NBA Mailbag: LeBron's Season, Bulls Hire Arturas Karnisovas and HORSE

Answering questions about the Bulls new front office hire. Plus, thoughts on how the NBA should return and ESPN's HORSE competition.
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You feel bad for LeBron James.

Well, not too bad. James is, after all, arguably the greatest player in NBA history. He’s made 16 All-Star teams, 15 All-NBA teams and has three MVP trophies. He’s made nine Finals appearances with three championships to show for it. He’s made more than $300 million on the floor and exponentially more off it.

Still—if the NBA season can’t be salvaged, the player who will suffer the most is James.

On a conference call this week—well, a Zoom call because that’s all the rage these days—James admitted the obvious: He would be devastated if the rest of the NBA season is scuttled. “I don’t think I’ll be able to have any closure if we do not have an opportunity to finish this season," James said. A remarkable individual season for James—MVP caliber and the greatest age-35 season ever—served as the engine driving a surprisingly strong Lakers team to a conference-best 49 wins when sports stopped. Wins over Milwaukee and the Clippers over the league’s last weekend established LA as a strong championship frontrunner.

“The top teams get better late in the season,” Lakers forward Jared Dudley told The Crossover Podcast this week. “They have different levels. That was the difference between [the Nets, Dudley’s former team] and Philadelphia when we played in the playoffs last year. There are different levels these All-Stars, these superstars can get to. They pace themselves, especially the top 5-10 ones. For us, we were pacing each other at the perfect pace.”

Dudley said the Lakers had circled the Bucks/Clippers dates on the calendar as games they really wanted to perform well in.

“We knew that was prime time,” said Dudley. “Those were two teams we knew we would face in the playoffs, if not the Finals. To beat both of them the way we did … it’s not just beating a team, it’s how we beat them. LeBron guarding the top two players, which no one expected. Us getting contributions from our role players. Us controlling the game versus Milwaukee … we were playing our best basketball.”

While Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the frontrunner to win his second straight MVP award all season, James had begun to make the race interesting in the weeks before the season was suspended. And while James’s career isn’t defined by individual honors, winning that award, Dudley says, does matter to him.

“He believes he is the greatest basketball player, the MVP,” says Dudley. “That’s not his goal. I’ve never heard him talk about individual stuff. His whole thing is the championship … but it matters to him, about MVP. It matters to Anthony Davis, about Defensive Player of the Year. Those athletes don’t put in that kind of work to say, ‘Oh, I don’t care.’”

Right now, there are more questions about the immediate future than answers. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in an interview on the league’s Twitter account, said the league was weeks away from making any decisions. “We just have too little information,” Silver said. Ideally the NBA could come back with an abbreviated regular season and some form of the playoffs, likely in one location (SI.com reported last week that Las Vegas is the only site being seriously discussed) with a whittled down format. Because as much as the NBA wants to return, Silver said, at some point the league has to start thinking about the impact on next season.

And there’s another issue: At what point is crowning a champion not really crowning a champion? Reducing a best-of-seven series to, say, best-of-five is one thing. Cutting it to best-of-three or tossing it out for an NCAA-style tournament is another. There will come a point where even if a postseason can be salvaged, the end of it may not have any real value.

“I think half [the players] would say the season has an asterisk, half wouldn’t,” Dudley said. “You still have to play the games. We all have the same situations. It’s not like one team is practicing and another one isn’t. We’re all going through the same [stuff]. I would say players [would want a postseason] because it’s a dollar game. It’s the revenue … I think the NBA really wants us to crown a champion. Not only from a money standpoint, I think Adam Silver and the league see it as an obligation society-wise to help people have hope.”

Indeed, if sports do come back in the coming months, the NBA will likely be among the first to do it. Silver suggested that the league would review the landscape on May 1, with the availability of testing likely to be the first issue the NBA needs to see resolved. For now, James and the Lakers are relegated to home workouts and group text messaging to stay sharp in the hopes that a run at a title can be re-started.

On to your mail …

Thoughts on Arturas Karnisovas in Chicago? Any chatter about who he might hire as a GM or a coach? - Marcus, Springfield, Ill.

Excellent hire. Karnisovas is a basketball lifer who earned this opportunity, climbing the ranks from scout to executive to general manager in Denver, where he played an instrumental role for a team that has largely succeeded with draft picks, both high and low, in recent years. He’s universally respected across the league and eager for this kind of opportunity. It’s unclear the direction Karnisovas will go for his GM—Calvin Booth, an assistant GM in Denver viewed as a rising star, is someone to watch—but Karnisovas will be charged with fleshing out a front office in need of modernization.

Jim Boylan is the coach, but it’s likely Karnisovas will want to bring in his own person. And doesn’t Kenny Atkinson feel like a perfect fit? The Bulls have a young roster; Atkinson is one of the preeminent developmental coaches. Atkinson got a raw deal in Brooklyn. Well Denver hit on another longtime assistant who caught a bad beat: Mike Malone, who was picked up after getting fired in Sacramento and in recent years has emerged as a Coach of the Year candidate.

Karnisovas will have a chance to turn this team around, quickly. The books look pretty clean after next season, and with the right coach that young roster could look positively Brooklyn-esque, loaded with role players just waiting for a star to step in.

Adam-Silver

Should the NBA just write off this season and start the ‘20-21 year on Christmas Day and play until August 31st 2021? - @NormHullTx

I don’t think you have to write off anything yet. The NBA regular season would just be winding down if this pandemic had not hit, so there is time to wait it out. As for starting the season on Christmas, I love it. I wrote about this last month, there’s very little evidence that summer basketball won’t draw ratings. The biggest reason ratings drop in the summer is because networks generally don’t invest much in summer programming. I don’t see why an NBA Finals in the middle of August won’t do just as well as one that starts in early June. And outside the shadow of football, regular season ratings should rise, too. Don’t expect anything permanent to happen until the network deals come up for renewal, but when they do, a change to the NBA calendar is an idea worth exploring.

Let’s say the NBA comes back in July—who do you make the favorite? How much will the time off shake things up? Stephen, Boston

Immensely. Putting aside how the NBA would format a postseason—it’s safe to say a traditional best-of-seven series is out—we have no idea what kind of condition these players are going to come back in. I’ve talked to a half dozen players in the last few weeks. Most of them are doing home workouts on YouTube. Some have mixed in Zoom workouts with teammates. A few have backyard or driveway hoops that they have tossed up some shots on. That’s fine if you’re a 9-5er on furlough. But a professional athlete?

Conditioning makes the any postseason very intriguing. Seeding almost becomes irrelevant. The Lakers would be huge favorites over the Grizzlies in the first round, but if Memphis’s super springy young lineup comes off this break in better shape than LA’s older roster, you could see an upset. Summer madness indeed.

Are we that starved for content that we’re television H-O-R-S-E? - Elliott, Phoenix

Short answer: Yes. ESPN needs live programming. They think H-O-R-S-E will draw viewers. I won’t be one of them.