TNT’s Inside the NBA is on summer hiatus but have no fear: Charles Barkley is in midseason form, ready to train his cutting analysis on LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and the offseason’s other biggest newsmakers.
The outspoken commentator and Hall of Fame player, who spent last week in his home state of Alabama visiting family, reserved his deepest skepticism for the NBA’s biggest targets: James and his new-look Lakers.
“I was hoping [James] would stay in Cleveland,” Barkley told The Crossover in a telephone interview on Friday. “I look at [the move to L.A.] strictly as a business decision. He’s on the downside of his career. He wants to be a big Hollywood mogul. He’s going to be driving by the beach every day instead of going through the snow. … [The Lakers] are not even close to a top-tier team. They’re a 5 or 6 seed in a best-case scenario.”
After landing James, their top target, on a four-year, $154 million contract, Lakers president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka had to settle for back-up plans as they reshaped James’s supporting cast. Paul George, long rumored to have interest in the Lakers, quickly re-signed with the Thunder. Leonard, unhappy in San Antonio, was also rumored as an L.A. trade target before he was ultimately dealt to Toronto.
With no other marquee stars available, the Lakers elected to sign a string of mercurial veterans to one-year rentals: Rajon Rondo ($9M), JaVale McGee ($2.4M), Lance Stephenson ($4.5M) and Michael Beasley ($3.5M). That strategy preserved L.A.’s cap space for 2019 but coincided with the departures of Brook Lopez and Julius Randle while potentially introducing complications for a roster that includes a host of promising youngsters.
In Barkley’s view, L.A.’s approach will create significant problems for coach Luke Walton due to the roster’s split identity.
“That’s an impossible scenario for Luke,” he said. “He’s got LeBron who is going to do things his way. He’s got those young kids who are probably in awe of LeBron. He’s got those older guys who are going to try to seek attention. I don’t think Lance and Rondo are going there to be the ninth or 10th guys on the bench and be quiet all year. They’re going to want touches.”
The chief long-term risk of this approach, he argued, was stunting the growth of recent draft picks like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
“I don’t like what [the Lakers] are doing,” Barkley continued, during a promotional interview for his new deal with Panini America. “It’s going to take away from their young nucleus. They’ve got some good young players. You’re trying to set up Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma. With all that other stuff going on, I don’t know if that’s a good environment for those kids.”
By contrast, Barkley praised the Spurs’ trade of Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick as a “win-win.” He called the 7-foot Poeltl “one of the most underrated players in the NBA,” and dismissed outright the notion that San Antonio would have traded Leonard to L.A. under any circumstances.
“The Spurs have been the model franchise for the last 20 years,” Barkley said. “They weren’t going to trade arguably the second-best player in the world [Leonard] to play with the best player in the world [James]. Why would you trade him and then have to play against him for the next five to 10 years? That would just be stupid.”
The East, meanwhile, is shaping up to be less predictable at the top following James’s departure and Leonard’s arrival. After reaching the conference finals in 2017 and 2018, the Celtics are regarded as the early favorites to reach the 2019 Finals because they will welcome back All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from season-ending injuries.
In Barkley’s view, though, the Celtics shouldn’t be penciled into their first Finals appearance since 2010.
“Everybody is ready to concede the Eastern Conference to the Celtics. Everybody needs to take a step back,” he said. “That’s not going to be an easy job. Brad Stevens has his hands full. If people think Kyrie and Hayward are going to come back and [Jayson] Tatum and Jaylen Brown are just going to step back and let those guys do all the shooting, people are crazy.”
By adding Leonard, “probably the best player in the East if he’s healthy,” Barkley argued that the Raptors are now legit challengers to win the East. Toronto won a franchise-record 59 games last season before replacing longtime coach Dwane Casey with first-time head coach Nick Nurse this summer. Leonard, who is 27 and entering a contract year, should emerge as the best individual player in franchise history if he can fully recover from a quad injury that limited him to nine games last season.
“I hope Toronto is a better team than they were and that Kawhi Leonard stays there,” he said. “I’m biased. That’s probably my favorite city in the world: Toronto. Hopefully he’ll fall in love with [Raptors president] Masai [Ujiri] up there. They’re going to have a really good team.”
A summer survey from Barkley wouldn’t be complete without some thoughts on the Warriors, who signed All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year contract in July after winning back-to-back titles. While he admitted that Golden State is “pretty much unbeatable right now,” Barkley couldn’t resist taking a few digs at Durant, who spent last week in a Twitter spat with Blazers guard C.J. McCollum.
“Kevin Durant is just a really nice guy trying to be a bad guy,” Barkley said. “You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. He spends all his time trying to prove to people how tough and bad he is. He’s so worried about what other people say. Kevin Durant is a great player and a great kid. I was one of those guys who criticized him for going to Golden State, but he doesn’t have to respond every time someone says something about it.”
McCollum said on Twitter that Durant made a “soft” decision by leaving the Thunder for the Warriors in 2016, prompting Durant to call McCollum a “snake.” Previously, Durant had mocked Portland’s championship hopes while appearing on McCollum’s “Pull Up” podcast. During USA Basketball’s minicamp last week, Durant argued that it was McCollum, and not Durant himself, who was “upset” by the exchange. The two-time Finals MVP also said that the media has inaccurately labeled him as sensitive.
Barkley wasn’t buying that interpretation of events in the slightest.
“Who’s got thinner skin: Shaquille O’Neal or Kevin Durant? They’ve both got thin skin like Flat Stanley,” he quipped, referencing author Jeff Brown’s children’s book series whose title character was flattened by a bulletin board. “They need to just chill out.”