TrueHoop: Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Was Wiggins showcasing or auditioning?

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
11:28
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Any No. 1 overall pick works under a lot of scrutiny, but today’s events created a bizarre strain of scrutiny trained on Andrew Wiggins. His showdown with Jabari Parker at Las Vegas Summer League was sure to be hyped before Friday’s LeBron James news. After James’ epic announcement, the main Summer League event reached another level of intrigue.

LeBron’s entrance to Cleveland brought with it Kevin Love’s shadow. James did not mention Wiggins by name in his “I’m coming back to Cleveland” announcement letter, leading to questions about whether the Cavs might trade their 19-year-old rookie for the services of Minnesota’s available, unhappy star.

The Cavs have made pitches for Love, according to reports, but none so far that involve Wiggins. Given the struggles of Cleveland’s previous No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, it’s difficult to envision how the Cavs could get a Love deal done without surrendering Wiggins. For now, the Cavs seem unwilling to part with him.

All the LeBron and attached free-agency frenzy was enough to make you forget that Jabari Parker is Wiggins’ perceived rival as a rising young wing. This would be the first time we’ve seen the two measure up against each other since Kansas beat Duke at the United Center last November.
[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker
Garrett W. Ellwood/Getty ImagesAndrew Wiggins outscored Jabari Parker in their first matchup as pros.

The suspense in the cozy Cox Pavilion was palpable from the jump. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson took courtside seats to watch their Raptors play in the game before Bucks vs. Cavs. That’s not notable, but here’s what is: The Raptors players didn’t move after their team’s game ended, preferring to hold their seats as the crowd slowly entered the arena. That’s rarely seen in a Summer League setting where established veterans file in and out.

Wiggins’ athleticism was on display, even if his shot and handle were shaky (he finished with 18 points on 18 shots). Terms like “athleticism” can be too reductive when describing players because everyone moves in their own way. Wiggins’ way is so much lighter than commonly seen. He’s perpetually on the balls of his feet, bouncing softly around in a manner that feels more ballet than basketball. That is, until he uncoils those springs in his legs and attacks. He probably didn’t attack enough, electing to loft eight 3-point attempts, but the Cavs did win in the end 70-68.

Parker impressed in spurts, but might have to do something about his conditioning. He was noticeably winded throughout the contest, but he didn’t let that stop him from scoring 17 points on 11 shots. His strength was on display when he converted a late bucket by posting up Wiggins out of the picture.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Bennett actually generated the best highlights in this one. Bennett uncorked a monster two-handed slam in transition, and Antetokounmpo managed to easily dunk after dribbling twice from behind half court. It was a great game for yet-to-be-realized potential.

Maybe LeBron sees the talent on Cleveland’s side and believes in that potential. Maybe he believes in David Blatt’s ability to get something more out of this Cavs roster, even if he’s met Blatt only twice, as Cleveland’s new coach indicated in an interview.

James is approaching 30 years old, but betrays little fear of his own aging process. Despite not mentioning Wiggins upon arrival, he’s waxing patient. In his announcement letter, James specifically said, “I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.”

If James is indeed willing to help rebuild the Cavs slowly, then Wiggins is more protégé than trade piece. It’s difficult to foresee if Wiggins will eventually fulfill his promise, but the future feels bright in Cleveland. The question is whether LeBron’s talents will last long enough for it to arrive.

Melo Ball goes back to the future

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
1:35
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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Carmelo AnthonyAP Photo/Seth WenigOnce a poster boy for an outdated, iso-based game, Carmelo Anthony is a face of change in the NBA.
There was a time when it didn’t look as if Carmelo Anthony would be so sought after at age 30. When he was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in February 2011, he was the bane of the advanced-stats community, his reputation sliced sharpest by cutting-edge analysis.

With his less-than-super-efficient high scoring average, Anthony might well have symbolized how casual fans get snookered into worshipping false idols. His volume shooting was the past, and players of more balanced yet subtle skill sets were the future. That iso ball that the "eye test" loves was so early Iverson era. It had no place in the NBA’s version of a Moneyball revolution.

Less than four years later, Anthony plays host to a vigorous recruitment effort from advanced-stats godfather and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Melo is the missing piece in Chicago, the foundation of a new era in Los Angeles. Yes, there are still concerns over whether Anthony will be worth a five-year max contract, and there remains criticism of Anthony's defense. But ultimately, Anthony’s New York adventure has seen a rehabilitation of his game, if not his reputation.

It took some unfortunate injuries to Amar'e Stoudemire, but the Knicks managed to stumble upon a Carmelo Anthony better suited for this era. Playing power forward, Anthony received better spacing, and he ultimately started making better choices. In the season before his trade to the Knicks, fewer than 14 percent of Anthony’s shots were 3-pointers. Last season, 25 percent of his shots were from behind the arc.

By shifting his shot selection from the dreaded “long 2” zone out to where shots count for an extra point, he moved to the forefront of basketball. Shooting is in, "stretch-4s" are in. The game had seemingly left isolation scorers behind, but Melo, one of the shiniest examples, has persevered.

After a shaky, injury-addled first full season in New York, Anthony notched his two best seasons according to player efficiency (PER) and win shares. Not only did the numbers look better, but his game got more aesthetically pleasing. Decisions were quicker, the ball stuck less often. He turns the ball over far less than he did back in Denver. There are still bouts of grinding iso-ball, but it’s not like the old days, when Anthony would average more turnovers than assists.

You can blame him for the lack of options (the Knicks were strip-mined because Anthony forced a trade to New York), but it’s getting harder to find fault with his offensive approach. His game has matured from headstrong to nuanced. Guard him with a mobile wing and he can post that guy into some pain. Guard him with a burly big and he can lose that guy for many an open 3-pointer.

“Olympic Melo” is the nickname for that sweet-shooting forward we’ve seen in international competition. He thrives in an environment where the ball is shared around the arc and shot from behind it. That’s where basketball is heading, if this latest, emphatic San Antonio Spurs championship is any indication. The NBA is trending toward a drive-and-kick international style that just so perfectly fits the guy who, earlier in his career, was the caricature of American-style hero ball. Melo was the past before he took a few steps back and became the future.

Tim Duncan willing to pay the price for titles

July, 4, 2014
Jul 4
9:30
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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Bryant/DuncanNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhile Kobe Bryant keeps cashing massive checks, Tim Duncan is using salary to "buy" more rings.
Four days after lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the fifth time, Tim Duncan quietly opted in to make a team-friendly $10,361,446 next season. Which reminds us: Wait, Tim Duncan made roughly three times less than Kobe Bryant did last season? How could this happen?

The answer to the question of how can Duncan make so much less than Bryant while being more valuable these days is, paradoxically, “Because Duncan earned it.” After he garnered more than $200 million over the course of an illustrious career, Timmy splurged on his own team. Anyone who’s arguing that the Spurs are “built, not bought” ignores how the buying is part of the building. Duncan didn’t “sacrifice” for his squad so much as he used his money the way he wanted.

Duncan didn’t just help buy the Spurs a few more title chances, though. He purchased pressure on other stars around the league, stars who might hear calls to “pull a Duncan” for the good of the team. You can almost hear fans and media chiding, “Why can’t you be more like Duncan?” the way a parent might remind an imperfect son of his perfect older brother.

We’re already seeing this in Miami, where Dwyane Wade’s biggest supporters would urge him to conspire against his bank account. Because of a CBA designed to kill super-teams, big-money players have greater incentive to consider philanthropy as a means to legacy.

With that in mind, the Heat and Wade stand at a crossroads. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade have opted out of their contracts after a Finals in which “Big Three plus scraps” certainly wasn’t up to the task. The first two could recoup their money on the open market, but Wade almost certainly cannot. At age 32, he’s staring down either the Kobe path or the Duncan path. It remains to be seen if he opts for the superstar money that hinders his team, or elects to conserve his body and his team’s cap space the way Duncan has. What Wade chooses might say a lot about how he thinks about himself in relation to his franchise.

The contracts Duncan and Bryant took on the “back nine” of their careers spoke to what made them great in their primes. Duncan was celebrated as the selfless teammate, whose mastery of his craft was viewed as more utilitarian (“fundamental”) than artistic. He is heralded as a man who wins for the sake of winning, as though you would learn some ineffable truth of how a win happens if only you could read his mind. The below-market deal is illustrative of how Duncan was willing to subsume for victory.

Bryant was celebrated for being a brilliant “alpha dog” who won on his own terms. Perhaps Kobe would never have become Kobe if he was so willing to sacrifice. After Shaquille O’Neal left, Kobe fandom replaced some of what had been fandom for a title contender in Los Angeles. The Lakers were hopeless, but entertainment and drama could be found in whether Bryant put together a streak of 50-point scoring performances.

Then the Lakers got Pau Gasol, won two titles, and Bryant’s status reached another echelon. Though succeeding with his team, “The Mamba” developed a cult of personality that was based on self as opposed to team. Bryant’s brand of machismo was about embracing the big shot and consuming the spotlight that came with that responsibility. This isn’t to say Bryant was a bad teammate -- just that a Lakers fan might wear a shirt showing Kobe’s five rings as though his accomplishment superseded the squad’s.

Eventually, Bryant’s body betrayed his brand of triumphant individualism. The Achilles tear took him down, and took down the Lakers. Perhaps his massive post-injury contract can be rationalized as paying a star for past good works -- cue Jurgen’s disapproving glare -- but Bryant had already been well-compensated in his time with the Lakers. The cap-killing extension looked more like a franchise eating itself because it ceased knowing how to be anything other than a vehicle for its star’s fame.

It’s a testament to the power of Bryant’s play and status that the Lakers bid against their own future in paying homage. It’s also a testament to how denial can be corrosive to goals. The Lakers (and Bryant) suffered an inability to accept that Bryant’s body couldn’t cash the checks his legend kept writing. In contrast, the Spurs (and Duncan) have long accepted that Duncan can’t keep functioning as the main reason for success, that his minutes need lessening, that his roster needs furnishing. An acceptance of reality, combined with Duncan’s willingness to play the part of someone who wins at his own literal expense, extended San Antonio’s title window.

With these two examples before them, can the Heat and Wade accept reality? Even if Wade does the hard work of accepting his limitations, there’s no guarantee he blesses that admission by giving up millions. Being a Duncan is hard, expensive work.

Livingston puts a bounce in Warriors' steps

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
11:42
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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 Shaun Livingston and Stephen CurryBrad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Shaun Livingston will be working alongside Stephen Curry with the Warriors next season.

The Golden State Warriors' three-year, $16 million agreement (third year partially guaranteed) with Shaun Livingston addresses a basketball issue so basic it has been easy to miss: The Warriors need a guy who can dribble. Too much of the offense has been dependent on Stephen Curry, in part due to Curry’s incredible talent and in part due to how the Warriors have lacked for competent ball handlers.

Livingston is a guy you can trust with the rock, as he can drive, dish and post up depending on the situation. What he can’t do is shoot 3-pointers, a staple of Golden State’s perimeter offense. Though he has yet to develop the skill, his .827 free throw mark might speak to some potential in that area.

This is a move the Warriors make even if they aren’t eyeing a future without Klay Thompson, who has been linked to Kevin Love trade talks. That said, the move makes parting with Klay less painful should they choose to go that route.

On the face of it, Livingston and Thompson couldn’t be more different in terms of basketball skills. Livingston handles and passes, while Thompson shoots and, well, shoots. The similarity comes on the defensive end where both players can leverage their length to bother opposing perimeter players. Should the Warriors cast aside their reluctance and deal Thompson for Love, they can ask Livingston to fill in for Thompson defensively.

In Golden State’s defensive system under former coach Mark Jackson, Thompson would defend opposing point guards, leaving Curry hidden on a less talented perimeter player. This strategy allowed Curry some rest, spared him unfavorable matchups and got opposing teams into mismatches when the ball changed sides. The Warriors can resume doing this, even without Thompson. And, should they hold on to Thompson, they’ve just acquired someone who can find him for many a 3-pointer.

Sixers' tank machine strikes again

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:42
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t just a part of the NBA draft. They’re an agent of chaos within it. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker character, they gleefully expose the absurdities of the system while flouting its laws.

Last year they blew up their team to select a player who was too injured to help. Jrue Holiday was sent to the New Orleans Pelicans for a rehabbing Nerlens Noel and another first-round pick.

Sam Hinkie took a team that was on the precipice of the playoffs, and plunged them off that cliff. It was quite intentional. Commissioner Adam Silver claims there has never been tanking in the NBA, but it’s difficult to call what Philadelphia did anything but that.

That feat was followed up by yet another selection of a player too injured to help immediately. Joel Embiid has a long road back from his broken navicular bone, but the Sixers can wait. Philadelphia can also wait on their second lottery selection of Dario Saric (acquired through a trade with Orlando, along with a 2017 pick), who’s stashed away in Europe for what could be perpetuity.

Actually, the waiting might be the point. So long as the Sixers aren’t close to great, they might as well be horrible. They might as well keep taking valued players who can’t demonstrate value on the court. They might as well keep doing this for a while because the NBA’s incentive structure is a little nuts. The worst of the losers get rewarded with the best of young talent.

In the NBA, there’s so much focus from owners, fans and media on winning a championship. Being merely good isn’t enough. GMs and coaches who make the playoffs are not assured of job security. The guiding goal is to win a title, not just to win more games than you lose.

That’s an unrealistic goal for a few teams with less talented rosters. And yet, a lot of those teams will try to win as many games as possible, as quickly as possible, because winning is a drug. The afterglow of a regular-season win is one of happiness. The fans cheer. Players and coaches are more relaxed, more liable to crack a smile. It’s easy to feel like things are on the right track.

The 76ers have chosen to deny themselves many of those moments. They’ve opted for low attendance, bad ratings and an aesthetically awful product. They’ve embraced all this bad not because they see it as a route to being good, but because they see it as a route to being great.

Philadelphia is the team of extremes. They’re seeking extreme badness as a means of ultimately achieving the other extreme of title contending greatness.

And a funny thing happened on Thursday night at Barclays Center. Philadelphia fans owned the arena, showing up for this draft in droves and chanting throughout. There even was a brief, “Hinkie” chant during the proceedings. It was an unexpected outburst of positivity and celebration for a team that accumulated 63 losses last season.

A lot of Sixers fans seem to be on board with this absurd-though-sound scheme, even if they aren’t showing up to the arena just yet. Philadelphia might be currently awful, but they’re awful with a defined plan in a league in which many teams are aimless. This awful team needs all the help it can get -- it just doesn’t want it, not yet. Because right now, the Sixers are happy to exchange pride for assets.

Getting a grip with Noah Vonleh

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
9:20
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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Noah VonlehNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images Whatever happens in the 2014 NBA draft, Noah Vonleh appears to have a great future in his hands.
Noah Vonleh is one of the draft's more intriguing prospects. Few saw much of him during his one season with a middling Indiana team, but he measured out impressively and has been rocketing up the draft boards. We caught up with the prospect who, ideally, becomes a prototypical stretch 4 for your favorite team.


Q: By now are you better at workouts or interviews?

A: I think I’ve been pretty comfortable with both.

Q: Do you plan on being a stretch 4? Do you plan on shooting the 3 a lot at the NBA level?

A: Yeah, that’s what I see myself starting off at at the next level, a stretch 4 being able to pick and pop, hit 3s, getting the pick, being able to drive the ball from different spots on the perimeter.

Q: How did you develop that shot of yours? Did you think you were going to be a little guy? Did you think you were going to be a guard growing up?

A: I always had pretty good touch. Worked a lot with my AAU coach Vin Pastore over the years. At Indiana my shot improved a lot working with Seth Cooper, one of the managers. And now I’m out in Long Island working with Jay Hernandez.

Q: What was it like for you to work out for the Celtics? I know you grew up in that area.

A: It was surreal, watching the Celtics play a lot when I was younger. Watching Paul Pierce when I was growing up. I was real happy to be working out for them.

Q: Were you a Celtics fan growing up, or did you like another team?

A: I liked certain players on the Celtics. No, the Celtics weren't my favorite team. My favorite teams are probably the Sixers and the Orlando Magic because of Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady.

Q: Was T-Mac the guy you wanted to play like growing up?

A: Yeah, I just liked the way he scored the ball. I tried to do some things like him. I’m not T-Mac, though.

Q: Why aren’t you T-Mac? (*chuckle*)

A: Umm, I can handle the ball, do certain things, but not like the way he scores the ball ...”

Q: That’s the first time today I’ve asked somebody, “Why aren’t you Tracy McGrady?” I’ve read about how you have larger hands than even Kawhi Leonard does. Is there any downside to that at all, or is it just awesome?

A: I don’t see no downsides to it. It helps a lot with ballhandling. I think I shoot the ball pretty well for a guy that has big hands. It helps on defense, too, steal the ball, block shots.

Q: You obviously have a lot of defensive potential. You’re really young, though. What do you think you’re going to get better at defensively going forward?

A: College and the NBA is real different, the physicality in the paint. I’m going to have to get used to guys covering me different because in the NBA you can use your forearms. In college, you can barely touch the guy when he’s on offense.

Q: How did you feel about college reffing? It seems like less organized than the NBA.

A: I watched a lot of college and NBA. I noticed in college they changed the rules, you can’t hand check or whatever. Whenever you put your hands on a guy or touched him, there were a lot of fouls.

Q: I’ve seen some different projections for you, as high as No. 2. Would you be shocked if that happens?

A: Oh really? (laughs) I haven’t heard that, but I’ll be real happy if that happens.

Q: As the youngest player in the draft, how do you feel about growing up in the NBA? Are you anxious at all?

A: Umm, I’m real anxious and excited. A little bit nervous, just watching those guys growing up. I’m very excited to make my dream come true in the next couple weeks.

The many sides of LeBron's latest move

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
12:42
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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LeBron James has exercised the early termination option in his contract, a surprise for those expecting the 29-year-old superstar to opt in for another year of his deal with Miami. A few thoughts on the latest turn of events:

Going rogue: Miami’s Big Three do not appear to be acting in concert -- yet. These are ominous early signs for Heat fans, who would be far more comforted had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh opted out of their contracts simultaneously with James. That scenario would have strongly indicated that the three of them had a plan for returning to Miami. This scenario gives the appearance that James is either putting pressure on Miami to make the choices he wants, or that he has one foot out the door.

Finals not a factor? James has indicated that the result of the Finals has no bearing on decisions happening right now. While this could be true, you have to wonder if Miami had a Finals disastrous enough to change one’s vision of its future. After a season of carefully managing Wade’s minutes, he looked old and ineffective for much of the Finals. The Heat went from being considered a roughly even bet against San Antonio to losing by the most points per game of any Finals team in history.

What about Wade? The educated guess is that if James leaves, Miami’s on the hook to pay Wade the remainder of his expensive contract. If Miami isn’t contending with a returning James, there’s little incentive for Wade to opt out of his deal right now and take a pay cut. If Wade does opt out of his deal right now, that’s a positive indicator that James is returning.

Remember Serge Ibaka: NBA history may have turned on Ibaka’s calf, as the injury compromised the Thunder’s effort against the Spurs. The Heat matched up much better against Oklahoma City than against the San Antonio team that ended up throttling Miami. It’s hard to envision the possibility of James leaving had the Heat just won a third title –- as opposed to the current reality of James making this choice in the aftermath of the Heat losing three consecutive games in embarrassing fashion.

Panicky Pat Riley: He’s the definition of cool, but Riley seemed less than in control during a June 19 news conference in which he exhorted other people to “get a grip.” If James leaves, certain Riley quotes will seem telling in retrospect. For instance, Riley said of his exit meeting with James, "He was restless. He wanted to get out of town with his family." On his relationship with James, Riley didn’t exactly betray a close working bond: "It's a texting relationship. It's a short meeting in the hallway. He knows I love him. He knows I respect him."

Remember Mike Miller: Would Miller have been the difference against the Spurs? Probably not, but James was reputedly less than happy to lose a versatile floor spacer because owner Micky Arison wanted to save money. After getting amnestied by Miami, Miller had a fine season with Memphis. He was sorely missed by a Heat team that relied on his production in past playoffs. If Miami wishes to keep its Big Three at a discount, there’s perhaps hypocrisy in ownership asking for monetary sacrifices from players after Arison refused to foot the bill last season.

LeBron gets lambasted for leaving: There’s a pattern to this, as we learned in 2010. Few criticize James till he finally chooses a new team and incurs the wrath of 29 LeBronless fanbases. He won’t be pilloried for returning to Miami. Fair or unfair, he will likely suffer an image hit if he does leave to compete in a more favorable situation. That’s the reality of spurning a fan base that’s rooted for you over a long period of time. Its pain gets amplified by the jealousy of others, and it builds into a storm of ill will directed at James and his newest team. That’s what happened when he left Cleveland. Ironically, this calculus is different if he actually comes back to Cleveland, as many have a sentimental preference for LeBron returning to his home state.

To make splash, Dubs must break up duo

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
10:14
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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Don’t be fooled by the "Splash Brothers" nickname. The fraternal moniker makes it seem as though Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are perfectly complementary, as though theirs is a bond the Golden State Warriors will suffer for losing, that they will live to regret even dangling Thompson in a trade for Kevin Love.

The on-court relationship between the guards is complicated, if not fraught. While it’s true Thompson helps Curry by defending the league’s better point guards, the dynamic on offense trends toward frustration.

First, let's praise what’s good about Thompson. He’s an excellent 3-point shooter with one of the quickest releases in basketball. He’s also a good post-up player who can punish smaller defenders. On defense, he’s physical on the ball, and he made Chris Paul look human over a seven-game playoff series.

Thompson is not, however, an untouchable asset for Golden State. He is coveted by teams because he seems like a prototypical "shooting guard." He’s of the right size and, well, he shoots. For whatever reason, we’re still dividing players into five semi-arbitrary categories, which works in Thompson’s favor. "Shooting guard" is a weak position, and Thompson does the thing that’s in the position’s description. Perhaps if the second-smallest player on the floor was called a "rebounding guard," Thompson wouldn’t be such a hot commodity. Fortunately for Thompson's bank account, history went a different direction.

While Thompson is an excellent 3-point shooter, there are holes in his offensive game. If the second-smallest player was called a "passing guard," "athletic guard," “dribbling guard" or "foul-drawing guard," these holes would be more apparent.

Per the passing, Thompson has a bad habit of looking Curry off when his backcourt mate is wide open. The Splash Brother relationship flows only in one direction: Curry feeding Thompson. It’s not a reciprocal relationship in the way a pick-and-roll between Love and Curry would be.

It’s not just an open Curry who gets ignored -- Thompson was 56th among shooting guards in assist percentage last season. This helps explain how a player who is scoring 18.6 points per game registers as only 23rd among shooting guards in PER.

It’d be wrong to call Thompson a selfish player because who knows what he sees in the adrenaline-driven chaos of an NBA game? It’s easier for the observer to wring hands over his tendency to look off open shooters on the strong side than it is to actually make those passes in a game.

At the same time, he’s deficient in areas in which other guards are strong. Another one of those areas is his handle, which is too weak for the amount of forays he takes into the teeth of opposing defenses. A player can improve at dribbling, as we’ve seen with Paul George and Kevin Durant. Minnesota Timberwolves fans can at least take solace in that if Thompson is traded to their team.

As for Thompson’s defense, we have a debate between the stats and the eye test. Warriors coaches from last season were emphatic in their support of his defense, some even feeling that Andre Iguodala drew first-team all-defense status from a lot of Thompson’s work.

On film, Thompson did a fantastic job of forcing guards away from the middle of the court and executing Golden State’s scheme. He sticks to the game plan, doesn’t freelance and doggedly pursues his mark. We just don’t see any of that reflected in the numbers, in which Thompson is a negative in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

What to make of this stats-versus-film discrepancy? My thinking is that defense is hard to quantify, lineup data is noisy and Thompson might have some flaws that aren’t so glaring on film. He lacks the explosive athleticism to haunt passing lanes in the way Iguodala does. It’s easy to see Thompson sticking to his man, harder to see a lack of scaring teams from throwing certain passes.

Thompson also racks up fouls, 4.1 per 100 possessions this season and last season. It’s easy to see Thompson defending his guy physically but harder to see the wages of how all those fouls hurt the team's defense.

It’s also possible that Golden State’s strategy of hiding Curry wasn’t the best approach. It spared its superstar the fouls and fatigue that come with handling opposing point guards, but Curry often wound up guarding far larger players. Though Curry was defending limited talents, in some cases, the height advantage made up for that.

On balance, Thompson is probably a good defender and, were Love not an option, the Warriors would be happy to move forward with him. On the balance sheet, though, this is trickier. Thompson is still on his rookie contract and is eligible for a qualifying offer in 2015. With Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Curry and Iguodala all making eight figures per season moving forward, there just isn’t much room for Thompson. This is why trading Thompson (and Lee) for Love makes sense for Golden State: The Warriors get a superstar in exchange for two guys who will be commanding an unsustainably large amount of money. Thompson is due a big payday, and Lee has one of those pre-2011 collective bargaining agreement deals that will have him making more than $15 million in 2016.

The Warriors also have another concern beyond the money: They need to keep Curry in the Bay Area. The ugliness surrounding Mark Jackson’s ouster put pressure on the franchise.

They were a "fun" team on the rise, free to fling 3s that easily lofted over low expectations. The Jackson firing changed things, upsetting a superstar who’s already playing at a discounted rate and sending a message that 51 wins isn’t good enough.

Golden State was comically dependent on its point guard last season. With Curry in the game, the Warriors posted a 109.7 offensive rating. When he sat, they posted a 93.8 rating. The former would qualify a team for the league's best offense, and the latter would qualify a team for the league’s worst.

In the playoffs, Curry suffers the game-plan scrutiny that Derrick Rose once did. Teams are free to fixate on him since there’s no other dynamic offensive option.

This wouldn’t be the case with Love in Golden State. Not only can Love get his own shot, but he’d afford the Warriors the "four-out" spacing with which Curry thrives.

Since teams must respect Curry’s off-the-dribble 3-point shot, they have to guard his pick-and-rolls a bit differently. When there are four 3-point shooters on the floor, Curry gets teams in situations in which not a single defender is in the paint. A Love-Curry pick-and-roll would shatter a lot of defensive schemes. And with uncommonly sharp shooting for a power forward, Love complements Curry in a way Thompson can't.

These are some large stakes. Either Golden State gets that perfect superstar to align with Curry and allay his concerns, or they're stuck worrying about what he'll do when his contract is up in 2017. Suddenly, the feel-good Warriors are like a lot of big-market teams: pressured to make a splash so as to placate their franchise player.

To make that splash, they must be willing to sacrifice one of the Splash Brothers.

San Antonio Spurs' grinding halt

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
10:49
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
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The San Antonio Spurs are great at exploiting an advantage that was hiding in plain sight. Sometimes it's a simple discovery, like how 3-pointers from the corner are just a bit easier than other shots from behind the arc. Sometimes there's more nuance to their edge, like how Manu Ginobili creates these open corner 3s by leaping out of bounds for his passing angle. It's not a natural thing to jump out of bounds with the ball in your hands. Or it wasn't, until the Spurs made the hammer set a normal way of doing business.

Jumping out of bounds might go against basic basketball instinct, but this team has thrived with the counterintuitive approach that only later looks obvious. The 2014 title winners pulled off another pioneering coup in playing their best guys significantly less than anyone else would. Tony Parker led the Spurs this year with 29.4 minutes per game. Tim Duncan led the team in total minutes with 2,158, nearly a thousand fewer than what his Western Conference Finals opponent Kevin Durant logged (3,122). By the end of that series, Durant had played 1,192 minutes more than Duncan -- roughly the equivalent of 25 total NBA games.

Perhaps the minutes difference factors into two of the most memorable plays from that series. Kevin Durant slipped and fell with the season on the line. Old Man Riverwalk sunk a huge basket over a lively Thunder double-team. The Spurs went on to trounce Miami in possibly the most lopsided Finals of all time. There were many reasons why this happened, but San Antonio's team certainly looked fresh at a time in the season where teams are worn down. In victory, the Spurs are an object lesson in the value of rest. It's not just about winning in the postseason, either. The Spurs had the best regular-season record with this approach, too.

So will all the other teams follow suit? Not so fast, when you take into account that stars have to buy into a program where minutes are rationed. We have a system in place that rewards the individual for overworking himself. The more you play, the more likely you are to win All-NBA, All-Star, All-Defense and MVP votes.

It's not an entirely illogical bias, either. When weighing who should get an individual award between two equally qualified candidates, it makes sense to lean on minutes played. Parker and Kawhi Leonard are slight exceptions to the rule, in that they garnered second-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defense, respectively. For the most part, it's difficult for a guy playing fewer than 30 minutes to get proper recognition.

Take Ginobili, who, statistically, has an argument over Kobe Bryant on a per-minute basis. Now, before you throw the laptop out the window, keep in mind that I'm not saying Manu was better than Kobe. I'm just saying that you'd expect more than two All-Star appearances from a guy whose advanced stats (offensive rating, win shares per 48 minutes) compare favorably to an all-time great.

Low minute totals helped keep Ginobili healthy, but that also diminished his reputation relative to his skill set. His 2006-07 season might have been his finest, but a 16.5 scoring average looks unimpressive on its face. Ginobili is one of the best passing wings ever to play, but he's never averaged five assists per game.

That's the real killer when it comes to playing fewer minutes: Your overall numbers look mingy. Chris "Birdman" Andersen killed Jamal Crawford in the advanced stats, but Crawford scored 18.6 points per game and Birdman scored 6.6. It's no wonder the former won the Sixth Man of the Year award.

As John Hollinger used to note, the Most Improved Player award is often really just a reflection of which good player finally got minutes. Per minute, there isn't much statistical difference between 2011-12 Paul George and 2012-13 MIP-winning Paul George. Indiana's rising star saw a 1,014 minute increase in 2012-13, which made his raw stats look better. More minutes means more credit.

[+] EnlargeSan Antonio Spurs
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsWith a bench as deep as the Spurs', Gregg Popovich had no trouble managing his team's minutes.
The Spurs don't care if we ignore their individual greatness on account of low minute totals. So what if early-season criticism of Leonard's progress was mostly based on minutes played? He won Finals MVP in the end. They've found this awesome market inefficiency with a "less is more" approach and are just fine if other players can't trade accolades for effectiveness.

But since the Spurs are showing us what works, perhaps we should learn from them. If the goal of these awards is to acknowledge great basketball, then we could stand to lean towards quality over quantity.

It might also be wise to look at how other incentives fight against great basketball. The Spurs are famous for not subjecting older players to back-to-back games. For this approach, Gregg Popovich paid -- quite literally in the form of a $250,000 fine for the Spurs -- when San Antonio excused its best players from a nationally televised game versus the Heat. The NBA's a business, and Popovich's choice worked against those interests. In that context, the fine made sense, but it also reflected a subversive truth: The Spurs are giving us the best possible team basketball while working against what basketball is used to being.

Basketball is used to being a place where stars are perpetually present for the 82-game grind. It's a game that sells its heroes, and for those heroes to be heroic, they must be impervious to the fatigue of 82. The problem is, this isn't realistic. There are more games than means for physically coping. Logging 40 minutes per outing might help with awards voting returns, but returns diminish on the court. Maybe it's time to give more credit to the guy who plays less.

It's not LeBron, it's the rest of the Heat

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
12:51
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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If you’re blaming LeBron James, you’re missing the point of what the San Antonio Spurs just did.

As much as we want to reduce this game down to heroes and legacies, basketball has grown out of the isolation-era 1990s. It’s a team sport, and while superstars can have a big impact on the outcome, they don’t wholly determine it. Remember that as you watch highlights of the balanced, Euroball-style Spurs picking apart the Miami Heat from all angles, leading to a 104-87 NBA Finals-clinching win in Game 5. If Miami wants to forge forward with LeBron, they have to be more than a vehicle for his talents.

When the series started, it was easy to convince yourself these teams were similar. They spread the floor, worked defenses in pursuit of corner 3-pointers. Both were creative, versatile units, dedicated to and successful in uncovering analytically savvy shots. Both lived by the mantra of moving the ball, not letting it stick for too many Hero Ball possessions.

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Charles Trainor Jr./Getty ImagesThe Heat could not match the depth and teamwork of the Spurs.
The final four games of this series revealed the magnitudes of difference between these two squads in a way that reflects less on Miami’s superstar than on the cast that surrounds. San Antonio delivered an unrelenting fire hose of points from everyone, save for the ball boy. Before Kawhi Leonard took the honors, there were multiple plausible candidates for Finals MVP. The Spurs were a team in the truest sense, and the Heat had dissolved into LeBron-dependence.

For his efforts, James ended the series with an average of 28.2 points on 68 percent true shooting. This wasn’t a repeat of the 2011 Finals, where James really was subpar. He showed up in this series. His teammates did not.

The points James scored might as well have been water poured into a bottomless bucket. In Game 4, James claimed more than 90 percent of his team’s points in the third quarter. That was the extreme of what happened all series. James was scoring efficiently, surrounded by teammates who couldn’t. The points that did come were futile because San Antonio was scoring more on the other end, buoyed by a better bench, and veterans with fresher legs.

Ironically, Miami’s silver lining is they got crushed. Had they lost this Finals by a play, or even by a game, it’d be easy to convince themselves that little needed changing. Instead, they’re starkly confronted with a mandate to make necessary moves. They put a lot into Dwyane Wade’s maintenance plan this season and the upshot is they can’t rely on like they used to, at least not until he develops an accurate 3-point shot.

The Heat also learned the extent to which they could trust Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole -- not a whole lot, it turns out. Erik Spoelstra’s starting lineup with Ray Allen at nominal “point guard” might be a window into the future. A team with LeBron doesn’t necessarily need to be playing 6-foot tall guys. They have a big guy with point guard skills. There’s little reason to play a little guy if you’re not getting the offensive punch many smaller players bring.

Above all, Miami should look to San Antonio as a model for how to handle their stars’ minutes. Tim Duncan was able to win championships 15 years apart because he was adequately rested along the way. James played nearly 38 minutes per contest this season. That figure has to come down if the Heat are to rise -- and that figure will come down only as the quality of the rest of the roster comes up.

Spurs look ready for crowning achievement

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
12:58
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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video
After dispatching Oklahoma City to get to these NBA Finals, Tim Duncan suddenly became Joe Namath in flannel: “We have four more [games] to win. We’ll do it this time.”

It was a rare moment of brashness from a serious competitor who consistently shrouds what drives him. Even more unusual than the audacity, Duncan betrayed an awareness of how the outside world views his team.

“We were ready last year, too,” he said. “People keep talking about it like we weren’t close to winning it. We were ready last year, we just couldn’t get over that hump. We’re happy to be back there this year. We’re happy to have another opportunity at it. We’re happy that it’s the Heat again. We’ll be ready for them.”

Perhaps he knew. This is a better San Antonio Spurs team than last season's. This is a worse Miami Heat team than last season's. And while it’s difficult to envision the Spurs as fueled by “revenge,” a want for vengeance is certainly understandable as the Spurs moved past the Heat 107-86 for a 3-1 NBA Finals lead.

[+] EnlargeSan Antonio Spurs
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesTim Duncan and the Spurs are one game away from their fifth NBA title.
There’s even precedent against this very Heat team. Just like the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio had been so close to beating Miami. Just like the Mavericks, the Spurs had been cast as a team on the wane. And just like the Mavericks, the Spurs look like they’re about to exorcise that which haunted them. On Thursday, with Dwyane Wade's eurostep conjuring old men playing bocce ball, the Heat looked like a crumbling empire. With young, ubiquitous, Kawhi Leonard playing so brilliantly, the “been there” Spurs looked like a power on the rise.

It’s incredible to behold San Antonio’s seemingly boundless capacity for improvement, but we’re unlikely to hear the Spurs tell us what that feels like. After Timmy’s Namath moment, it was back to SpursSpeak, a language that rarely conveys a sense of anything apart from a monk-like dedication to process.

The Spurs, as we experience them, are the team that gives people little to draw off. It’s not just a dearth of bulletin-board material. San Antonio refrains from knocking foes asunder in the lane. When Ray Allen fell down in the third quarter Thursday night, Duncan gladly helped him up. Perhaps the Spurs have found that not playing like jerks is a market inefficiency. Other teams, steeped in the hyper-macho culture of the playoffs, throw elbows and scowls at their rivals. The Spurs offer a blank expression and a helping hand.

It numbs the foe to a fueling kind of hatred and the team’s implacability makes death seem all the more inexorable. After San Antonio crushed Miami in the first half, LeBron James pushed himself hard to close the gap. He scored 19 points in the third quarter, good for one third of Miami’s total 57 points in the game. All through it, the Spurs didn’t panic. They just used crisply run sets, smothering defense on the other Heat players, and big baskets by household names such as Patty Mills.

Game 3 wasn’t shocking, even though the Spurs killed the Heat at home. Big losses happen sometimes, even at home. Sometimes a team gets hot. What’s shocking is they did it again in Game 4. That’s the Spurs for you. It’s not just that they achieve brilliance on the court, it’s that they keep sustaining it. They’re perhaps the most floor-bound team in the NBA, but they now seem like someone who jumps impressively high and confoundingly never comes back down to earth.

How the Spurs can make stars go dark

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:00
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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LeBron James could have played better, but even if he had, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. Nobody was beating the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, not on an evening when they scored 71 points on 33 shots in the first half. The Spurs started their versatile utility big Boris Diaw. In that extra space, with that extra passing, they conjured up a storm that the Miami Heat couldn’t come close to weathering, taking NBA Finals Game 3, 111-92.

The beautiful offensive explosion rendered the best player in the world irrelevant. James is perceived as many different things, but rarely is he considered ancillary to the outcome. On Tuesday, that was the case.

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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKawhi Leonard earned a big hand from Boris Diaw and the Spurs in the Game 3 win.
For a team once dismissed as “boring,” the Spurs have come to represent a lot of things to a lot of people. They are a symbol of consistency, longevity, teamwork and innovation. They are looked upon as an antidote to the NBA’s superstar marketing machine. While it’s debatable as to whether marketing superstars is a bad thing, the Spurs are certainly an alternative for those who want a different kind of NBA.

Superstars have ruled the NBA for eons. They exert a lot of leverage on a sport in which five guys play at once on a team. It’s commonly thought that you need one, if not two, to have a real shot at a title. Also, the individual prodigy sells the shoes and the jerseys. It’s easier to market a single avatar than a series of complementary parts. This is a league powered by, and commonly understood through, the exploits of lone actors.

If superstars are the lifeblood of NBA success, then what are the Spurs? They lack what’s supposedly required and here they are, two games from a title.

Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili all have their moments of brilliance, but you could not count on them to play 37 minutes per night at a level we equate with superstardom. It feels unfair to call Hall of Famers “role players,” but the Parker-Duncan-Ginobili trio have slowly become that on the team they’ve built. Fortunately for Spurs fans, their big three plays on a dream team of role players. Danny Green is a 3-and-D specialist to the extreme; Tiago Splitter expertly protects the rim, Patty Mills is a deadly off-the-dribble shooter, and Boris Diaw can do anything that doesn’t require running or jumping.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s victory, we’ll look to hype Kawhi Leonard for a couple days. Some of this will be because he played an astoundingly good game, and some of it will be a latent desire for the Spurs to provide us a young, exciting superstar to frame our focus.

Maybe Leonard becomes that guy and maybe he doesn’t. What’s intriguing about the Spurs is it might not matter. They could be on the forefront of a new NBA, predicated on “move the ball,” the mantra Gregg Popovich repeatedly beseeches his team with. Right now, San Antonio is an exception to the superstar rule. As more teams follow suit with less individual-based isolation play, the Spurs might be more than an exception, they could be the future.

LeBron delivers an impressive answer

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
12:08
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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On Sunday night, Kawhi Leonard did an incredible job guarding LeBron James. He blew up screens, forced him toward help and ultimately, compelled James to take difficult, contested shots. It worked … except that it didn’t.

As epitomized by LeBron’s pull-up 3-pointer with 6:08 left in the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat's 98-96 NBA Finals Game 2 win over the San Antonio Spurs, there wasn’t much Leonard could do. He shielded LeBron away from a Mario Chalmers screen, then angled him toward the sideline as the shot clock dwindled, but James still got off a shot. The ball swished as the buzzer sounded, and a snarling LeBron stomped past some courtside fans who looked none too happy.

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AP Photo/Larry W. SmithAfter he was bedeviled by cramps in Game 1, LeBron James dropped 35 points on the Spurs in Game 2.
Just as there’s often a futility in guarding the game’s best player, there’s a futility in hating him too. Can there be much joy in despising someone whose victories are so rote? Hating a winner seems like a losing battle. LeBron had 35 points on 64 percent shooting, something only Shaquille O'Neal has pulled off in an NBA Finals. And yet what’s crazy about the stat line is how routine it is. It’s a good game for LeBron, but well within the realm of normal.

It’s obvious what compels the San Antonio fans who hold up “LeCramp” signs and mock the Game 1 sequence where an injured athlete was carried to the sidelines. They want their team to win. But what about the others who would rather see LeBron fail? What’s in it for so many to root against the best individual expression of the sport?

That question is hard to answer, but it doesn’t seem to faze the Heat at this juncture. In 2011, the criticism amplified as LeBron played worse and worse in the Finals. Since then, his moments that inspire doubt and derision are usually quickly met with games like this.

On a smaller scope, Chris Bosh is going through a similar rinse cycle of, “Doubted, prevails, doubted.” He has been assailed for being soft, for playing like a 6-foot-11 guard. The two were ripped in tandem when LeBron passed to Bosh for an errant corner-3 in Game 5 against Indiana.

You could almost hear the screams of anger when, at 2:07 left on Sunday night, a LeBron pass led to a Bosh corner-3 that clanged out. Immune or oblivious to the pressures of what the Heat should or shouldn’t do, LeBron promptly found an open Bosh on the next possession. It was the right play, irrespective to popular opinions of who should or shouldn’t take the big shots.

Bosh sank the 3-pointer, and the Heat seized a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Playing like a 6-foot-11 guard has its benefits. You’re watching one of the most versatile big men in the game. It’s strange that he’s also one of the most mocked.

The Heat have survived the storm of criticism of 2011 much the way their Finals opponent continues to succeed. Both teams trust each other, trust the process, and strive to make the right play, ego be damned. Internal trust can triumph over the world’s sometimes not-so-favorable opinions. Well, at least your trust has a great shot of triumphing if you have the era’s best player on your side.

TrueHoop TV Live

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
10:43
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
A lot of hot topics after Game 1 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio. Team TrueHoop TV Live discusses them all at 2:30 p.m. ET.

LeBron's value evident in absence

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
1:31
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive

It’s very LeBron James for a moment that speaks to his greatness to double as a moment that brings great criticism and mockery. James suffered fourth-quarter cramps and had to take to the bench in the San Antonio Spurs' 110-95 Game 1 NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat. Without James' transcendent skills, his team crumbled both defensively and offensively and melted as the Spurs closed out the game with a 21-7 run.

The Spurs’ defense is formidable, but their arena presented a larger obstacle for James on Thursday night. The AT&T Center has challenged people with a bat, a snake and spotty wireless access. On Thursday, players and fans were subjected to temperatures up to 90 degrees due to what a Spurs Sports & Entertainment official said was an electrical failure that crashed the arena’s air-conditioning system. Earlier in the game, James was recorded by cameras joking, “They’re trying to smoke us out of there.” In the end, his seemingly indestructible body forced him from the action.

If the climate around James had been a bit different -- a bit more reasonable -- this might be occasion for near-universal sympathy. How sad it is to see a great athlete not able to engage at the height of competition. What unfortunate timing, what awful conditions. But while James certainly has his sympathizers, social media was replete with unfavorable comparisons to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird and yes, even hockey players. If the greats could play under any circumstances, why couldn't James triumph over his lactic acid?

If Tim Duncan suffers those cramps, it’s probably a footnote. When James suffers them, it’s a trial. Obviously, this is because few people have anything against the former, and many people have something against the latter.

This moment is indicative of how, no matter how much he wins, James continues to play before a constituency that still harbors resentment toward him. The ranks can lessen a bit as the victories pile up. The ranks can go dormant during championship parades. But the group is always there -- waiting for situations such as this.

Perhaps it’s the Jordan comparisons that have rankled a certain bloc of those who traffic in 90s nostalgia. Perhaps it’s also the legion of Kobe fans who would rather not see another perimeter player eclipse their favorite. That anxiety of comparison plays a role, but the dominant factor is probably a decision that’s in the past but continues to permeate the present.

On the face of things, James’ relocation to Miami and the reaction that ensued could not be less like the man cramping up in the heat of battle. There are similar dynamics in play, though. When James had millions waiting on his every televised word, it was illustrative of just how powerful a basketball force he was. When the Heat fell apart after James left the game, it was illustrative of just how powerful a basketball force he is.

In many circles, the response to both testaments to greatness was and continues to be rage. It’s difficult to deny James’ on-court prowess, so anger quickly morphs into attacks on his character. If you don’t like somebody, you’re liable to assume the worst about them. To many, it doesn’t matter that James’ choice was validated with championships. To them, it doesn't matter how well James plays. They’re waiting for the moment when that isn’t happening.

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