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SO YOU THINK THE NBA IS UNHINGED? THE PLAYOFFS ARE JUST BEGINNING
A league of relentless havoc has quickly shifted into an anything-can-happen postseason, including the near-crash of LeBron and the Lakers — with only Milwaukee and Boston looking calamity-proof
Go ahead and blast “I Love L.A.” to the rafters, letting the celebrities rejoice as if they’re on the team. But this postseason assuredly won’t end well for LeBron James, at 38 years and four months, not that anyone thought it would. No amount of whole-body cryotherapy in his hyperbaric chamber will cure what ails him and the Old Hollywood franchise he picked five years ago, not to mention the roster he has clumsily tried to finagle.
All you can say for the Lakers is that they won a play-in game Tuesday night. But at least a dozen NBA playoff teams are better than Minnesota, which didn’t even have two pathetic pugilists, Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels. At that, James often looked like anything but the G.O.A.T. — “badddd,” not “bahhhh’’ — as he committed turnovers and missed shots in the fourth quarter and a five-minute overtime. He did save his team with a late three-pointer and delivered the drive and assist on Dennis Schroder’s go-ahead three in regulation. But his partner in long-ago bubble title crime, Anthony Davis, couldn’t help himself with more of his habitual hot-and-cold madness. He again was feeble at the absolute wrong moments, committing the cardinal sin of buzzer-beating basketball — with a three-point lead, fouling Mike Conley on a desperate corner bomb and watching him sink all three free throws with 0.1 on the clock.
Right then and there, LeBron and his cast of hastily assembled stragglers should have gone home. Because if they looked sluggish and old in a marathon against the short-handed Timberwolves — James played 45 minutes, Davis 43 in a perpetually fragile existence — how will they avoid a similar gut-punching in the first round against the ballers and brawlers in Memphis? The Grizzlies are the modern-day Bad Boys, from Ja Morant brandishing a gun in a strip club to Dillon Brooks ready to rumble and play dirty at any moment. It was painful watching James almost start his retirement countdown at The Crypt, two seasons from leaving the league he has owned for the better part of a new millennium. He’ll live to play four more games starting this weekend, but he’ll be gone by May when he once played into mid-June year after year.
“I wouldn’t mind playing LeBron in a seven-game series,” Brooks said before the result was known. “The legacy is there. First time back in the playoffs, knock him out right away in the first round.”
That’s what awaits the Lakers by Mud Island. “Really good team, very well-coached, well-balanced, obviously the head of the snake is Ja Morant,” said James, staying above the trash-talk fray. “You can’t disrespect Dillon Brooks because he makes shots.”
Otherwise, he was too busy scolding Davis on national TV. “I’ve been playing the game like that since I was a kid. I drew the defense, trust your teammates, and he knocked it down,” said LeBron, standing with Schroder on the court. “It’s unfortunate that AD had a brain fart and messed his game-winner up.”
“I messed his game-winner up, and I apologize,” said Davis, entering the interview shot. “I definitely apologize.”
And this is a championship team? “You give yourself an opportunity to compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy,” James said. “That’s all you can ask for. That’s the only reason I play still, is to make a championship run. I’ve been on four of those. Hopefully, this is another one. But every year is tougher. Too many great teams, too many great players.”
Maybe LeBron doesn’t hear the final buzzer yet. But he sees the seconds ticking, knowing owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka want no part of his boy, Kyrie Irving, in free agency this summer. The Lakers are what they are, so mediocre that they can’t even lose properly, out of the hunt for Victor Wembanyama, the phenom described by LeBron himself as “an alien … a generational talent.”
So was James. Now he’s part of the chaos unfolding in an unhinged league. The intended purpose of the National Basketball Association, I vaguely recall, is to outscore opponents with shots through an 18-inch rim suspended 10 feet high. Somehow, via the combined effects of weed and social media and the unbearable pressures of seven-figure bank deposits, the league took a long detour into Dysfunction Junction during the regular season.
If not for the dignified dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic — and the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics — our heads would have spun off our spinal cords. And it’s no coincidence those three MVP favorites are hoops internationals, echoing the gumption of France President Emmanuel Macron, who no longer wants Europe to be “America’s followers” in geopolitical strategies. He thinks the U.S. is unhinged, and he might be right, but in the NBA, even the French aren’t protected from disorder.
Allow me to alert all wackadoodles that silly season is over. A Francophone center, Gobert, punched a teammate who repeatedly called him a “bitch,” minutes after another teammate punched a wall and broke his hand. This as a 7-3 Parisian phenom, Wembanyama, was causing subtle and overt forms of tanking in league backrooms, which is a form of business fraud worthy of a Congressional probe. One violator was Mark Cuban, Mr. Shark Tank, becoming a tanking shark after losing a foolish gamble on Irving, who sabotaged a team for the fourth time after promoting an antisemitic film. Morant was allowed to “take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress” after a trail of trouble — waving a gun in a strip club and posting it on Instagram Live, amid accusations of violence and bullying in incidents soft-pedaled by Memphis police — that would have landed the rest of us in the pokey.
Kevin Durant continued to swipe right in his desperate, mercenary pursuit of love, happiness and the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which he could have collected three or four more times had he not left Golden State after Draymond Green called him, yep, a “bitch.” Players sat out hundreds of games to manage their loads — er, load management, a union euphemism for quiet quitting. The latest is Zion Williamson, who has a hamstring strain yet won’t come back until “I feel like Zion.” A rising coach was fired after an office affair, which doesn’t bother human resources departments in other NBA front offices now considering Ime Udoka. Michael Jordan is selling his majority stake in the Hornets to resume life as a sneaker baron — who needs Charlotte when Hollywood keeps making feature films about him? — as LeBron chirps about buying a Vegas expansion team, but only if they’re called the Kings, to hell with Sacramento.
And the commissioner? Adam Silver was so hellbent on seven more years of labor peace — and accompanying broadcast riches — that the new collective bargaining agreement allows players to invest in sports betting and cannabis companies and NBA teams. Thus, basically, the league doesn’t care anymore if players gamble with inside information from sportsbooks, or if players get high when they please, or if players own pieces of their workplaces and make loud suggestions about coaches and personnel.
Thank heavens the postseason is upon us, so sanity will reign.
Sure, if sanity constitutes watching James stumble to a dubious playoff victory, in a season when he became the league’s all-time scoring leader with an erratic team. It would have been fun watching the Lakers teach Morant and the Grizzlies about real life in the first round … then meeting the defending champion Warriors, in a reprise of the old James vs. Steph Curry Finals battles of the previous decade. But that’s as likely as Elvis Presley being found alive. More likely, though the Warriors have their own issues and must subdue pesky Sacramento, Golden State will resume its hot-flame rivalry with the Grizzlies. Then imagine a Western Conference final matching Curry, Green and Klay Thompson against their old partner turned defector — Durant, who escaped to the Phoenix Suns after his careful-what-you-wish-for superteam disaster in Brooklyn. Consider the zany possibilities here: Curry and the reconfigured Dubs can win their fifth in nine years as an undeniable dynasty, or Durant could add a third to his two in the Bay Area, which finally would bring Chris Paul his first and make the State Farm ad overkill worthwhile.
The rally cries were echoing in Los Angeles, where the Lakers started 2-10 and were six games below .500 on Feb. 13. They’ve posted the West’s best record since the trade deadline. “I just think the sky’s the limit, man,” said coach/dreamer Darvin Ham. “Any team with LeBron James and a healthy Anthony Davis … we’re not going to put a ceiling on ourselves.”
“I came here to win,” Davis said. “It’s a winning franchise.”
Similar bravado is resonating in San Francisco, where coach Steve Kerr insists this isn’t the end, despite a freakish inability to win on the road. “This is not ‘The Last Dance.’ That’s not the case here at all,’’ he told The Athletic, refusing to believe owner Joe Lacob will break up the Warriors the way Kerr watched Jerry Reinsdorf dismantle the late-‘90s Bulls before their time. “I know Joe would love to keep this thing going. He’s been incredible in his financial commitment to keep this team strong and relevant for a decade. He’s always committed to that. So I think there’s a really good possibility that we keep things going here.”
For Curry, still capable of making haters love the league again with a single 50-point outburst, it’s spring business as usual. “The narratives and excitement and the historical context of it all are just a part of this time of year,” he said. “It’s awesome to know that we’re back in the fray.”
“I was on a team that won 73 games,” Green said, “and we lost the final game of the season and no one talks about that team. So the moral of the story is, it does not matter what you do in the regular season. You get to the playoffs and your team will be judged by how you do in the playoffs. No one will be talking about, ‘They won this many road games.’ No one will care. So we’ve just gotta go in, take care of executing the game plan, not make the mistakes we’ve made. Really be locked and focused.”
And if they are? Maybe Green won’t punch a teammate, or refer to one as a “bitch,” or kick an opponent in the groin region. His podcast? I think we’ve lost the war on his media career, considering he survived poor performances in the 2022 Finals to help lead a series comeback against the Celtics. All you need to know about the Warriors: They’re bringing back their “Gold Blooded” slogan from last postseason, which wound up on championship t-shirts.
Imagine the Warriors, after struggling to reach the playoffs, making a charge into the NBA Finals. It’s not impossible. The Denver Nuggets, No. 1 seeds by default, look playoff-vulnerable again. After another sluggish effort last week, coach Michael Malone lashed out at his team: “If that’s how we’re going to play, we’ll be out in the first round. When we don’t do our jobs, there’s accountability. And I speak the truth. I just called our team ‘soft,’ and I dared someone to challenge me. No one did, because we as a group were soft.” If the Nuggets don’t make a long run, Malone just might lose his job, and Jokic’s critics will look smart in loading the MVP ballot box against him. The Grizzlies are more apt to be arrested, between Morant and Brooks, than win a conference title. Think about it: In more than 20 years in a searing global spotlight, James never has been in serious trouble off the court, unlike Morant, who is a problem child in his fourth season and soiling his platform as one of the sport’s young faces. He sometimes has been more defiant than remorseful since returning from an eight-game league suspension. It doesn’t help that his father and family members think their son has been wronged by media, with many wearing “Redemption” sweatshirts in the stands of late.
“That was my family’s idea,” Morant said. “It’s me coming back after some negative things have been said constantly throughout this whole, basically, what, year and a half now? How I felt? Kind of like a redemption, obviously. … Show who Ja is as a person. And that’s my family’s message with the hoodies.”
Can’t wait for Old Man LeBron to drill Ja with a crack about his 18-year-son. You know, Bronny was more mature and grounded out of the womb than Morant is at 23. That wouldn’t be half as crazy as the Kings placing a moratorium on all Sacramento humor and making a West run. As it is, Green already has inflamed the locals, who perpetually deal with a civic inferiority complex with the Bay Area only 80 miles away. “To know we’ll be starting off in Sac is huge,” he said, referring to the travel advantage but surely knowing how the comment would be received.
With so much madness in the league, it’s easy to embrace the Kings, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 16 years, ending the longest postseason drought in the four major North American sports leagues. We used to look at them and wonder why the city still had a franchise when Seattle does not. But thanks to Mike Brown, who couldn’t win in Cleveland with James and couldn’t win in L.A. with Kobe Bryant, the Kings play racetrack basketball, propel the league’s most potent offense and have fun every day and night. When they win at home, usually thanks to the deeds of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, a neon purple beam shoots through downtown and all but lights the slick hair of Gov. Gavin Newsom on fire.
It’s not the Golden Gate Bridge. But if the Kings win the series, a dynasty will be over, and the beam might follow the Warriors’ buses back to the Bay. And Green? He might do a strip tease en route to the airport, where he’ll board a one-way flight to somewhere, maybe Detroit in his native Michigan. Or Miami, where he’ll be drowned out by Jimmy Butler, who ripped media for not picking the No. 7-seeded Heat to come out of the East. “Didn't nobody pick us to win last year, either. So who cares. Y'all not going to pick us this year, still don't give a damn,” he said. “In 10 years, y'all still not going to pick us. Still don't give a damn.”
Why would we pick MIami? Butler shot 6 of 19 and the Heat were dumped by eighth-seeded Atlanta in the other Tuesday play-in game.
You gather the NBA is a circus by design. The competitive term is parity, of course, always the goal of the late David Stern and finally achieved by his successor atop the league office. “It’s the most compact our standings have been literally in the history of the league,” Silver said after the new CBA was announced. “And that’s something we see from the league-office standpoint as very positive.”
Competitively speaking, yes.
Aesthetically? Psychologically? I’m not sure anyone is prepared for what’s next. In the last 34 years of NBA Finals, five franchises — Bulls, Lakers, Spurs, Warriors and Pistons — have won 24 championships. Sports aficionados like definition at the top. Are we ready for Cavaliers-Kings? Close your eyes and ponder the most preposterous developments imaginable.
They just might happen.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.