans because we believe they’re highly likely to become sports betting fans as well. There’s certainly more interest now than five months ago in meeting these fans. We’re looking forward to the many different activations as a brand partner and then also, obviously, the more direct to the consumer we can get, the better.”

Caesars has reason to be bullish about officially getting into the NBA space. In less than six months of operation, gamblers in New Jersey have wagered nearly $1 billion. (Under the hypothetical of a quarter-percent royalty fee, a $1 billion handle would mean sportsbooks would have to write a $2.5 million check to sports leagues). On Thursday, Philadelphia’s first sportsbook, SugarHouse Casino, is set to open just a 15-minute drive from the Sixers’ arena.

Marino envisions that in early 2019 fans seated inside Wells Fargo Center can open up their Caesars app on their phone and bet on the game. The state of Pennsylvania legalized land sports betting in November, but online gambling hasn’t been launched yet. Now, fans on their phones can only bet legally in New Jersey, just a few minutes away. 

It’s partnerships like these that have people wondering how soon we will see a sportsbook at an NBA arena. Salerno believes fans will be soon able to bet on NBA games in a brick-and-mortar space at an NBA arena “within the year.” Think Churchill Downs, but with an NBA game as the live event.

Marino doesn’t think Wells Fargo Center will have a sportsbook any time soon, but it’s not out of the question for Caesars to open up a sportsbook on-site down the road.

“Someday,” Marino says, “we would love that.”

One theory is that legalizing sports gambling will make more fans tune into games and attend live events.

But that hasn’t happened just yet. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, ratings have been in surprising decline so far this season. Through last Friday, ESPN and TNT have seen a year-over-year drop in 24 of the 37 NBA games they have aired this season. Part of that might be due to Stephen Curry’s injury, general Warriors fatigue and the early struggles of elite teams in some of the NBA’s largest markets like Houston and Boston. Still, the gambling boom hasn’t led to more eyeballs quite yet.

“The numbers are well below what I expected this season with LeBron’s move to L.A.,” said Jon Lewis, who writes under the psyeudonym “Paulsen” at Sports Media Watch and has been covering sports ratings since 2006.

However, at the local level, it might be a different story. As Pennsylvania and New Jersey ramp up their sportsbooks offerings, the 76ers now rank No. 1 league-wide in attendance, averaging 20,339 fans per home game. What’s more, the team’s local broadcast partner, NBC Sports Philadelphia just posted its highest November average since 2001 -- the year Allen Iverson won MVP. It’s far too early to attribute that growth to the legalization of gambling in the Philly region, but these sort of viewership gains are the goal.

To Salerno, this is why lobbying for integrity or royalty fees is a waste of time. In his view, the NBA will make plenty of money on gambling-related private partnerships, advertising and increases in franchise value. The NBA, from his perspective, has already benefited greatly from gambling even before PASPA was repealed.

“Who’s going to watch the Nets-Celtics game when the Celtics are a 16-point favorite? If nobody’s betting on it, nobody’s going to watch the game,” Salerno says. “We’ve made them a lot of money.”

Holden believes that won’t stop the NBA from going to the courts and advocating for an integrity fee. A federal sports betting bill has recently been drafted and, though it’s unlikely to pass in Holden’s view, how Congress proceeds will be worth monitoring. Still, expect more NBA/MGM-like business deals to continue.

“I think the league is going to continue to press very hard to get a cut of the handle, but I think the best opportunities for the league to profit from legalized sports gambling is through these private partnerships,” Holden says. “There are a number of legal issues associated with states mandating integrity fees.”

Holden warns that the NBA might be sending the wrong message to fans that, before the federal ban was lifted on sports gambling, the league wasn’t financially or systemically equipped to protect integrity of the game. If bringing sports gambling from the shady underground to above ground will be safer for bettors as Silver argued in his op-ed, why suddenly ask for integrity fees now?

“That’s a very contradictory statement that they’ve made,” Holden says. “I don’t know how sustainable it is to continue asking for the integrity fee. They are not going broke paying lobbyists to ask for integrity fees but at some point, how many times do you want to strike out, before you move onto something else?”

Holden then pauses.

“But it can’t hurt to ask for free money,”

'There are only so many bullets' -- Rui Hachimura's unique NBA journey and the dangers of AAU

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NBC Sports

'There are only so many bullets' -- Rui Hachimura's unique NBA journey and the dangers of AAU

Rui Hachimura sat down in front of a sea of cameras and microphones at WinTrust Arena and scooted up his chair. The 22-year-old smiled and looked over his left shoulder to a group of Japanese reporters.

“Kon’nichiwa,” the rookie said, greeting his fellow countrymen.

It was the Rising Stars’ media availability at All-Star Weekend in Chicago and dozens of reporters wanted to hear the rookie speak. An American reporter tried to sneak in a question.

“Let’s do Japanese, no English,” Hachimura told him with a laugh. 

For the next 15 minutes, Hachimura broke new ground. It’s the first time a Japanese-born player participated in the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, and, despite his unique background, Hachimura proved he belonged all the same, shining as part of Team World in the Rising Stars game and completing more dunks (6) than the NBA’s hottest box-office item, Zion Williamson (5).

Hachimura’s star-turn is remarkable considering he didn’t play basketball until 2012, when he was 14 years old. Then again, this year’s All-Star Weekend was, on some level, proof that you don’t have to be a basketball lifer to ascend to the top of the sport. Pascal Siakam didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16 years old. Like Siakam, Joel Embiid was devoted to soccer until he picked up a basketball at the age of 15. 

For Hachimura, growing up in a baseball-obsessed country of Japan, it seemed almost destined that he would spend his life on a diamond instead of a hardcourt. Even his first name, Rui, given to him by baseball-loving grandfather, translates to “base” in Japanese. Hachimura jokes that he switched to basketball because no one could catch his fastball. A late growth spurt that stretched him to 6-foot-8 ensured that Hachimura would play hoops for good.

He quickly rose the basketball ranks in Japan, flourishing in international competition on Japan’s FIBA U17 and U19 national teams and drawing the attention of college recruiters in America. Just three years after landing at Gonzaga University amid eligibility issues over his poor command of the English language, Hachimura was named a finalist for Naismith Player of the Year. A few months later, the Washington Wizards shocked the league and made Hachimura the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

To some, the fact that Hachimura wasn’t schooled in basketball his entire life was a disadvantage. How could he possibly catch up with the world’s greats? But it was Hachimura’s lack of miles on the hardwood that caught the basketball world’s attention.

* * *

Marcus Elliott is a Harvard-trained physician who founded P3 Peak Performance facility, an industry-leading sports science hub in Santa Barbara, CA. Elliott and his team have assessed and studied the biomechanics and injury risk profiles of hundreds of NBA players and hundreds of other athletes at the youth, collegiate, Olympic and pro levels. 

Elliott’s P3 partnerships extend all the way around the globe, even in Japan. Elliott tries to visit on a yearly basis, equally drawn to the Japanese work ethic and its cuisine. He refers to Japan as “a 10,000-hour culture” with an emphasis on discipline and repetition. In high school, Hachimura played for legendary head coach Hisao Sato at Meisei High School and also for Japan’s junior national team, led by German head coach Torston Loibl. Loibl says Meisei workloads are the stuff of lore, practicing four hours a day “at minimum.” Loibl estimates that players from Hachimura’s high school would log over 300 practices a year.

“In high school, I practiced almost all day,” Hachimura says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know what to do. In college, I was more efficient.”

The demanding Meisei practice schedule didn’t phase Hachimura. Loibl was always struck by Hachimura’s positivity and work ethic. He remembers the night before the U17 World Cup, when Hachimura and two teammates knocked on his hotel door at midnight before a big game. Loibl awoke in a panic and hurried to open the door, only to find Hachimura smiling and asking to go over the game plan one more time.

“I love Rui’s mentality,” Loibl says. “He is very focused, works hard and always wants to get better. When (players) have gone through the Japanese system, everything else feels like vacation.”

Japanese basketball culture isn’t new to Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. Sheppard was part of the Phoenix Suns’ organization when they brought in Japanese prospect Yuta Tabuse for Summer League and a short period of the 2004-05 season. 

“I don’t think they had pitch counts in Japan,” Sheppard jokes. “(Hachimura’s training) was difficult -- I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult -- but I still wouldn’t put it up against any AAU schedule.”

The difference is in the type of training. Japanese prospects like Hachimura faced long hours of practice, but the schedule was light on games and globe-trotting travel. 

“I didn't play as many games as the American players did,” Hachimura says.

While AAU athletes fly around the country for tournaments, Hachimura mostly stayed inside Japanese borders. By sheer land mass, Japan is smaller than the state of California.

“The AAU travel schedule, it’s crazy,” Elliott says. “That by itself is super hard on the body. Japan is a few small islands. Even if (Japanese prospects are) playing a lot of games, it’s hard to make a case that it’s going to be as ballistic as it is here playing against the best kids in the country over and over and over.”

In Hachimura’s short time in the Japanese system, Sheppard found a basketball culture that prioritized coaching and personal growth above all else. The games were almost secondary. Out of that, Hachimura’s NBA future was honed.

“It was really refreshing to see,” Sheppard says. “They do care about their kids. It isn’t anywhere near what an AAU season would be.”

The fact that Hachimura wasn’t a basketball lifer, not playing the game until he was 14 years old, was considered a feature, not a bug.

Says Elliott: “That’s got to be an asset. That’s got to be a positive.”

* * *

The Wizards didn’t bring Hachimura in for a formal workout ahead of last June’s draft for fear of other teams picking up on the scent. The front office, led by the newly-promoted Sheppard, had done their homework. They loved his size and impressive feel for the game. Oddly enough, that he played baseball for most of his life appealed to basketball scouts like Sheppard. 

“With Rui, the miles were very attractive to us,” Sheppard says. “Very low compared to a normal kid his age if he was an elite player coming up through the (American) grassroots system.”

Sheppard has been scouting NBA prospects all over the world for over two decades and had grown increasingly worried about what he was seeing in American gyms. Elite prospects in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) system would play over a hundred games a year, putting excessive wear-and-tear on their bodies. An in-depth ESPN two-part series this past summer put a spotlight on the corrosive American youth basketball culture and the injury “epidemic” that followed prospects into the NBA.

Cautionary tales of the AAU ranks are numerous around the NBA. Though the AAU system helped bring many players the exposure that took them to elite college programs and later the professional ranks, those same players marvel in hindsight at the workload they faced as youngsters.

Wizards forward Troy Brown Jr. recalls playing in AAU tournaments as early as eight years old. By the time he was in eighth grade, he had quit other sports to play basketball year-round and was playing up to four games in a day. Sometimes, that also meant playing in multiple tournaments and age groups at the same time.

"I played like 24/7," Brown said. "I feel like at the beginning of it, it’s really fun. But when it gets down to winning games and trying to get to the championship and stuff like that, it definitely wears on you mentally. At the end of the day, you’re younger and you’re not really worried about load management. You just love basketball. You just play."

Wizards center Thomas Bryant noted how long drives and the money parents put up for their kids to play in tournaments can add a different type of pressure. His hardest time in AAU was a tournament in Albany, NY, where he played four games in one day. 

In between games, he was wearing down, but had to keep going.

"My mom was upset because I was tired. She was like 'I didn't drive all this way for you to be tired, you better go out there and win this championship.' Luckily, we did," he said. 

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has been in the NBA since 1987; first as a player for ten years, now as a coach in his 11th season. His coaching career alone has spanned a generation of NBA players from Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant to Hachimura.

Brooks has also been around long enough to notice how the rise of AAU has changed the NBA. That includes seeing a rise in the amount of players who are more used to playing an isolation game than within a team system, something Kobe Bryant railed against for years.

"A lot of these programs play 60 games in a summer and four games in a day,” Brooks said. “Two things; the wear-and-tear on the body and the win-losses don’t really mean as much. If you lose a game at 10 a.m. it’s ‘Hey, don’t worry we’re going to come back at 12:30 [p.m.].’ If you lose that game [it’s the same thing], so there’s no value in playing for the win because you’ve got a game in two hours. When you grow up in that, then it becomes [meaningless].

"Good players and good teams, the losses hurt. You can’t live in it and dwell in it, but you’ve gotta learn from it. It has to hurt and then you move on.”

While some might look at Brooks’ comments as the complaints of a long-time NBA coach, it’s much more than that for the basketball lifer and father of two. 

"I think it’s too much,” Brooks said of the AAU workload. “I know I wouldn’t put my kids in that situation to play that many games at that young an age where their body is still growing.”

* * *

Elliott can’t get the image out of his head. 

When asked about Hachimura’s road to the NBA, Elliott brings up a scene from a little over two years ago in his P3 gym. It was then that Elliott stood in a room with Zion Williamson and eight other top American high school players as part of a P3 initiative called BluePrint Camp. The point of the camp was to educate the teenage phenoms on how to take care of their bodies and to help identify minor biomechanical issues that could become major ones down the line. He opened with a question.

“Raise your hand if you have something that’s hurting you right now,” Elliott said.

He didn’t know what he’d find. In an NBA locker room, Elliott estimates he’ll see about 40 percent of the hands go up as the wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule takes its toll. But in this room full of teenage phenoms, it was a different story.

“Everyone raised their hand,” Elliotts says. “Every one of them. I was like, ‘Wow.’ These young AAU players, at an elite level, almost all of them have something hurting.”

Though it’s unclear how much can be attributed to AAU scheduling, the top of the most recent draft class has already had its injury issues. Williamson has missed 45 of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 55 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Williamson’s former AAU teammate, Ja Morant, selected second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, needed offseason knee surgery that forced the 20-year-old to start the season on a load-management regimen. The No. 3 overall pick, R.J. Barrett, a Canadian prodigy who traveled around North America playing in AAU tournaments before he even entered sixth grade, recently missed nearly three weeks with an ankle injury.

In Elliott’s eyes, avoiding the AAU circuit is no small thing when projecting an NBA player’s career.

“I think Rui’s in a much better place because of it,” Elliott says. “It’s a real story.”

* * *

The thrilling impromptu dunk competition between Williamson, Morant and others at the end of the Rising Stars caused an emotional tug-of-war for several executives around the league. Have a blast, dunk all you want, this is an entertainment product for the fans, after all. But on the other side, insiders also winced with every thunderous dunk attempt. One bad takeoff or landing could jeopardize a career or franchise.

The NBA has grown increasingly cognizant of the wear-and-tear that comes with NBA basketball and have gone to extensive measures to monitor the pounding. When Hachimura started playing basketball full-time in 2012, the title-contending Miami Heat had just begun using a gadget called VERT in practice, a fancy piece of wearable technology that tracked the number of jumps exerted by a player. With an aging core, the coaching staff wanted to keep unnecessary dunks to a minimum.

It remains to be seen whether Hachimura’s road less traveled will pay off down the line. He missed 23 games this season after suffering an accidental kick below the belt that later required a surgical procedure. The good news is that he hasn’t missed a game yet due to a wear-and-tear injury. 

“There are only so many bullets in a six-gun,” Elliott says. “You only have much cartilage in your knees. If you use 30 percent of it playing youth basketball, you have less to draw from when you try to go make a career of this thing.”

On Friday, the crowd roared as Williamson, Morant, Barrett and Hachimura’s college teammate, Brandon Clarke, attempted gravity-bending dunk after dunk. But one person who was notably absent from that dunk competition. Hachimura was on the court, but he was passing the ball off and barely crossing halfcourt as the others did basketball Cirque de Soleil. Hachimura seemed to be perfectly happy as an onlooker. He might as well have been on a baseball field in Japan.

Chase Hughes is a reporter covering the Wizards for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter (@ChaseHughesNBCS). Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

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NBC Sports

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

Two summers ago, LeBron James made his choice. By agreeing to sign with the middling Los Angeles Lakers, James was going to try to climb another mountain. 

LeBron knew he would be stepping into the shadow of the beloved Kobe Bryant and trying to rescue the franchise from something it had not known in some time, mediocrity. 

James knew it was a tall task. Those in his inner circle warned him that this would be the biggest challenge of his illustrious NBA career -- even more ambitious than bringing a title to the city of Cleveland, more difficult than winning back-to-back titles in Miami after the 2011 Finals debacle, a longer longshot than passing his idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. 

Before James came to the rescue, the shine had worn off the Lakers. Free agent after free agent passed. The rebuild wasn’t working. No team in the NBA had lost more games in its previous five seasons than the Los Angeles Lakers. In some eyes, rescuing the Lakers would go down as perhaps LeBron’s greatest basketball achievement.

But this? James did not sign up for this. No human being should be expected to shoulder the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other seven who perished in the tragic helicopter crash last month. No one can bottle up all that grief, soak up all those tears and absorb the anger for a world in mourning. 


 

But here we are. The “Win It For Kobe” movement seems to be taking hold both locally and nationally and it makes me extremely uneasy.

A tragedy like the one in Calabasas shouldn’t be minimized by the bounces of an orange ball. Beyond that very obvious thing, it’s clear we’re putting LeBron James in an unfair, no-win situation. If the Lakers win the title, it will, for many, be remembered as Kobe willing it from the heavens. If the Lakers lose, it will likely be seen as LeBron, once again, proving he could never be Kobe. It all feels like a trap.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope fans will understand that an early postseason exit from James, Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel in his first year as the Lakers’ head coach shouldn’t be construed as some sort of failure to honor Bryant’s death. Basketball can’t be that serious, right? But I also saw what James’ hometown fans wrote on poster boards when he returned to Cleveland from the Miami Heat.

Sports so often give adults a reason to believe in fairy tales, that perhaps Kobe is up there pushing the Lakers along this championship quest. LeBron himself has leaned into it, for sure. When LeBron leaped into a double-pump reverse dunk in Staples Center last week, it was one of the sensational plays of the season, captured in this iconic image by the great NBA photographer Andrew D. Bernstein.

But hours later, the Lakers took it to another level and posted a jaw-dropping video of Kobe Bryant doing the same dunk on the same hoop 19 years ago, a clip that generated over 25 million views.

LeBron would later admit he didn’t do it as a tribute. It was just a remarkable coincidence. LeBron could have left it there, but instead:

“Ever see the movie ‘The 6th Man’?” LeBron told ESPN. “Kobe came down, put himself in my body and gave me that dunk on that break.”

Believing in this sort of thing can be comforting on some level. Everyone grieves and heals differently. In the aftermath of the unthinkable in Calabasas, LeBron has mostly been a figure of strength. Just before the Lakers’ first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death, James went off script and delivered a moving speech in front of a grieving crowd all adorned in Bryant’s jersey. Much of the millions watching at home wept (I know I did, thinking about my own daughters).

Speaking to executives and coaches around the league before that game, the overriding feeling was there was no way that the Lakers wouldn’t win that game. The stars would align and the Lakers would triumph in an emotional tribute to Bryant.

Reality had other plans. The Lakers lost by eight. Damian Lillard dazzled his way to 48 points and turned that fairy tale inside out. It was a sobering reminder that James and Davis aren’t superheroes. The Lakers are still a basketball team with weaknesses that can be exploited.

We should be ready for more nights like that. The cold, hard truth is that the Lakers aren’t likely to win the championship in June.

At least that’s what the sharp money says. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com projections has the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks tied at 19 percent chance of winning the championship, with the LA Clippers trailing just behind at 18 percent odds to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Even if the Lakers go on a run and nudge themselves into the lead by the end of the regular season, being the favorite doesn’t mean it’s likely. The flipside of 19 percent means that there’s an 81 percent chance that a team other than the one dressed in purple and gold will win it all. The Lakers’ championship probability is roughly the same as Laker sharpshooter Danny Green missing a free throw (Green is a career 81 percent shooter at the charity stripe). Again, not great odds.

In some ways, LeBron is a victim of his own success. Thanks to his play in his 17th season, the Lakers are way ahead of schedule. The preseason over/under on the Lakers stood at 50.5 wins. They’re on pace to win 63. So much of it is due to LeBron’s brilliance, as it was on full display in Wednesday’s overtime win against Denver (32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds was LeBron’s line). 

But if you look deeper, you’ll see the full extent of LeBron’s impact. The Lakers are a baffling minus-55 this season when Anthony Davis is playing but James is on the bench. The other side of that coin is just as telling: The Lakers are plus-166 when James is playing and Davis is on the bench, per PBPstats.com.

Without LeBron, where would the Lakers be right now? This gives you a hint: Over the last two seasons, the Lakers have been outscored by 201 points in the 2,765 minutes with James on the bench, or getting beat by 3.5 points every 48 minutes. That’s the same differential as the this season’s Minnesota Timberwolves, who are 16-27.

LeBron is doing what he set out to do: resurrect the Lakers into championship contenders. The on-off numbers illustrate the kind of impact he’s had on the organization; how much the 35-year-old means to their success. Three years after firing their front office two days ahead of the trade deadline and being the laughing stock of the NBA (hello, Knicks!), the Lakers are now 41-12 and blazing to the West’s No. 1 seed -- all because of LeBron. It’s hard to say otherwise.

But with the Lakers exceeding expectations, it feels like we’re building toward an inevitable letdown. The signs are there. The Lakers are 0-5 against the Clippers, Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers this season despite LeBron averaging 21.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists in those games. The Lakers’ struggles at the top have less to do with LeBron and more to do with the fact that Dwight Howard inked to a non-guaranteed contract is often the team’s third-best player.

So much can change between now and June. The Lakers, as it stands, are not likely to win it all. If they don’t, it almost certainly won’t be because of LeBron. They’re not there without him. 

If the Lakers do indeed fall short of the title, resist the urge to put Kobe’s death on LeBron or the Lakers. It’s not fair. How much can one man possibly do? LeBron is only human. If Kobe’s tragic death has taught us anything, it’s that humans can only control so much of their fate. This isn’t a mountain. This is a bottomless void. James shouldn’t be asked to fill it.

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