TrueHoop: Lebron James
LeBron James announced Sunday that after four seasons of wearing No. 6 with the Miami Heat, he'll go back to his original No. 23 when he rejoins the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. When James originally announced his decision to change to No. 6, he did so out of respect for Michael Jordan -- who, coincidentally has his jersey hanging on the wall in Miami, despite never having played for the Heat.
However, James is far from the first superstar to change his number, then have a change of heart and change back.
Ray Allen (34 to 20 to 34)
James' old Miami teammate Ray Allen has some experience with this type of jersey switch. Allen came into the league wearing No. 34 -- his college number -- for the Milwaukee Bucks, then held on to it with the Seattle SuperSonics. However, when Allen was traded to the Boston Celtics, 34 was taken by Paul Pierce, so Allen switched to 20. Upon signing with the Heat, Allen had his choice of 20 or 34, and went back to his original number.
Dominique Wilkins (21 to 12 to 21)
Dominique Wilkins most famously wore No. 21 for the Atlanta Hawks, where his number hangs in the rafters. He kept the number when he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers late in the 1993-94 season, but when he signed with the Celtics, 21 wasn't available (it's retired for Bill Sharman). Wilkins played one season in Boston wearing the unfamiliar No. 12, before bolting for Europe. When he returned to the NBA in 1996-97 with the San Antonio Spurs, he was back in his trademark No. 21 -- becoming the last Spur to wear it before Tim Duncan.
Charles Barkley (34 to 32 to 34)
After Magic Johnson announced his sudden retirement due to HIV, Charles Barkley chose to change his jersey number from his original 34 to 32 to honor Johnson -- getting permission from Philadelphia 76ers legend Billy Cunningham to have the number temporarily unretired. However when Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns in the offseason, No. 32 was already being worn by Negele Knight, so Barkley switched back to 34, before finishing his career in Houston wearing No. 4.
Shaquille O'Neal (32 to 34 to 32)
In the exact reverse of Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal started his career wearing 32, switched to 34, then went back to 32 (before moving on to 33 and 36 in his twilight years). O'Neal actually wanted 33 -- his college number -- when he was drafted by the Orlando Magic, but that was taken by Terry Catledge, so O'Neal settled for 32. When he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, both 32 (Magic Johnson) and 33 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) were retired, so he took No. 34, which was available after George Lynch was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies. When O'Neal was traded to the Heat, he had his choice between 34 and 32, and decided to go back to his original number.
Michael Jordan (23 to 45 to 23)
Perhaps the most famous jersey number reversal, Michael Jordan wore No. 23 during his original stint with the Chicago Bulls, up until his retirement in 1993. When he returned to basketball in 1995, he chose to wear No. 45 -- the number he'd worn during his brief professional baseball career -- and leave No. 23 in the rafters. However, during the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Magic, Jordan switched back to his customary No. 23, a move he said made him more comfortable, but cost his team a $25,000 fine. Jordan remained in 23 for the rest of his time with the Bulls, and kept the number during his brief comeback with the Washington Wizards.
Durant was cast as a protagonist for the digital age, a star displaying the "right way" to announce a career choice, while James found himself somewhere between He Who Must Not Be Named and King Joffrey on the likability scale.
It was inevitable to compare and contrast. James left; Durant stayed. James took his talents somewhere on television; Durant stayed put in 140 characters or less. There was a certain charm to the misspelling -- "extension" as "exstension" -- that illustrated how little premeditation Durant had seemed to invest, while James had everything meticulously orchestrated for his one-hour special.
What was lost, though, is that Durant actually made the same choice James did some four years earlier. Durant was coming off his rookie scale deal and did what virtually every player in his position does: take a maximum extension. Nobody turns down that money at that time.
Still, there was one big difference between the two extensions. James signed his in 2006 for three years, a strategic financial move that would make him a free agent after seven seasons, which allowed him to get a max at 30 percent rather than 25. Durant, on the other hand, specifically requested there be no early opt-out. This locked him in for the full five years.
Yet even with the gesture -- and all of the nice things he has said about the team and Oklahoma City -- as soon as Durant hit "send" on that tweet, the clock started ticking toward his next decision, the actual decision, the one he makes in 2016 as an unrestricted free agent.
James spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland, falling short of a championship seven times. Durant will spend his first nine seasons with the Thunder franchise and thus far has failed seven times to reach the ultimate goal. Should the Thunder fall short the next two seasons, the assumption is Durant will depart as James did, even if the optics are different.
But there's something for Durant to learn from Decision 2.0. James' choice was painted primarily as a homecoming story, the prodigal son returning to right his wrongs. All true, no doubt. Except there's another, more practical reason he picked Cleveland: sustainability.
In some ways, his departure is what put the Cavaliers in the position to bring him back, meaning they got so bad that they piled up young talent and assets. When James turns 34, Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011, will be 26. Andrew Wiggins, the 2014 No. 1 overall draft pick, will be just 23. The Cavs provide an opportunity for James to chase a championship for his hometown, and do it over and over again for the next decade. In a lot of ways, James found his Thunder.
Oklahoma City's buzzword from day one has been sustainability, and for the past four years, it has sustained one hell of a run. A winning percentage near .750, three trips to the Western Conference finals, and one to the Finals. In James' final four seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs won 68 percent of their games, made two conference finals appearances, and one in the NBA Finals. For both, there is a common, painful denominator: no championship.
For Durant, when the time comes to make his choice in 2016, it's not going to be about if he won a championship. It's about where he can win his next championship. We can't be entirely sure that had the Cavs won a title with James before 2010 that he would've stayed. We can assume, but we can't know.
That roster, with Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams and Delonte West and Shaquille O'Neal, wasn't built to contend for a decade. It was built to try to appease James on a year-by-year basis. Durant will be 27 when he signs his next contract somewhere, and that decision will be informed by the future, not the past.
Teams are already clearing space to have their pitch lined up for Durant. The Knicks have about $30 million in committed salary for 2016-17, the Nets $6.3 million. The Wizards owe $34.8 million, enough room to fit a max for Durant. The Lakers don’t have a single penny committed. The Thunder have $30.1 million committed, but that’s also their advantage -- because it’s for Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
The likely market for 2016 doesn’t include a Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade out there for Durant to team with. Unless Durant wants to play with James, or Kevin Love exercises his player option, the best available free agents in summer 2016 are Dwight Howard (who will be 30), Deron Williams (who will be 32) and Al Horford (who will be 30).
Westbrook will be just 27; Ibaka will be 26.
There is the fact Durant plays in one of the league’s smallest markets and the financial realities that come with that. The Thunder have actively resisted dipping into the luxury tax, which reaffirms the perception that ownership is cheap and unwilling to spend for a contender (this is where you bring up the James Harden trade).
The reality is the team is planning for the future, avoiding years of the luxury tax that would place them as repeat offenders in 2016 and 2017, when they have to re-sign their core. Over-extending for the present is dangerous, and as the Thunder have harshly been forced to learn the past two postseasons with injuries to key players, there are no guarantees. “Going for it” can often only complicate your future.
Maybe Durant will be drawn back home like James, or maybe he'll want the big lights and big pressure of bringing a championship to New York. But what he'll really want is the best possible chance to win. And as long as the Thunder can provide that better than anyone else, his next decision will be just as simple as his first.
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.
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.
The return to Cleveland is a staggering comeback tale, an earthquake to the NBA’s ecosystem. So it’s a bit surprising to see James offer humble expectations along with a decision so epic. “I’m not promising a championship,” he says in his explanation letter. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way.”
Before the Cleveland rumors started, the consensus opinion was that James would choose whatever situation offered him the best chance at winning -- which Miami did in 2010. Four years later, he is explicitly saying that this route home is about something else entirely. Given the language James is using, he’s on a mission far larger than winning mere titles:
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business.”
Claiming that you aren’t ready to win a championship might seem unambitious, but despite that disclaimer, consider the scope of what James is aspiring to. Ohio’s communities have been hit especially hard by the decline in manufacturing over the decades. Cleveland once had roughly three times the population it claims today. Akron has been losing residents since the 1960s. James is far from the only person to abandon his northeast Ohio home for opportunities elsewhere -- he’s just the most notable to try it.
But James wants to reverse a massive socio-economic phenomenon that’s been going strong for a half-century. By coming home, he wants to make Ohio whole again. Michael Jordan might be the greatest of all time, but he didn’t dare leverage basketball into something far greater than commerce. LeBron doesn’t just want to change the game -- he wants to change the economy.
There are more prosaic reasons for why this is happening, too. As James explains, leaving home can give you perspective on what you left behind and how much you miss it. Time can heal wounds, as evidenced by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and James patching things up after an ugly divorce. James said leaving for Miami was the college experience he never had. Many of us can relate to how finding some separation makes the allure of home that much more appealing.
As many have already noted, the letter offers no mention of No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins. If there’s a Kevin Love trade in the works, James might be selling this Cavs team’s chances short.
For now, Cleveland is indeed short on championship-ready players. It's long on so much else, though. The future is murky, and the past was ugly, but today, the most compelling sports story lives in northeast Ohio.
• 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.
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.
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.
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.
• The Los Angeles Clippers don’t subscribe to the idea of moral victories, at least not vocally, but the vibe around the team after the 116-112 loss to Miami Heat was comparatively rosy for a team that lost on its home floor and didn’t have one of the four best records in the Western Conference for the first time in well over a month. The Clippers weren’t happy about the turnovers and the defense, but they’d wanted a tempo game against Miami and they’d accomplished that. They wanted to keep the ball moving against Miami’s pressure in the half court, and they nailed that task as well.
• When Chris Paul suffered an AC separation of his right shoulder, he said emphatically that he didn’t believe in silver linings. Serious injuries derail momentum and disrupt the season -- for player and team. So to honor CP, let’s call what the Clippers are seeing from Blake Griffin over the past month an unintended consequence rather than a silver lining. On Wednesday, 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, and as if that’s not a full demonstration of his dominance, consider this: 52 of the Clippers’ 98 possessions ended in a Blake Griffin field goal attempt, a Blake Griffin field goal attempt that resulted in a pair of fouls shots, a Blake Griffin assist or a Blake Griffin turnover.
• LeBron James turned in another “1-through-5” game, guarding every position on the floor for Miami. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when LeBron became an equal opportunity defender with the Heat, but we can look at a Sunday night in January 2011 against the Trail Blazers in Portland. The Heat spent much of the game bogged down in the half court, at which point Erik Spoelstra unleased an early incarnation of Heat small ball. Miami went gangbusters as James found himself covering 7-footer Marcus Camby. Wednesday night, James matched up with DeAndre Jordan and Griffin for stretches and did his usual work on his perimeter counterparts. James loves to roam when his assignment is a secondary or forgotten option of the offense -- and Jordan snuck underneath a couple of times on LeBron -- but the multi-tasking was impressive as always.
• Only LeBron can avenge a technical foul call that clearly irritated him and set him off into a flurry of rage that materialized in … assists and facilitation. On the possession following the tech, LeBron pounded the ball upcourt and was met by Griffin at the 3-point arc. James then performed what might have been a pointed imitation of Griffin’s elaborate between-the-legs, eat-your-heart-out-Anthony Mason shtick. LeBron then orchestrated the prettiest half-court set of the night. In a five-second span, James dished the ball off to Ray Allen, moved into a screen for Allen, caught the pass from Allen while rolling hard to the rim, then stopped short to lob an alley-oop to Chris Andersen. One hockey assist and another basketball assist followed on the subsequent possession as the Heat capped a 6-0 run to build their lead back to 17 points.
• Griffin drew the assignment to guard James to start the game -- and for much of the finish while the Heat were still small. [We discussed the decision] this morning before shootaround,” Griffin said. “It was actually T-Lue, Tyronn Lue. I guarded him a couple of times when we played them in Miami.” Griffin did an adequate job as roadblock, and James spent most of the possessions opposite Griffin setting up Wade on some pretty cuts, and moving the ball to the weakside, which the Clippers routinely vacated or merely forgot about.
• Doc Rivers spoke pregame about the miracle of Allen’s shotmaking. Four hours later, he experienced it firsthand when Allen nailed the dagger as the third option on a play designed as a single-double for Mario Chalmers, with a contingency pick-and-roll with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When nothing materialized off either action, Wade swung the ball to Allen, whose 3-pointer gave the Heat a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in regulation. “It was a little bit of a broken play,” Spoelstra said. “We had been running a little bit of an action to try to get some different matchups to take advantage of the switches. [The Clippers] switched, and Dwyane [Wade] was able to drive. Because they had switched and handed off so many things, sometimes defensively you lose sight of guys on the weak side, and that’s what happened.”
• Neither the Clippers nor the Heat did much to stop the other in the half court. Miami’s aggressive schemes left them vulnerable to weakside actions, cuts and duck-ins. The Heat were late to rotate when they trapped up top, and when they did, they’d end up with Mario Chalmers crashing on Griffin in the lane -- generally a bad idea for the guy who isn’t Griffin. The Clippers, meanwhile, “lost guys” all night in the words of Rivers. They switched everything for Griffin and the guards appeared confused as their counterparts breezed around screens. It was ugly on both ends defensively.
About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.
So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”
Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.
The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.
One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.
In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.
He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'”
-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul
With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.
But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.
It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.
The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.
Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.
If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.