The two biggest names in this game we love remain Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
And as free agency slows to a crawl after three frenetic weeks, the basketball world’s focus is on Barcelona, Spain, where Bryant, James and the rest of Team USA practiced and held court with the international media, one day before their “friendly” vs. Argentina on Sunday.
In terms of popularity, Bryant is the unquestioned king. His jersey is the top seller internationally, while James is third, trailing Derrick Rose. And in another impromptu study without empirical data, he remains the king as well.
From Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press: “They carry cameras and microphones, sprinting toward Kobe Bryant like Christmas shoppers who just spotted the “it” gift sitting on shelves. Their questions come quickly, some in English, many in Spanish, and Bryant gives the perfect answer every time. Yes, Spain is an incredible team that can pose problems for the U.S. No, Pau Gasol isn’t getting traded from the Lakers as long as he is there. The only thing Bryant can’t seem to explain to reporters is why he’s so much more popular than his teammates on the Olympic basketball team. “I don’t know. I don’t know where it comes from or how that happens,” he said Saturday with a laugh. “It all started with the Dream Team in terms of basketball becoming so global. When I came into the NBA, I kind of inherited kind of the globalization of the game, and then having grown up overseas they really kind of laid claim to me because this is where I learned how to play the game, is overseas.”
Most of Bryant’s interview session was genial. He removed the edge he normally reserves for American media, left out the occasional swear words he drops here and there, and acknowledged the history of the moment – that Team USA was back in Barcelona, 20 years after the Dream Team put its indelible stamp on the international game at the 1992 Olympics.
Earlier this month, Bryant boasted that this current crop of Americans could beat the Dream Team. Members of that squad such as Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Larry Bird laughed it off.
The setting almost required Bryant to be asked again. And when he was, Bryant adopted his on-court persona and refused to back down.
From Marc Stein of ESPN.com: “People who think we can’t beat that team for one game, they’re crazy,” Bryant said. “To sit there and say we can’t, it’s ludicrous.” Asked if that’s a viewpoint he plans to share directly with Jordan next time they cross paths — after MJ opined that opening up this back and forth was “not one of the smarter things [Bryant] ever could have done” — Kobe answered: “He knows. They got beaten by a college select team once. Doesn’t mean we’re a better team than them, but s—, we can beat them one time.” The trouble, of course, is not only that we’ll never know the truth, but also the reality that Team USA’s many injury casualties in 2012 (starting with Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh) have drained much of the passion out of the debate. USA Basketball will not be taking to the London Olympics anything close to the best team it could have fielded. Combine that with the fact the original Dreamers had an untouchable cultural impact that changed the face of the game forever — or the fact the competition is so much better two decades later compared to an awestruck field that conceded the gold to the glittering Dream Team before anyone even reached Barcelona — and you have too many complicated variables to process to spend too much time on this particular hypothetical. “Those are things I think about during the summer when I’m at the beach with my family,” Team USA boss Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday. “Not when I’m coaching the USA team.”
And Bryant no longer is alone on his island well off the shores of conventional wisdom. His Robinson Crusoe now has a Friday in the form of Chris Paul, who told Stein, “In all honestly, what’s he supposed to say if you guys ask him? Tell me what everybody would have said if Kobe said, ‘We can’t beat ’em.’ We respect that team, believe me. I was 7 at the time. Even though I don’t remember all the games, I used to collect all the [basketball] cards. But let me tell you something: As long as you know me, as long as I’m playing this game, you’ll never hear me say that I think any man can beat me.”
James didn’t attract quite the crowd that Bryant did, not even with his newly minted status as NBA champion. But he did get a visit from our Chris Sheridan, who noted that although Bryant may be the more popular player, James is Team USA’s leader in both action and words.
From our embedded editor-in-chief: “It has taken years and years for the words LeBron James and NBA champion to be used together in the same sentence without a pejorative disclaimer, and I wanted to get a reading from James one month after the NBA Finals concluded as to how that fulfillment has changed him. We already know he is proud of himself, which he has let everyone know through tweets such as this one. Anyone who watched him closely on the night of Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder can attest to the unabashed joy and sense of fulfillment he was feeling as the final minutes of that blowout victory ticked away. And now, an ocean away and a month removed, the simplest of questions needed to be asked: How ya’ feeling, champ? “It hasn’t changed me at all. I was able to accomplish a goal of mine, I’m very excited about that, but it hasn’t changed my personality or anything like that,” James told SheridanHoops.com. Moments earlier, a member of the USA Basketball staff had told me exactly the opposite – that James was carrying himself with the pride of a champion, and the other players on the team were treating him with a new level of respect – the type of props earned among your peers only when you have a ring (or have one coming, to be pequito mas accurate). But James was having none of it. “I don’t know, not really. I don’t really seek out how people look at me or view me or treat me differently. I just be myself, and it doesn’t matter to me,” James said. “It’s always great when you can set out a goal and you can achieve it through hard work, and the best thing about it is you cut no corners, you don’t take every day off, and you just try to make your best effort. There’s always a fulfillment for that. You feel good about it.”
On Sunday, Argentina will be trying to figure out a way to slow down the hard-charging James, something that the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Britain were unable to do. That puts them in a club with 29 NBA teams.
In fact, the James freight train apparently caught the eye of a coach over a decade ago who wanted to put it to use in another sport.
From Ethan Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: “(Ohio State coach Urban) Meyer has a connection to LeBron James, too, one that goes beyond James’ fondness for the Buckeyes. “I offered him a scholarship when he was a sophomore in high school at St. Vincent St. Mary’s,” Meyer said. “I was at Notre Dame. He was a receiver, and I was a receiver’s coach.” How good was he? “Great.”
We now return to our regular programming, also known as the Dwight Howard saga.
It was a relatively quiet day on the Dwight front. There were no reports of trades, no reports of new trades, no denials of reported trades. The declarations from Howard’s agent (Dan Fegan) and Andrew Bynum’s agent (David Lee) that their clients would not commit to signing long-term with their prospective new teams have the rumor mill churning very slowly.
Slowly, but churning nonetheless.
From Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Byron Scott was as surprised as anyone to read that he has a close relationship with Lakers center Andrew Bynum. “I don’t know who wrote that, but I’ve read that as well,” Scott said Friday in a telephone interview from Las Vegas, where the Cavaliers finished summer league with a 3-2 record after a 98-64 victory over New York. “No, we’re not very close. We’re not very close at all.” With rumors swirling about Bynum coming to Cleveland as part of a three-way deal that would send Dwight Howard to the Lakers and Anderson Varejao and draft picks to Orlando, one of the reasons Bynum supposedly was interested in joining the Cavs was his close relationship to Scott. That relationship was news to Scott and more proof that the trade is more rumor than fact.”
Or perhaps it’s cold feet. It’s not every day you become the league’s youngest GM and your first assignment is to trade a top-five player and franchise cornerstone in a way that doesn’t bury you in eternal irrelevance. Pulling the trigger on that sort of transaction might give one cause for pause.
From Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio: “Mostly, what seems to be the sticking point in this deal is not an agent or player, but the indecisiveness of the Magic — and their new GM, Rob Hennigan. According to sources, the Magic have frustrated potential trading partners by continuously changing terms at the last minute. This supposedly dates back to their dealings with the Nets a few weeks back, when Nets GM Billy King felt an agreement that would send Howard to Brooklyn had been finalized, sources said. Instead, the Nets re-signed their own free-agent center, Brook Lopez, eliminating themselves from landing Howard. The Magic, meanwhile, have for the time being moved on to the Lakers, Cavs and possibly Rockets, and are said to be acting equally as difficult — with the Magic’s thinking seeming to be there’s no need to rush when they possess the big asset everyone wants. Makes sense, but as one opposing GM noted, there’s no way the Magic can bring Howard to camp in late September, and the clock is ticking. So the pressure soon will be on Hennigan, if it’s not already. As for the Cavs and Lakers, both teams reportedly have been determined in their pursuit of Howard and Bynum, respectively, with one source saying the Cavs are acting “cautious, but aggressive.”
There was some minor business done Saturday by the Timberwolves, who reportedly signed restricted free agent center Greg Stiemsma to a one-year, $3 million offer sheet that the Celtics cannot match because they only have the $1.9 million bi-annual exception available. More on this later.
There was also some other pretty cool stuff:
Rookie Harrison Barnes knows that Warriors executive Jerry West is the league logo and already is picking his brain.
In a touching acknowledgement of the tragedy in Aurora, CO, the Nuggets wore black headbands during their summer league game.
Eric Freeman of Ball Don’t Lie has some sponsor suggestions for NBA jerseys. Among the better ones: Orlando Magic: Excedrin. Because this Dwight Howard headache isn’t going to end anytime soon.