LeBron James scored 47 points Friday night against the Hawks, on his 38th birthday, and his brilliance was intentional.
It was a message to the rest of the NBA. The King still lives. He is still the King and he is still a premier player. While he may never win another MVP award or may not be considered a top-five player as he approaches 40, James remains elite in an unenviable situation with the Lakers.
The Lakers have won one title with James as the central figure, in 2020 in the bubble, when they were unquestionably the best team in the NBA before and after the season was suspended.
Since then, the Lakers have been a mess. They are 90-100 with one playoff appearance. General manager Rob Pelinka has tried to upgrade the roster by adding star power, but he has failed miserably, and this team is six games below .500 with a bunch of castoffs and declining players — other than Anthony Davis — surrounding James. As for Davis, he can’t stay healthy and was having an MVP-type season before his latest injury (right foot), which has cost him the last two weeks.
James realizes Father Time is approaching him with a summons, and he wants to play for a championship-caliber team for the remainder of his career. That can happen in Los Angeles but not likely until next season, at the earliest.
James and Davis are the only primary players signed past this season. The Lakers could wait until the summer to scrape up enough salary-cap space for a maximum player, add a premium point guard (Kyrie Irving?), and take their chances on making a run in 2023-24.
There are some drawbacks to that plan, especially when James has made it apparent he doesn’t want the Lakers to sacrifice seasons for the sake of the future.
“I think about how much longer I’m going to play the game,” he said. “I don’t want to finish my career playing at this [team] level. I still want to be able to compete for championships because I know what I can still bring to any ball club with the right pieces. I think about my son [Bronny] graduating high school soon and going off to college, and I’m still playing, and my youngest son [Bryce] will be a junior next year, and how much more time I’ll miss. Every day when it’s time for us to work, I lock in. For the most part, it’s been a good ride so far.”
The 47 points Friday brought James within 528 of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, which could happen in February. James is eighth in the NBA in scoring this season at 28.5 points per game, and he would probably receive more accolades if the Lakers were winning. James is a prideful player who pays close attention to critics and the opinions of NBA players.
And he realizes that perhaps no other player in NBA history has played this well at this age.
“I kind of surprise myself sometimes,” he said. “When you look at the history of the game, it doesn’t seem that many have played at this level with this many years and this many miles on their résumé. I’m very humbled to be able to play the game at this level and still be a focal point of opposing teams. When they look at who they’re going against, I’m still up there at the top. That’s something I pride myself on, on being that level of player every single night.”
James remains a remarkable player, but he doesn’t want to be Kobe Bryant in his final years with the Lakers or Michael Jordan with the Wizards, a generational player putting up numbers for teams with no chance to win a championship. James’s 47-point outing was indicative of the game that remains, but he’s beginning to ask what’s the purpose when the Lakers can’t compete in the Western Conference?
“I don’t have a number [of years to keep playing], and as long as my mind stays in it, I can play at this level for a minute,” he said. “I’m a winner and I want to win. I want to give myself a chance to compete for championships. Playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is just not in my DNA anymore. We’ll see what happens and how fresh my mind stays over the next couple of years.”
Rockets’ Silas remembers father
Stephen Silas is in his third season as coach of the Rockets. It’s the first non-interim NBA head coaching job for the 20-year assistant and son of Paul Silas, who helped the Celtics win two championships in the 1970s and who died Dec. 11 at age 79.
Paul Silas was a head coach with the Clippers, Bobcats, Cavaliers, and Hornets for a combined 12 seasons. Heonce told the Globe at a Celtics reunion that he grew tired of the lack of respect for the game showed by younger players. Silas was famous for his stern coaching style, brutally honest assessments of players, and his lively postgame news conferences.
Stephen Silas was asked what he takes from his father’s coaching style. He smiled.
“You can’t just grab a player anymore like my dad used to do,” he said. “It’s different in that I would say you can’t be as tough as my dad was, but there’s certain times he was so direct and he would have hurt a lot of players’ feelings from this era. That’s not good for your job security at this time. But he always did it in such a way that all the players knew that he cared about them at the same time.”
Paul Silas was LeBron James’s first head coach, and during Silas’s time in Cleveland he had infamous clashes with Eric Snow and Ira Newble. But Silas didn’t inherit enviable coaching situations. He was the coach during Charlotte’s 7-59 season in 2011-12, when the team’s leading scorer was Gerald Henderson at 15.1 points per game.
Silas’s teams did reach the playoffs four times, including the Hornets making the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2001 and 2002.
“To have that balance to really, really go at players but also when he passed, all those same players were calling and texting and making sure that I knew how much he meant to them,” Stephen Silas said. “He just had a way about him that he was tough and gritty and mean on the court, but off the court the exact opposite, a teddy bear, quick to smile, quick to laugh, quick to joke, and there aren’t many people who have that ability to do those two things.”
Stephen Silas said his father had an old-school coaching style, one that likely would not have translated to this generation.
“[His news conferences] would have gone viral today,” Stephen Silas said. “Some of the postgame rants and some of the things that he did and some of the little comments that he may or may not have gotten fined for, he always did it. He was a basketball lifer, an NBA lifer, not just basketball. He played for 16 years. He coached for 25 years. Forty years in the NBA, so what he did was always based on a genuine love for the NBA and a genuine love for the players because he was one once.
“I wasn’t blessed to be an NBA player, but I was blessed to be my father’s son, so I could empathize and see how he handled NBA players and do my best and do my Paul Silas impression at times, but he was just a good, good man. We’re staggered as a family as far as the reception that we’ve gotten and the tributes that have happened, all the moments of silence. We always thought he was great, and for everybody to see it the same way we see it is really just a great thing. I’m so proud to be his son.”
Awards are nod to the past
There have been mixed opinions about naming every NBA award after a legendary player, but here we are.
The NBA MVP is now called the Michael Jordan Trophy. The NBA devised the Clutch Player of the Year and named it the Jerry West Trophy. The NBA Defensive Player of the Year will win the Hakeem Olajuwon Trophy. The NBA Rookie of the Year will be awarded the Wilt Chamberlain Trophy. The NBA Sixth Man of the Year will earn the John Havlicek Trophy, and the NBA’s Most Improved Player will get the George Mikan Trophy.
These ideas are all part of the NBA’s tribute to its legends. Previously, the NBA Finals MVP was named for Bill Russell; the All-Star MVP Award is the Kobe Bryant Trophy; the Eastern Conference MVP Award is the Larry Bird Trophy; and the Western Conference MVP Award is named after Magic Johnson.
“Let me begin by saying of course Michael Jordan is now a governor in this league, of the Charlotte Hornets, one of my 30 bosses right now,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “I want to make clear he was not looking for an additional honor and he had to be, frankly, persuaded to accept this.
“It was the feeling, though, as we worked through the 75th anniversary and in discussions with our players and our Players Association, that there was even more we could do as a league to honor the great players of the past. I think when we were looking then to add a name and association, a new one, to the MVP trophy, I think for everyone, they said, ‘Who better than Michael Jordan?’ ”
The NBA has sought in the past decade to introduce, in a sense, some of its legends to a younger generation, but the NBA lacks the quality film of games from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s like the NFL has. Some current players are NBA historians and some are not. But there needs to be more respect given to these pioneers.
“I think it’s important for the league that we constantly celebrate the past,” Silver said. “Part of it is for the young players coming to this league and winning trophies, that those [former] players aren’t forgotten, and that the values they brought to the game, the way they helped build the game to what it is today, continue to be remembered. So we thought through those trophies, that was a perfect way to do it.”
Will worlds collide at All-Star Game?
Two decades ago, the NBA would not have been able to put together a competitive team of international players to compete against American players in an All-Star Game. That is no longer the case. Could the league borrow an idea from the NHL and have a US vs. the World game, like it does in the Rising Stars game? And would that penalize any American players who would be left off that team but were All-Star worthy?
An international team could include Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Pascal Siakam, Lauri Markkanen, Kristaps Porzingis, Rudy Gobert, Domantas Sabonis, Jamal Murray, Ben Simmons, Deandre Ayton, Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, OG Anunoby, and Franz Wagner.
Not a bad team. But it doesn’t sound close to reality, according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“Part of it is that right now roughly 25 percent of the league was born outside of the United States. So part of it, in fairness to the players, like if we were to do sort of an All-Star format or something like that, I wouldn’t necessarily want one pool to come from 25 percent of players and the other pool come from 75 percent,” Silver said. “But again, look no further than the World Cup. There’s no doubt that nationalistic fervor that you see when you’re playing for your country is second to none. I mean, it’s something we all can connect to.
“When you look at the international growth of the NBA, it’s not just that 25 percent of our players. But if you look at our two last MVPs. Somebody mentioned to me earlier today, the top five scorers in the NBA are from five different countries. US represents one of those in Jayson Tatum, but then four other countries, and we know who those players are.”
It has been the NBA’s long-term vision to become an international league in which the world’s best players would come to play.
“I’m sorry David Stern isn’t with us,” Silver said of his predecessor. “Sort of it was his vision to truly make the NBA and basketball a global sport. It began at the league in 1992, shortly before the Barcelona Olympics and the Dream Team. We saw the impact that had. Now looking back 30 years, 30 years of playing games in México City, it’s really happening.
“I just think that for my colleagues here and for me, we just have to stick with it. We have to continue to recognize this is an incremental process. But then all of a sudden you’ll see a jump. For example, we saw with Yao Ming in China, where all of a sudden you have a once-in-a-lifetime, transformational player come from a market. That can also have a big impact. But the only way you can take advantage of that is if you’ve laid the groundwork and put in all the thousands of hours it takes, brought that game to the market in a grassroots way and then to be ready for it.
“I think that’s what we’re going to continue to see with this sport. It’s only going to continue to grow on a global basis, which is what makes this so exciting for me and for all our fans.”
Don’t expect any major changes in Detroit despite the Pistons being one of the league’s most disappointing teams. The Pistons led the Clippers by 14 points with 3:34 left and allowed the Clippers to force overtime and then pull away for the win. Without former No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, who is missing the rest of the season with a shin injury, the Pistons have struggled mightily, especially holding late leads. Coach Dwane Casey was hoping his club would take a significant step into playoff contention, but it has yet to learn how to win and the roster is still painfully young. The organization supports Casey, but if he steps down, he’s likely to take another position in the organization. A prime candidate to succeed Casey would be former Celtics assistant Jerome Allen, who is a rising star in the coaching ranks and is expected to be a serious candidate for upcoming NBA jobs . . . Charlotte forward Miles Bridges watched his team’s win over the Lakers courtside and it appears the sides are nearing an agreement on a new contract. Bridges pleaded no contest in an assault case involving the mother of his children and he certainly will face a considerable suspension from the NBA once his contract situation is settled. The Hornets have endured a miserable season under coach Steve Clifford, besieged by injuries to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, in addition to losing Bridges, who was on the verge of being an All-Star before his off-court issues . . . On Jan. 5, teams can start signing players to 10-day contracts, so expect them to begin clearing roster space. The Raptors already waived Justin Champagnie, while the Celtics will have to make a decision on forward Justin Jackson and center Noah Vonleh, whose contracts will be guaranteed for the season by Jan. 10. Players such as Carmelo Anthony, Eric Bledsoe, Hassan Whiteside, DeMarcus Cousins, and Isaiah Thomas are available and interested in returning to the league. Look for several of these veterans to draw interest for teams on these 10-day contracts.