Kevin Cody

All Ball Sports: The King is Dead, Long live LeBron

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LeBron James during the season opening press day. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Paul Teetor

The king is (allegedly) dead. Long live the king. Um, not so fast.

In recent years it has become trendy in NBA media circles to argue that the Lakers LeBron James is no longer the undisputed best player in the world. Last year the League’s MVP award went to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 Greek Freak who is the prototypical modern baller — sleek, skilled, powerful and equally comfortable posting up down low or drilling 3-point bombs from the perimeter. He is heavily favored to win the MVP award again this year, making him a prominent contender for the best-in-the-business crown King James has long worn with pride.

Another contender is the Clippers Kawhi Leonard, a two-way, two-time Finals MVP who led Toronto to the title last season and then forced his way to SoCal last summer.

Some hoops pundits argue that the 35-year-old James is not even the best player on his own team. That honor, they say, goes to the 27-year-old power forward supreme Anthony Davis, a dominant player in the paint, a silky-smooth shooter on the perimeter and a lock-down defender. 

All of those arguments played out Thursday night in the opening game of the season’s restart. It featured the Lakers against the Clippers in an over-hyped match-up:  Western Conference Finals preview! LA’s backyard brawl — 3,000 miles from home! Somehow it lived up to all the expectations despite being played in a bubble with fans watching via Zoom and crowd noise being piped in to give it some semblance of a normal NBA game.

Davis was incredible while scoring 34 points and leading the Lakers to a scintillating 103-101 victory. Leonard was equally dominant with 28 points and his side-kick, smooth forward Paul George, poured in 30 points and contributed elite defense while holding James to 16 points on 6 of 19 shooting.

The King is dead. Long live the King. 

Right?

Um, not so fast. 

The last two minutes of a close, competitive NBA game are where the truly great players separate themselves from the very good players. After George drilled a long 3-pointer to tie the score at 101-101 with 30 seconds left, James came down court, fought his way into traffic and forced up a 15-footer that clanked off the rim. Surrounded by four Clipper players, he bull-rushed straight to the hoop, grabbed his own rebound, and softly laid it back in as the Clippers looked at each other in shock and awe.

But he wasn’t done yet. The Clippers still had 10 seconds left. They quickly got the ball to Leonard at the top of the key and James immediately switched onto him. He suffocated Leonard to the point where he retreated near mid-court and handed the ball off to George. James immediately switched onto George, gave him no space to do anything, and forced George into barfing up a no-chance heave to beat the buzzer.

Ball game. 

James, who has the art of being modest down to a science, didn’t need to do a victory dance when he faced the virtual media.

“I want the ball in my hands, late in the game, tie game, being down, being up, whatever,” he said. “Just be aggressive.”

But even as James was busy fighting off his challengers for at least one night, the Lakers had their glaring weakness exposed: a serious lack of depth now that their third and fourth best players, guards Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, are both out. Bradley has opted out from the restart because of covid-19 fears for his family, and Rondo, who is still one of the great play-makers in the NBA in his 14th NBA season, is recovering from a fractured finger.

Essentially, the Lakers mission in the last 5-games of the regular season before the playoffs start August 17 is to find a third scorer who can reliably step up when James or Davis is having a rare off-night. So far, forward Kyle Kuzma and guard Dion Waiters appear to be auditioning for that role. 

Unfortunately, they share the same problem: both are notorious gunners who are not nearly as good as they think they are. That leads to a lot of forced shots, bad misses and frustrated head-shaking from teammates. 

That lack of depth was further exposed Saturday when the Lakers followed up their two-point win by getting thrashed by the Toronto Raptors, 107-92. The Lakers had no one who could guard Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who led his team with 33 points. That defensive role is usually filled by Bradley and Rondo. Right now the lack of a back-court stopper appears to be a serious weakness for the Lakers, with no help in sight unless and until Rondo comes back.

While the NBA was winning rave reviews for successfully implementing its bubble concept at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, the WNBA was flying under the media radar using its own successful bubble concept at the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The Sparks, led by the great Candace Parker, are 2-2 as of Monday night and well positioned to make the playoffs after the 22-game regular season. But the league suffered a major blow when sensational rookie Sabrina Ionescu, the best player to enter the league since Diana Taurasi showed up 16 years ago, suffered a badly sprained ankle in the New York Liberty’s third game. She could miss the playoffs. 

Covid-19 Chaos Update: Things continued to go downhill for major league baseball. The Marlins added two more positive players to make a grand total of 21 players and support staff, and the St. Louis Cardinals had their own covid outbreak with 13 players and staff members testing positive. Relentlessly optimistic MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who usually makes President Trump sound like Chicken Little – the sky is falling, the sky is falling! – admitted for the first time that baseball may have to cancel its 60-game regular season and the playoffs if it gets much worse. 

The NFL, which made a smart move in canceling its entire pre-season schedule to postpone its day of reckoning, is getting closer to a similar crisis as the Sept. 10 opening of the regular season approaches. Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Doug Pedersen tested positive, and more and more players – including a half dozen New England Patriots — have chosen to opt out of the season due to Covid-19 concerns. It still defies logic that this most brutal of all sports will be able to play its season without resorting to a bubble concept similar to the one used by the NBA and WNBA.

Unpaid workers of the world unite: The most ominous sports development of the week – at least for USC and UCLA football fans — came Sunday afternoon when  a group of Pac-12 football players, including UCLA defensive back Elisha Guidry, wrote a letter to the conference threatening to opt out of fall camp and game participation unless the league meets its demands for stricter safety protocols and a greater commitment to social justice.

Like so many other personal and professional trends that have been greatly accelerated by the pandemic – working from home, online classes, etc. – a rebellion by big-time “student athletes” in Division 1 programs has been a long time coming.

Now it’s here.

The list of their demands released Monday is stunning: the elimination of “excessive salaries” for coaches and administrators, new health and safety protocols, an end to racial injustice in sports and society, guaranteed medical coverage, and a profit-sharing arrangement in which 50 percent of each sport’s conference revenue would be evenly distributed among athletes.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott – who makes $5.3 million a year – was not mentioned by name. But he clearly was one of several targets, along with most head coaches.

Long after the NBA, WNBA, MLB and NFL are back to business as usual, this casting off of the economic chains by student-athletes is likely to have far-reaching consequences. For too long they have been compensated in the form of scholarships while their colleges make billions of dollars off their labor.

That antiquated business model may soon be yet another pandemic victim.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor  ER     

 

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