Philadelphia 76ers enter offseason at a critical crossroads

Philadelphia 76ers enter offseason at a critical crossroads

And so the most fascinating offseason in the NBA begins.

The Philadelphia 76ers lost Game 7 in Toronto in heartbreaking fashion, falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season, this time by the hand of Kawhi Leonard. With 4.2 seconds left, after evading Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Leonard hit a fall-away go-ahead jumper from the corner that brought tears to Embiid’s eyes and the Sixers’ season to an abrupt close.

Embiid was emotional for good reason. The Sixers put up a much better fight in this series compared to their five-game loss to the Boston Celtics last year. These Raptors are a much stronger team than last year’s Celtics, and still, Philly extended it to the very last possible second.

It’s a cold, harsh ending that perhaps only the steely Leonard could bring. And now, the next chapter begins. With seven of the Sixers’ top nine players able to be free agents this summer, including Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick, this figures to be an explosive summer in the City of Brotherly Love.

Let’s go through the three big questions surrounding this franchise.

1. What happens to Brett Brown?

By NBA coaching standards, Brett Brown is an elder statesman. Only six coaches have longer tenures with their team than the Sixers’ coach. Among them, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle have won championships with their their respective clubs; they’ll coach their teams as long as they please. Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens and Doc Rivers are the others, and they have only missed the playoffs once each in their six-plus years with their clubs.

And then there’s Brown, who hasn’t had nearly the same success as the six ahead of him. Part of that was by design. Hired by a different decision-maker than the current one to oversee one of the biggest teardowns in NBA history, Brown accelerated the playoff timeline by getting the Sixers to the playoffs in Simmons’ rookie season in 2017-18. But even still, Brown might be the first domino to fall after the Game 7 loss to the Raptors, a team that also shouldered enormous expectations going into these playoffs.

It’d be extremely hasty to evaluate Brown’s capabilities over one Game 7, but there’s been plenty of smoke surrounding Brown’s position and no one has extinguished it. Owner Josh Harris, speaking at the MIT Sloan Conference in early March, made headlines by saying it’d be “very problematic” if the Sixers lost to Boston in the opening round of the playoffs. He later told ESPN, “we have enough talent on our roster that if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat any team in the East.”

It’s not hard to read between the lines there. Brown’s job security seemed even more tenuous after Harris and general manager Elton Brand held an impromptu press conference before Game 1 of the first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. Harris wouldn’t commit to Brown beyond the season in that surprise session. When asked if Brown would keep his job no matter the outcome of the playoffs, Harris credited Brown for “a tremendous job” after two 50-win seasons and then later summed it up by saying, “right now, we’re supportive of Brett.”

Executives around the league have been surprised by the lack of external support Brown has received from the organization -- most alarming is Brand’s silence on the matter. Said one long-time executive: “Elton could have killed all that talk and hasn’t.”

It’s reasonable to wonder if Brand has that kind of power at all. It took the Sixers three months to decide that Brand was the right replacement for Bryan Colangelo after his resignation in June 2018 amid a social media scandal. Brand had just been named the vice president of basketball operations and ran the G League affiliate Delaware Blue Coats before being hired to run the big-league club.

Brand was chosen, in part, because he would be a collaborative decision-maker whose relative inexperience (he was playing for Brown in 2015-16) would lead to stronger partnerships in the organization. In other words, Brand wouldn’t have full autonomy. League sources have long suspected that if Harris feels disappointed this postseason, organizational changes may be in order, going deeper than just the head coach.

It’s been a confusing power structure ever since Colangelo stepped down. Remember, it was Brown who was the interim GM in Colangelo’s place and was heavily involved in the hiring process that led to Brand becoming the full-time leader. Some around the league saw it as a cost-effective placeholder move that would be, as one executive described it, “easier if you have to do a total reset.” From that perspective, the question is not whether Brown is let go, but if Brand’s job may be in jeopardy, too.

Said one source with knowledge of the situation: “I think there’s a chance it’s wholesale changes top to bottom. It’s a strange situation.”

In that pre-playoff press conference, Harris did call for Brand to be voted as the NBA’s Executive of the Year, which is notable considering the non-committal he gave for Brown.

But the real question is whether Brown is the right person for the job. Yes, the Sixers didn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s hard to blame Brown for that unless you want to accuse him of infecting Embiid with multiple illnesses. Really, Embiid’s gastroenteritis and upper respiratory issues, which clearly limited him and his minutes in this series, are what separates the Sixers from this exit and reaching the conference finals. The Sixers were plus-90 in the 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor this series and minus-109 in the 99 minutes he sat.

Against Brooklyn, maybe the Sixers survive their best player getting what amounts to the flu. But Leonard and the Raptors are too good to not capitalize on Embiid needing overnight IVs. The Sixers were expected to improve the depth of the roster with buyout candidates, but the front office didn’t land any significant pieces this season like it had with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in ’17-18.

Though Brown wasn’t handpicked by this front office, he deserves another shot next season. The Sixers remade the roster twice midseason on the fly. The starting lineup -- without a preseason or training camp -- ended up being the most effective starting five outside of Golden State. Maybe the organization determines he’s not the right person to lead the next phase. But give any coach the cards he was dealt, and I’m not sure they do any better.

Even if Harris believes Brown did a fine job, he may want a different voice than Brown to lead the team in this next chapter. Toronto did that last year, and look at where it got them. Like Dwane Casey, Brown wouldn’t be without a job long if that’s the direction Philly goes.

2. Will Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris be back?

Though Josh Harris hasn’t extended a strong vote of confidence toward Brown, the owner has made it clear: He wants Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris back. At every turn, he’s all but said he will offer max contracts to both of them.

Harris will be an unrestricted free agent and figures to be a max guy in this seller’s market. Sources around the league expect Brooklyn, Dallas and New York to be in line for his services if he decides he wants out of Philadelphia. Like Butler, Harris is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million contract with the team. Outside suitors can only offer him, and Butler, a four-year contract for less annual money.

It’ll be costly, especially in 2020-21 when Simmons’ expected max-level extension kicks in. Keeping Butler, Simmons, Harris and Embiid will cost about $130 million that season, when the salary cap is projected to be at $118 million. That’s the cost of keeping four All-Star players in their prime.

Butler, who will be 30 years old next training camp,  won’t be in his prime for long. How quickly he ages will determine how prudent offering a max contract will look. But right now, he deserves it. Depending on who you ask around the league, Butler is a top 10-to-20 player in today’s NBA, excelling on both ends of the floor. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric placed Butler as the 18th-most impactful player in the league this season and one of just three wing players who registered at least 2.0 RPM rating on offensive and defense (Paul George and Pascal Siakam were the others).

Butler didn’t pick his trade destination and may have his sights set on brighter stages in Los Angeles and New York. But Philadelphia offers him a chance to be, as Brown reminds every other game, “the adult in the room” while not having to play 40 minutes a night. He can age gracefully next to Simmons and Embiid rather than having to play the alpha gunner role that can grind a body to a pulp. It’s not my money, but I’d be confident in paying up for the Philly Phive going forward.

Yes, there’s considerable risk in giving Butler a five-year max. He has played more than 67 games in just two of his eight seasons in the NBA. Those seasons have been riddled by injuries that may or may not be related to the fact that no player has averaged more minutes per game than Butler since he became a full-time starter in Chicago in 2013-14. That’s a lot of mileage on those tires.

But the Sixers have taken matters into their own hands, slicing his minutes down to 33.4 minutes per game, considerably lower than it was in Minnesota before the trade (36.1) and last season (36.7). The Sixers are certainly not playing him like a rental. They have the long-term in mind. With Chris Paul, John Wall, Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin all making more than $30 million in each of the next two seasons, Butler’s contract would hardly be untradeable if he drops off.

As for Harris, it’s a myth that max players have to be No. 1 options on a championship-caliber team. What is true is that every championship team needs three or four max guys on its roster. Harris’ skill set as a big pick-and-roll scorer and an elite shooter is befitting of that role, even if his percentages dipped in the short 39-game stint with Philly. He’s better than he showed in the playoffs. At 26 years old, Harris has improved his scoring average in each of the last four seasons and still has room for improvement.

If the starting five hadn’t been so successful this season, I’d save the money and move on. But with it already being a top five-man unit despite Simmons’ age and no training camp, it’s worth paying well into the luxury tax.

3. Is Ben Simmons still a franchise pillar?

Simmons is one of the best young players in the NBA. He’s an All-Star at 22 years old, capable of one day being the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and already a nightly triple-double threat.

It’s also true that he took zero shots outside of 12 feet this entire postseason, per Basketball-Reference. He took eight such shots last postseason. It’s not that he doesn’t have a reliable jump shot. It’s so raw that he hasn’t had the confidence to even try on the playoff stage.

For some league executives across in the NBA, this is not just a flaw in his game; it’s a sign that he isn’t serious about improvement. This was the one thing that he had to work on this past summer, the one skill he lacked in the sport. How can someone be so talented and yet so limited in this vital area of the game?

Well, he’s 22 years old and already one of the best players in the game. Fair or not, Simmons failing to add some semblance of a jump shot in Year 2 of his career is seen as a reason that Philadelphia has to put him on the trade block. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking by rival executives. There has been no indication from the Philly side that Simmons is being floated or will be this summer.

It’s early in that process. Leonard’s shot just fell through the net. But one Western Conference executive brought up a name that could be a Simmons trade target: LeBron James.

“I think they very well might explore that,” said a rival executive of Philadelphia.

James doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but he shares the same Klutch Sports agent with Ben Simmons in Rich Paul. James has two seasons left on his deal before he can become a free agent. After a disastrous offseason in which their president of basketball operations abruptly resigned and they struck out on their top two head coaching targets in Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue, do the Los Angeles Lakers honestly believe they can put together a championship contender in the next two seasons?

If the answer is no, trading James has to be on the table. And if you’re going to do that, there’s a short list of players that would be worthy of being traded for the King. Simmons is certainly good enough to be on it.

A Simmons-James swap becomes tricky because Simmons makes $8.1 million next season, before his rookie extension kicks in beginning in 2020-21 (he will be eligible for extension this summer). Because of that comparatively low salary, Simmons will have to be packaged with another max-level player, or near it, to match James’ huge $37.1 million salary for 2020-21. The Sixers could ink Harris to a sign-and-trade, but not for the five-year max. The new collective bargaining agreement removed that option from the toolkit. Harris would only agree to that if the Lakers were over the cap, which they’re not currently, and Harris desperately wanted to go there. The same goes for Butler in a potential blockbuster trade. Again, this is tricky.

There’s another wrinkle to this: Ty Lue turned down the Lakers job for a reason. He felt he could get a better job elsewhere. He’s holding out for something. Could that job be Philly? It’s not available at the moment. But there’s more than just a little chatter about the Sixers and the Lakers being potential trade partners this summer. Crazier things have happened in this league than Lue and James on a Sixers sideline next to Embiid.

Several executives see a major shakeup in Philadelphia this summer. Harris has already signed off on two blockbuster moves in the past seven months and a third blockbuster if you count trading former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. Is another on the way? Many around the league believe so. Said one long-time executive: “Harris won’t be able to resist.”

The safe money is that the Sixers brings the Philadelphia Phive back for redemption. The opinion here is that Simmons is too good and too young to bail on now. We just saw Portland break into the Western Conference Finals with their same core after two humiliating postseasons.

But then again, Toronto traded their beloved star in DeMar DeRozan this past summer and look where it got them. Which way will Philly go? There may be no bigger question in the NBA this summer.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

'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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