Apologies to all the NBA doomsayers out there, but I just love what’s going on in the league right now! Forgetting for a minute that LeBron is an entitled whiner who doesn’t make the teammates around him better (the biggest difference between he and MJ, for those still pursuing that debate), let’s take a step back and think about what he’s orchestrated here, because it is pretty darn cool.
And while we’re at it, let’s think for a second what it does to the NBA West landscape heading into the 2018-19 campaign, since we all know the Western Conference Finals will be the de facto championship series next June.
It can all be summed up in three (relatively) brief points:
Showtime is back! Let’s face it, The King could have gone anywhere. There were Super Teams already in place looking for “All Time Greatest” status by figuring out a way to bring LeBron on board. I’m talking Rockets and Dubs here. They could have figured it out financially, and the screaming from the rest of the league would have been louder and longer than when LBJ first constructed his Super Team down in Miami with all that ridiculous, self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance back in 2010.
Instead, this time he took the tougher road. You might even call it the knucklehead road. That’s partly what makes this so much fun. And absolutely awesome for basketball. First, the Lakers relevance has been restored, which is important for the league. An added benefit is that LeBron’s arrival should mercifully send that sideshow idiot, LaVar Ball, back into the shadows (let’s hope). Second, despite all the attacks on how odd the roster additions have been since James signed on, there’s little doubt the Lakers will be a playoff team. And a dangerous one.
Rajon Rondo was a superb signing. He still has a year or two left as a premier point guard and won’t get worn down by too many regular season minutes because he has Lonzo Ball to mentor (and split time with) for the first 82 games. And Rondo is at his best when the playoffs roll around (just ask the Blazers).
Say what you will about those guys not being good shooters, I don’t think it matters that much. Somehow due to his dad’s outsized personality, we’ve all sort of forgotten that Lonzo was considered “can’t miss” a year ago in the draft and actually had a solid rookie season. Now with a year under his belt and Rondo to learn from (not to mention The King), look out. Come next spring, those two will be a deadly pair going against either Steph or James Harden. In a seven game series, Rondo can take on either of those guys straight up and not be at the extreme disadvantage most average NBA guards experience. And we haven’t even mentioned Kyle Kuzma yet. That kid can play, too. And shoot it.
Now what about Lance Stephenson? I thought LeBron hated this guy? More genius from The King if you ask me. Think back to your playground days. Every one of us had our “personal tormentor” version of Lance Stephenson. The guy who relished lining up against us and we hated having to deal with. The one guy that could always throw us off our game, got up for us every time we walked on the court, had no fear, and would just never shut up. We couldn’t stand that guy. That is, until we figured out how to make him a teammate and let him work his evil magic on our opponents. Yeah, we loved him then.
LeBron has essentially brought in his own goon and personal body guard in Stephenson. Come playoff time look for good ole Lance to go headhunting for Draymond Green. Priceless.
And don’t think JaVale McGee doesn’t know a thing or two about how to exploit whatever slight weaknesses may exist up north in the Bay Area. Yeah he’s goofy, and occasionally misses badly on breakaway dunks, but he’s also athletic, can run and super long. He will fill another role LeBron has on that white board of his that you know has to exist somewhere in a dark corner of one of The King’s mansions.
Adding to this present day Showtime fun will be the huge, public love-fest and reconciliation between McGee and Shaq (is opening night at Staples Center too soon for the guffaws to begin for these two 7-footers with the outsized personalities?). Look for the Lakers to reclaim their spot as the sport’s most entertaining franchise (remember, entertaining doesn’t mean best).
The key intangible I see in the three recent Lakers signees is that they all are their own men. They are unlikely to wilt under the intensity and pressure of being LeBron’s teammate. If you think about LBJ’s recent Cleveland teams, Kevin Love never really got right under that bright spotlight, and people like George Hill and Larry Nance Jr. just had no shot. The guys that thrived as Cavs were the ones with no conscience, like J.R. Smith and, of course, Kyrie. Those are the kind of guys we now see filling out the Lakers roster for the upcoming season. It’s a great combination of win-now veterans to allow The King to compete right away, while not mortgaging the future as he builds his dynasty.
I see this Lakers squad as no worse than a 48-34 fourth-seed in the west. And the team that no one will want to face in a playoff series. Start the Lakers off with Portland or the Spurs in the first round, and then watch them move on to whoever owns the top seed in Round 2. This is going to be a lot of fun.
And the Rockets won’t be that Top Seed. The fact is, they’ve just taken their best shot at the holy grail and it wasn’t good enough. First of all, Chris Paul can officially embrace the late-career slide that all point guards experience come a certain age. He’s getting up there (33) and clearly losing a step. A small guy that relies so heavily on speed and quickness can’t recover from having that slowly sapped away by Father Time. Yes, Paul’s smart, and mentally tough, and was finally part of winning a couple of playoff series last season, but wait, did you hear that?
The murmur you hear off in the distance is called locker room whispering. I can’t imagine how there isn’t at least a little bit of the old Houston stink-eye being directed at the “floor general” who couldn’t muster the ability to join his teammates for the two most important games of any of their careers.
I only hope every one of them has watched the tape of Willis Reed limping out for Game 7 in 1970 on one leg to understand how real leaders respond to adversity. Line up for tipoff, Chris? Put your uniform on at least? I still can’t get over that. And I’m not out tens of thousands of dollars and a championship ring due to his inability to take one for the team. So if it still eats at me two months later, how are Paul’s ring-less teammates coming to terms with it all?
In the world of finance they call a stock likely to go down in price a “short.” To me, the 2018-19 Houston Rockets are the biggest short I’ve seen in a long time. James Harden was healthy and near-perfect this past season. Can we really expect him to repeat that in 2018-19? As mentioned, Paul is on a steep decline.
And last year all the Houston role players managed to stay content (at least publicly), while restricted to a three-square-foot radius of hardwood in Mike D’Antoni’s unique offense. There they waited patiently for the occasional pass from the two stars so they could hoist up a three. And the best and most selfless of those role-players, Trevor Ariza, signed with Phoenix as a free agent. Hmmm.
Clint Capela probably returns to Houston, and he is a beast, but it won’t be enough for the Rockets to reclaim their top seed. Pencil them in for an uninspiring 54 wins and the number two or three seed, followed by an early playoff exit. And as they walk dejectedly from the floor next spring, look for Chris Paul, with that look of disgust that seems permanently embedded on his face (except in those maddening insurance commercials of his), to be pointing the accusatory finger of blame at his teammates. Playoff losers once again. Short the Rockets.
The Warriors remain the team to beat, but it is NOT a lock. I’m sorry, but as much as I like the Javale McGhee signing by the Lakers, I absolutely LOVE the Boogie Cousins counter punch from the Dubs. And this is not me doing the happy Snoopy dance like the rest of the Bay Area parade goers. .
Mostly I like it because of the “Eff me??? No, EFF YOU!!” haymaker landed by Warriors GM Bob Myers and the rest of the Golden State front office, as they emphatically took back the headlines from the Lakers. It was a total power move to remind everyone who’s the boss. Here’s the thing, though — I believe matters are far more fragile in Oakland than meets the eye.
Steph Curry turned 30 a few months ago. KD turns 30 in September and Klay Thompson will be 29 a few months after that. Andre Iguodala will be 35 in the coming season, and we all saw the difference in this franchise with him healthy and contributing on the floor, as opposed to when he’s hurt and in civilian clothes on the bench. All of those guys had various injuries sideline them at different times this past season, and in Curry’s and Durant’s case there is a history of injury problems dating back to their early years.
Dynasties always seem like they will last forever, until they don’t. Age and injury are the culprits just about every time. I’m not ready to declare the Dubs dead, but they nearly didn’t make it out of the West this past season (everyone seems to have forgotten that), have a thin bench with little in the way of young talent likely to make a significant contribution this coming year (the curse of poor draft positions year after year), and their headline acquisition is coming back from rupturing his achilles tendon.
Which brings me to Boogie Cousins. He happens to be one of my favorite players in “The Association.” He’s incredibly talented, emotional, funny at times and a complete enigma. Is he a coach killer? Or a victim of being drafted by the Sacramento Kings and never escaping their circus-like atmosphere? Can he win on the big stage and meld his considerable skills into a team setting? Everyone seems to be saying the experiment of teaming him with Anthony Davis in New Orleans was a failure. I’m not sure I agree with that, as the team was winning when Boogie went down, even if the Pelicans did seem to gel and pick up speed in his absence for their late season playoff push.
However, mainly I’m fascinated to watch this all play out in the Dubs’s final year in Oakland (this is sadder news than most realize, by the way). Recovery from an achilles injury can sometimes take two seasons for the player to get back on track. Cousins only signed for one, and there’s a reason he saw only tepid interest before catching the Warriors eye. So Boogie signed the “show me” one year deal, thus enraging the entire NBA fandom over the perceived “rich get richer, super team” phenomenon taking place in Golden State. Again, I applaud him. He’s rolling the dice he recovers, contributes to another championship by the bay, and changes the narrative on his career to date. Good for you, Boogie, I applaud the risk taking, but there is risk all around on this one.
Because there remains only one basketball for the Warriors to share. Things occasionally got dicey for Steph and KD these past two seasons as they worked to figure out each others yin and yang. Now that picture gets all the more complicated with Cousins joining the band. The one thing I’m certain of is that it will be fascinating to watch play out. Steve Kerr has his motivational work cut out for him to keep so many stars engaged and not believing the enormous hype and daily reports of their Three-Peat being a foregone conclusion.
And don’t think LeBron won’t be happy to just glide along behind them. Lay low, allow his teammates to settle into their roles with the goal being to peak at the right time heading into the postseason. Let the press clippings roll up north and the overconfidence build. In my view, it will be a repeat of LeBron versus the Dubs in this year’s “Finals Before the Finals.” And I’m not ready to bow down and give this one to the Warriors just yet.
There’s still a few months until the season begins, but I’m ready right now. The Summer League doesn’t cut it for me, so I’m glad we’ve got all this roster maneuvering going on in the West to keep me from lamenting too much over the disastrous state of the Knicks.
Yeah, I almost made it to the end, with only the Willis Reed reference giving away my warped allegiances. But the pain is too great. I mean, did we really decide to make our own splash into free agency via the addition of the one and only Mario Hezonja? Yes, well they tell me he’s tall. Okay. And he was a lottery pick a few years ago. Uh huh. He’s a stretch-the-floor European who hasn’t shown he can hit threes yet. Terrific. He’ll fit right in with Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina as they jostle for position as the cover story five years from now when the “NBA Biggest Draft Busts” articles are being written.
Good for you, LeBron. And thanks for the distraction.