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What If LeBron Never Wins Another NBA Title?

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“What if LeBron never wins another NBA title?” The question isn’t new. But for most of the past eighteen months, ever since Kevin Durant signed in Golden State, it’s only been whispered. When someone actually says it out loud, in the middle of a basketball debate, it’s like throwing a live grenade into the conversation. Everyone would prefer to tread lightly with LeBron skepticism—in part because most basketball fans deeply regret the folly of their LeBron clutch takes in 2011, and also because it’s just not very much fun to play the skeptic at this point. LeBron is unbelievable. We’ll be talking about his career for the next 50 years. Deep down, everyone is rooting for the story to get as ridiculous as possible. And yet, in spite of that goodwill, or maybe because of it, the third-rail rings discussion is becoming harder to avoid. It might be what defines this NBA summer. 

First, there is the Eastern Conference finals. Tuesday in Boston began according to script. At 10:30 a.m. when reporters entered Cavs shootaround, James was on the far side of the court, shirtless, shooting, and drenched in sweat. After a relatively passive Game 1 for LeBron, the whole basketball world was ready for a massive Game 2 response. So, solitary shooting nearly twelve hours before tip-off dovetailed perfectly with the fan fiction everyone was writing for Game 2 as soon as Game 1 ended.

About 30 minutes away, at Boston’s shootaround in Waltham, Brad Stevens was clear-eyed about what was coming. “You could go through the career of every great player ever,” Stevens said. “They always respond. They’re always anxious to respond. They’re ready to respond.”

And LeBron responded. He scored 21 of Cleveland’s 27 points in the first quarter. This was not a “feel-out game.” He bullied Jaylen Brown for a layup, and then a few minutes later, he bullied Marcus Morris to get to the line. Marcus Smart held his own for about 10 seconds, refusing to budge an inch in the post, eventually pushing James out to the three-point line. Then James hit a turnaround fadeaway three as the shot clock expired. It was that kind of night. 

The Cavs were up seven at halftime. Four minutes into the third quarter, Marcus Morris hit a three to make it a two-point game. On the very next possession, LeBron James drained a three from the wing to put Cleveland up five. A few minutes later, Morris barreled into Tristan Thompson for a three-point play to tie it. Rolling on the floor, Morris screamed in Thompson’s face. Scuffles ensued. The Garden went insane. And LeBron followed that sequence with a running floater from the stripe to calmly retake the lead. Again, that kind of night.

And then it wasn’t. The Celtics kept coming. Terry Rozier took over the third quarter, and then Al Horford owned the fourth. Through it all, Marcus Smart was throwing his body all over the floor and inciting exactly the sort of chaos that makes the Celtics machine run smoothly. Smart’s been doing this the entire playoffs. He’s been so good that he’s probably forced millions of people who aren’t basketball bloggers or NBA coaches to utter the phrase “winning plays” without irony. And in the middle of the Rozier and Smart storm in that third quarter, the Cavs collapsed. LeBron couldn’t do it by himself.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to LeBron,” Smart said afterward. “We knew coming into this game that he was going to come out and give everything he had and he was going to have a game like this. Our job was to just keep going, make it tough on him all night. Eventually those shots he was hitting in the first half, in the second half, stopped falling. And it took a full team effort, everybody off the bench, and guys we just kept sending at him.”

Boston Globe

The Cavs will go home for Game 3 Saturday night. The series certainly isn’t over. But LeBron hasn’t been down 0-2 in an Eastern Conference playoff series in 10 years. He just went for 42 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists, and he lost by double digits. Ty Lue is getting outcoached. J.R. Smith has been awful. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver have been uneven. George Hill hasn’t shown up. None of this is necessarily hopeless, but it doesn’t look great. 

Now look more globally. On Monday night the Warriors went into Houston and dominated a Rockets team that won 65 games this season. Kevin Durant has never looked more unstoppable. Meanwhile, the Celtics are emerging as the most compelling long-term threat to everything that’s happening in Golden State. Beyond Boston, Houston and Philadelphia still have more long-term weapons than anything Cleveland can bring to the table. 

In any “What if LeBron never wins another title?” conversation for the past year, LeBron was generally insulated from criticism. Durant broke the competitive landscape in the NBA. As far as legacy scorekeeping is concerned, losing a title to a team with four Hall of Famers probably won’t be held against anyone. Even after Durant’s spectacular Finals last year, right or wrong, everyone concluded that Golden State was the best team and LeBron was still the best player. But now we’re seeing additional contenders that leave LeBron looking mortal. It’s harder to rationalize those failures. 

Boston isn’t going away, and beginning next year, the Celtics should be much better. Same with the Sixers, a team that beat the Cavs twice in the final month of the season. Houston beat Cleveland by just four points in November, but won by 32 when the two teams met in February. All year long we’ve been waiting to see the Cavs flip the switch, and except for 10 days against a crumbling Raptors team, it hasn’t happened. 

That brings us to this summer, obviously. LeBron could go to Los Angeles to try to play with Paul George and Brandon Ingram. He could sign with Philadelphia and bank on a Kawhi Leonard trade that creates that closest analog to the Monstars lineup the NBA has ever seen. He could stay in Cleveland and try to get help from George and Boogie Cousins. Hall of Fame salary cap gymnastics are never out of the question with Daryl Morey, and therefore the Rockets are in the mix as well. 

What’s interesting is that none of the free agency options look like obvious solutions to the Warriors problem. Some of those hypothetical superteams wouldn’t necessarily be good enough to beat a healthy Boston team, either. 

If the Raptors series made the Jordan-LeBron debate realer than ever and reminded the world that LeBron is the most dominant player of this generation, the Celtics series is a reminder that we don’t know how this story will end. If there are no moves left to continue making the Finals every year, LeBron won’t own the center of the sport for much longer. It’s possible that this Boston series marks the beginning of his NBA mortality. If so, it would be a nice bookend to the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, when LeBron played the best game of his career and his reign began. 

Maybe that kind of game is what’s coming this weekend, and the Cavs will go on to win this series from there. Or maybe this summer LeBron will team with Kawhi in Philly and we’ll spend the next 10 months waiting for a legendary showdown with the Warriors. But there’s also a possibility that LeBron’s entering a new phase of his career, one in which we begin to appreciate him differently than Jordan. 

LeBron’s mortality could ultimately heighten appreciation for humanity that Jordan never had. Instead of focusing on titles and dominance, we’ll focus on technical excellence, social awareness, and the myriad ways James has empowered his peers and made the entire sport more interesting to follow. Of course, he could also continue to demand new help every year, leave teams handicapped by refusing to commit to their future, and jeopardize his goodwill by monopolizing the spotlight with melodrama. That’s possible, too. But in any case, we’re not there yet. 

Sitting next to Kevin Love at the podium after the loss Tuesday, LeBron was asked about the challenge he’s facing through the rest of this series. “How will I digest it?” he answered. “I’m going to go home tonight and see my three kids. See my family. Recalibrate. See my mom. I think I’ll be fine. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day, you can live with that. I’ll recalibrate as far as how I can help this team continue to be successful, how I can do some things to make us be even more complete.” 

While he explained himself, Kevin Love was next to him, laughing with a Cavs beat writer who was threatening to ask Love his first question of the press conference. LeBron picked up on it, and at the end of his answer he added, “The only way I won’t get no sleep tonight is if Kev don’t get asked a question.” The room broke out in laughter, and on cue, Love was asked to diagnose the struggles of Cleveland’s supporting cast. 

That moment was a good reminder of how LeBron has changed over the years. He’s more comfortable with himself. He’s capable of laughing at all of this, and so are we. This isn’t 2011 anymore. But the Celtics aren’t going away in 2018, and neither are the Warriors. LeBron has left no doubts about his place in history, but this year and beyond, there has never been more room to doubt his chances on the court. To paraphrase Brad Stevens, all we know for sure is that a response is coming.

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Eugenie Bouchard retires in French Open qualifying

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Eugenie Bouchard's rough ride is showing no signs of slowing down.

The Canadian tennis star retired after trailing Dalila Jakuopovic of Slovenia 6-0, 2-1 in the first round of French Open qualifying on Wednesday.

Now ranked 167th in the world, Bouchard is well outside a spot that would earn her direct entry into a Grand Slam.

The 24-year-old native of Westmount, Que., has experienced a steady tumble since reaching No. 5 in the world in 2014, highlighted by an appearance in the Wimbledon final.

Meanwhile, Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga upset top qualifying seed Vera Lapko of Belarus 6-4, 7-5 in another first-round qualifying match. Carol Zhao of Richmond Hill dropped a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 decision to Francesca Schiavone of Italy.

In men's second-round action, Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime meets Spain's Jaume Munar later Wednesday.

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Can the Jets Afford Stastny?

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When Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff acquired Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, the general consensus was that he was the quintessential “rental” — one that turned out quite well for the Jets. But can he be more than that?

Going into the offseason, one of Cheveldayoff’s main quandaries will be whether he has the greenbacks to go after Stastny and plant him in the middle of his second line for years to come.

Stastny Open to Re-Signing With Jets

A discussion on whether the Jets can afford Stastny would be pointless if he didn’t want to stay in Winnipeg. It’s a cold, unforgiving city bereft of most of the extra perks — like nightlife or year-round access to beautiful beaches — one can glean from playing in markets like New York or Florida.

However, Stastny recently told Winnipeg media he is open to returning to the Jets, saying coming to Winnipeg “made the game that much more fun again” and that it was the best decision of his career to waive his no-trade clause.

Paul Stastny was very productive in his stint with Winnipeg. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he had 28 points. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

He posted 13 points in 19 regular-season games plus 15 more in 17 playoff games, and he found quick chemistry with prolific young guns Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. In so doing, he added yet another dimension to the Jets’ already multi-faceted and dangerous offense.

Money Matters

Finding enough money to entice Stastny won’t be easy. The Jets currently have $54.4 million dollars committed for next season, which gives them roughly $25 million to work with.

However, there are several restricted free-agent youngsters Cheveldayoff needs to ink before he can shift the focus to re-signing Stastny. Simply put, the Jets’ GM owes a lot of dudes a lot of dollars. Stastny understands this and knows the Jets’ brass will target homegrown guys first.

“We all know there are a lot of players who need to be signed here,” Statsny said. “There’s not just one person. When you have success like this, a lot of guys need to get rewarded. And you’ve got to take care of those young guys first. Those guys really earned it. We’ll talk with Chevy down the road.”

Hellebuyck Will Get Big Bucks

The first man to be paid will likely be Connor Hellebuyck. The 25-year-old goaltender was signed to a one-year, “ship up or ship out” deal prior to the 2017-18 season and wasn’t even slated to be the starter. He shattered all expectations and had a 44-win, Vezina-calibre campaign, acting as the cornerstone for the Jets’ success.

Hellebuyck is obviously not going settle for a modest, short-term bridge deal now. He’s going to cash in big time (and deservedly so). He will likely command $5 million per year — if not more.

Defensemen and Depth Forwards Will Get Payday, Too

Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, the pair of defensemen who were often tasked with shutting down opponents’ top players this year, are also both restricted free agents.

It’s been two years since Trouba’s infamous 2016 holdout. He’s now committed to Winnipeg and wants to sign a long-term deal.

Jacob Trouba Winnipeg Jets

Jacob Trouba is just one of many home-grown players Cheveldayoff must focus on locking up before he can think about Stastny. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“(Trouba has) done enough to earn a long-term pact and join the likes of Morgan Rielly, Colton Parayko and Seth Jones in the $5-million-plus range,” Matt Larkin of The Hockey News wrote recently.

Morrissey, too, has become a big part of the Jets’ present and future. While he won’t elicit as handsome a salary as his partner, one could conservatively estimate that the steady blueliner’s salary will at least double, if not triple, landing him in the $2-million to $3-million-per-year range.

Moving to depth forwards, half of the Jets’ bottom-six are unsigned. Adam Lowry, Joel Armia, and Brandon Tanev will chew up cap space as well — probably between $1.5 million and $2 million each.

If you’ve been doing the math in your head as you go, that’s about $19 million committed. That figure doesn’t factor in players who are less of a guarantee — but still a possibility — to be back in Jets colours come October, such as Marko Dano, Tucker Poolman, and Joe Morrow.

Stastny Will Be in High Demand

Stastny, an unrestricted free agent, is free to go wherever he pleases this offseason. He’ll be sought after: the field of UFA centres is looking like it’ll be a bit bare come summertime. 

The 32-year-old veteran of 12 NHL seasons is one of the best options available for teams looking to bolster their top-six. John Tavares is the belle of the free-agent ball, but his asking price could scare away potential suitors. Joe Thornton will be 39 years old by the time the puck drops on the 2018-19 season and was limited to 47 games as he suffered a knee injury. Tyler Bozak is only debatably a top-six forward.

Several squads will certainly be seeking Statsny out, and he knows he can charge whatever the market will bear for his services.

How Much is Stastny Worth?

Statsny is coming off a five-year deal worth $33 million, an average of $6.6 million per year. He could command a similar figure this time around based on the factors at play. He’ll be looking for a long-term deal to take him all the way to retirement.

Paul Stastny - Winnipeg Jets

Stastny is fetch a handsome salary this year given the short supply of top-six centres.  (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If Statsny does command $6 million-plus, the Jets may be hard-pressed to come up with the scratch to sign him, given the $20 million they will likely be spending on their aforementioned in-house talent.

Obviously, Statsny likes Winnipeg and enjoyed finishing his season with the Jets. However, it’s doubtful the city, the hockey culture, or the organization — regardless of the fact that it’s poised to be a strong Stanley Cup contender for the next several seasons — made enough of an impression in three months for him to give the Jets a “hometown discount.” Winnipeg isn’t his hometown, after all.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Even if Stastny has played his last game for the Jets, the trade should be considered a win. He was about as good as a “rental” could be. He was a key contributor in both the Jets’ final quarter of their historic regular season and their deep playoff run. Perhaps just as importantly, the Jets’ acquisition of Stastny communicated to the fan base, in the clearest possible terms, that the organization was done being patient and ready to compete in the present.

If the Jets can’t re-sign Stastny, the two sides will part amicably — like two people in a relationship that could have worked out if the circumstances were a little different. It’s truly just a numbers game. Sometimes you just can’t afford to fill your entire wish list.

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5 ways Unai Emery can improve Arsenal

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LONDON — Arsenal’s new head coach will have to overcome some problems that developed both on and off the field during the final part of Arsene Wenger’s long tenure.

Unai Emery, who was hired Wednesday to replace Wenger after 22 seasons in north London, will take over a club that finished sixth in the Premier League last season — its worst showing under the French coach.

But Emery has proven himself both in domestic soccer and in Europe, winning league titles at Paris Saint-Germain and the Europa League at Sevilla. Still, he was fired by PSG after failing to deliver Champions League success to the French club.

Here are some issues Emery must address at Arsenal:

LEADERSHIP

The Arsenal teams that finished in the Premier League’s top two places for eight consecutive seasons at the turn of the millennium was packed with leaders, including players like Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams. Following a third and final title-winning campaign under Wenger in 2004, the squad gradually lost its experienced core.

Emery will look to fill that void and consider the character – as well as the quality – of the players he brings in this off-season.

CENTRAL Defence

Arsenal already needed a new central defender, and that was before captain Laurent Koscielny ruptured his Achilles tendon in the final weeks of the season.

With the France defender set to be out until the end of 2018, Emery may be in the market for two new centre backs.

Arsenal conceded only five fewer Premier League goals than Swansea and West Bromwich Albion, who were both relegated.

Shkodran Mustafi has also struggled, and while there is still hope that the youthful duo of Rob Holding and Calum Chambers can develop into first-team regulars, the pair have yet to prove they are ready.

HOLDING MIDFIELDER

One of the reasons Arsenal’s defenders have been so often exposed is the lack of protection in front of them.

During Wenger’s final two seasons in charge, he insisted on playing Granit Xhaka in a holding role, despite the Switzerland midfielder’s defensive frailties.

While Xhaka certainly has the ability to be a useful player, Emery will be looking to recruit someone with more discipline to sit at the base of his midfield.

FRONT LINE

On paper, the strongest part of Arsenal’s squad is up front. Strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang both joined the club over the past 12 months for a combined total of more than 100 million pounds ($133 million).

After arriving last year, Lacazette had a mixed first Premier League campaign and was in and out of the starting lineup, eventually scoring 14 goals. Aubameyang settled in quickly after his mid-season arrival and netted an impressive 10 goals in 13 appearances. However, there was still a feeling that Arsenal wasn’t fully utilizing all of the Gabon forward’s assets, particularly his blistering pace.

Emery will attempt to avoid alienating either of the club’s major investments by finding a way to incorporate two of his most talented players into the starting lineup.

UNITY

A toxic atmosphere has surrounded the club in recent seasons, mainly because of fan opposition to Wenger.

This discontent was even felt in the team, highlighted by a divide between Alexis Sanchez and his teammates before the Chile forward departed for Manchester United.

Emery is likely to benefit from a warm welcome from the club’s fan base, but maintaining unity, both on and off the field, will be high on his list of priorities.

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