How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

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NBC Sports

How the Pelicans failed Anthony Davis

The clock almost hit midnight on June 30, 2015 when Anthony Davis tweeted his contract announcement with the “#6MoreYears” hashtag. Davis had just inked a five-year, $145 million extension and posted a photo of him standing with his agent, Thad Foucher, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry and New Orleans GM Dell Demps. 

It was a moment of celebration for the Pelicans franchise. The future seemingly looked bright. They made the playoffs in Year 3 of The Brow era, improving each season in the win column. They had poached Gentry from the champion Golden State Warriors’ bench. Most importantly, Davis was in.

But that’s really when the clock began to tick on Demps and the Pelicans organization. This was their opportunity to prove that Davis, now 25, should spend his prime years and beyond in New Orleans. This coming summer, Davis will be eligible to sign a five-year, $239 million supermax extension with the Pelicans, if the Pelicans choose to offer it. But New Orleans’ financial advantage may not be an advantage at all.

“I’d take legacy over money,” Davis told Yahoo! Sports recently.

The sharks are circling. LeBron James made it known he’d love to play with him in Laker Land. The Boston Celtics have loads of assets to dangle (though a trade offer will have to wait until this summer due to a CBA quirk). The Golden State Warriors would “surely be interested,” per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, if he became available. And you can never count out Houston, who can put Clint Capela on the table starting Jan 15. As one general manager told NBC Sports, it “seems like 29 teams are in the AD chase.”

You can include the Pelicans on that list and make it 30. 

* * *

New Orleans got lucky on May 30, 2012. 

That night on national television, NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that New Orleans (then called the Hornets, now the Pelicans) won the draft lottery over the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets -- confusing, I know). 

It was a stunner. New Orleans had the fourth-best odds at winning the No. 1 overall pick and thanks to a fortuitous bounce of ping-pong balls, it jumped the three teams ahead of it -- Washington, Cleveland and, most surprisingly, Charlotte, which went just 7-59 in a lockout-shortened season.

With just a 13.7 percent chance, New Orleans won the day.

"Obviously, we're very excited," Demps said that night. "This is a great day for the city of New Orleans, our fans. ... This is the start of a new beginning."

Demps and the rest of the NBA knew Davis was a game-changer, head and shoulders above the rest of his 2012 draft class. DraftExpress once described Davis as “the most impressive blend of athletic tools we've seen in a big man prospect in our nine years evaluating the NBA draft.” 

For a tiny city like New Orleans, this was hitting jackpot. New Orleans is the smallest of the NBA small markets, according to Nielsen TV designated market-area research, ranking 51st among United States cities. By pure market size, New Orleans shouldn’t have an NBA franchise. Albuquerque, NM., Grand Rapids, MI., and Harrisburg, PA., are more deserving of a franchise from a TV market standpoint. 

For the franchise in the smallest of small markets, the best big man of a generation fell into its lap. What did they do with that lottery ticket? 

Not much.

Let’s say you hopped into a time machine and traveled to the morning following that 2012 draft lottery and asked NBA fans to make a prediction: Who would have a better record over the next seven seasons, through the 2018 calendar year: New Orleans or Charlotte? 

Those fans would probably say New Orleans, right? Duh, they just landed the Brow. And Charlotte just went 7-and-freakin’-59!

But take it a step further. Guarantee that Davis stayed with the team through 2018. Guarantee those NBA fans that Davis would become everything they imagined and more. Tell them that Davis would average 23.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his NBA career before hitting his prime. Tell them that he would own the third-highest player-efficiency rating among all players since he entered the league -- only LeBron James and Kevin Durant rank higher

Tell them that, despite the occasional gripe that Davis is injury-prone, he’d play more games over the next seven seasons than other superstars like Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Don’t stop there. Tell those NBA fans that Charlotte, coming off the worst season ever, would select Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and he’d become a solid role player, who, by 2018, would be a full-time reserve. 

Now ask them: Knowing all that, which team through 2018 would have a better record? 

Imagine their faces when you tell them that Charlotte, not New Orleans, is the correct answer. Since that 2012 lottery, Charlotte has gone 235-293 (.445 win percentage), per Basketball-Reference.com and reached the playoffs twice. The Pelicans have gone 235-295 (.443) since lucking into Davis. They’ve reached the playoffs the same number of times and gotten past the first-round once. Charlotte is one of 20 teams with a better record than New Orleans since he entered the league. 

The question is, why?

* * *

The Pelicans swept the Blazers last postseason, but aside from that brief moment in the sun, the events over the past four months must be nauseating for Pelicans fans. 

In September, Davis fired his New Orleans-based agent Foucher and hired LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul. Then, in an October profile in Sports Illustrated, former NBA commissioner David Stern took a shot at Pelicans brass when discussing how the Chris Paul trade fell apart in 2011, calling Demps “a lousy general manager … and he may lose Anthony Davis.”

With Davis rumors swirling, the Pelicans swiped back at the former de facto owner of their franchise and defended their longtime decision-maker with a public statement:

"We are very disappointed to read the inappropriate and inaccurate comments from the former NBA Commissioner regarding the New Orleans Pelicans. Our organization has the utmost confidence in our General Manager, Dell Demps. He is part of our family, the NBA family. We are excited about the direction of our team, the 3-0 start of this season, building on the success of the 2017/18 playoffs.” 

(The statement concluded with a not-so-veiled line endorsing Stern’s successor, Adam Silver.)

But shortly after beating their chest about a 3-0 start, the Pelicans lost six straight and the season began to spiral. In one of the most important seasons in franchise history, the Pelicans are currently 16-21 and sitting 14th among 15 Western Conference teams. What’s in front of them is daunting: They’d have to leapfrog six teams just to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in the four seasons since Davis signed his extension.

To top it all off, in the week leading up to the Christmas Day games, LeBron told ESPN “that would be amazing” if Davis joined him on the Lakers. 

James’ comments led to an outcry from small market teams about LeBron tampering with Davis, but the Pelicans’ problem has nothing to do with big markets bullying small markets, tampering or LeBron James. It has to do with a team stumbling upon a winning lottery ticket and having little to show for it.

* * *

The Pelicans have tried to put talent around Davis, starting with Eric Gordon in 2012. Gordon was supposed to be Davis’ first co-star before injuries and early disagreements with the front office marred his future in New Orleans.

Demps then acquired Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins. When healthy, Holiday has played at an All-Star level and Cousins flourished alongside Davis in 65 games as a Pelican. Demps also made a shrewd trade for Nikola Mirotic and added Julius Randle on a team-friendly deal this past summer. 

But as is so often the case in New Orleans, Davis’ supporting cast largely ended up sidelined for long stretches. These things can be subject to random variation. Some years, you’re healthy. Some years, you’re banged-up. The Pelicans have been routinely banged-up for years.

With Davis’ name churning through the rumor mill, the microscope is firmly on the Pelicans now. And the long collection of injuries -- coupled with the disagreements stemming from those injuries -- do not paint a rosy picture.

Last season, the Pelicans suffered the most player games lost due to injury, per an InStreetClothes.com analysis, costing the team nearly $30 million in lost salary. The season before that, they ranked third-last in games lost due to injury. The season before that, they ranked dead-last again. Over the last five seasons, the Pelicans have lost the second-most games due to injury or illness. Only the Sixers have fared worse over the last five seasons, which has been well-chronicled.

This pattern isn’t a total anomaly if you ask rival team executives, who have long chided the Pelicans’ medical team for being run by “football guys” instead of those who have experience in the NBA. Fair or not, the Pelicans are fighting against a league-wide perception.

“The organization only cares about the Saints,” one league exec told NBC Sports.

Run by the Benson family, the Pelicans are one of three NBA teams whose primary ownership group also owns an NFL franchise (the Allen family owns the Blazers/Seahawks and the Kroenke family owns the Nuggets/Rams). But the Pelicans are the only NBA team that shares both its staffing and practice facility grounds with the football team, which many around the league see as a “corporate synergy” cost-saving measure. In 2012, the late Tom Benson appointed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis to be president of basketball operations for the Pelicans, overseeing Demps in the org chart. While the Lakers have Magic Johnson and the Celtics have Danny Ainge, the Pelicans have a football executive.

The medical staff is also filled with football résumés. The Pelicans’ head trainer, Jon Ishop, was hired in 2010 after eight seasons with the Houston Texans. When Ishop left to go to the Pistons in 2016, Demps said “an organizational decision” was made to replace Ishop with Duane Brooks, who had been an assistant trainer with the Saints before being brought over to the NBA side (This summer, the Pelicans decided to part ways with Brooks after his contract expired, sources tell NBC Sports.).

In August 2017, the Saints made national headlines after firing two orthopedists following a misdiagnosis of cornerback Delvin Breaux’s broken leg as a bone bruise. One of those fired physicians, Dr. Misty Suri, was serving dual roles with the Saints and the Pelicans. 

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton explained the dismissal by saying, “I think it’s not one event, it probably builds up over a period of time. You’re not gonna bat a thousand here, but you’re just hoping that more often than not, you’re getting the right information.”
 
Despite being let go by the Saints, Dr. Suri maintained his position as the Director of Medical Services and Head Team Physician for the Pelicans. He has been there ever since, overseeing this rough spate of injuries.

The football-heavy influence on the training staff is something that has caught the eye of Davis’ longtime trainer, Marcell Scott, a New Orleans native who also works closely with Pelicans forward Jahlil Okafor.

“Let the Saints be the Saints,” Scott told NBC Sports. “They get all the recognition [in New Orleans] anyways. As a city, we need basketball guys with basketball guys and football guys with football guys. That’s how you get better as an organization moving forward.”

It’s not rare to see a player need multiple surgeries to correct an injury or problem area. But the Pelicans seem to deal with this more than most teams: Tyreke Evans’ three knee surgeries in 10 months; Quincy Pondexter’s multiple knee surgeries and scary battle with MRSA; two surgeries on a broken foot for 2017 No. 31 overall pick Frank Jackson; multiple knee procedures on both knees for Alexis Ajinca. 

Evans never panned out as a Pelican, and other clashes with the medical staff included players on the margins. New Orleans needed to protect players brought in to be co-stars next to Anthony Davis: Gordon, Holiday, and Cousins. Ultimately, they’ve failed in that regard. 

New Orleans fans will remember the Chris Paul trade and Gordon’s subsequent knee injury saga that kicked off his bumpy tenure with the organization. In 2012, Demps went against Gordon’s initial public wishes to leave New Orleans and matched Phoenix’s max offer for Gordon. The team physician and Gordon disagreed on the severity of a right knee injury that caused Gordon to miss training camp and the team forbade its max player from speaking to reporters, prompting Gordon to go straight to the national media himself and declare he’d be out four to six weeks. 

A series of stress fractures and stress reactions to Holiday’s right leg wiped out half his 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Stress fractures are not uncommon. But in 2015, Holiday’s long-time personal trainer Mike Guevara, in an interview with SB Nation, questioned the Pelicans’ return-to-play procedure and said that Holiday’s “minutes were not managed as well … his minutes were relatively high and in my opinion he was thrown into the fire too soon.” 

(The following season, in 2015-16, the Pelicans lowered Holiday’s minutes and Guevara was officially brought on as a sports-performance consultant by the Pelicans.)

Last season, Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon after an excessive workload just before the All-Star break. Playing on the fastest team in the NBA, Cousins also endured the most taxing month of his career from a minutes perspective, which included playing four overtimes in nine days and one game in which he played a career-high 52 minutes. His Achilles tendon snapped in the fourth quarter, his fourth game in seven days. 

In Cousins, Demps appeared to finally get his Davis co-star. But once again, the Pelicans seemed to mismanage a golden opportunity and run it into the ground.

* * *

The Pelicans have every right to be nervous about Davis’ future. 

It’s the smallest market in the NBA, which is no small thing for a global star like Davis. He fired his New Orleans-based agent and hired LeBron’s agent and then LeBron courted him, creating a media firestorm. His tenure with the organization has been marred by a poor track record with injuries and public disagreements about diagnoses. David Stern’s comment added insult to injury.

Ask any GM and they’ll rank their medical and training staff as above-average. Statistically, that can’t be true. The Pelicans internally believe they have a top-five practice facility, which is something that most teams would likely say about their own operation. A famous psychological study found that 93 percent of polled Americans believed themselves to be more skillful than the median driver. Same goes for the injury prevention industry.

Still, by the win-loss column, 20 teams, including Charlotte, have fared better than the Pelicans since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012. One can only wonder what the organization might look like if it hadn’t gotten so lucky on that 2012 draft lottery day. It’s becoming harder and harder to blame Davis if he decides to try his luck somewhere else.

'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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