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Sam Smith: Desire for Kobe-LeBron leads to conflict of interest

For the NBA to be cooperating with its partner, ESPN, to feature Bryant and James the way they have is shocking and leads to just what the NBA tries to fight all the time: The idea that it manipulates series for the best television and ratings matchup
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: Desire for Kobe-LeBron leads to conflict of interest


The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

We’re not quite halfway to Kobe-LeBron I with the Lakers doing their part, ahead 2-1 on the Denver Nuggets, while the Cavs fell behind 2-1 with Sunday night’s loss to the Orlando Magic. I’m not one who believes these things are manipulated. Not when the Spurs and Nets played in the NBA Finals.

But the NBA has erred in a big way in that famous appearance of a conflict of interest. ESPN is a full partner with the NBA, not only in televising games, but with the TV networks able to dictate scheduling of the playoff games. So here is the NBA on its web site promoting a one hour special ESPN has been running called “Dream Season: 23 & 24,” which is clearly about Bryant and James meeting in the NBA Finals. It’s supposedly a documentary focusing on the pair’s basketball careers. But there are obvious comparisons made with Wilt and Russell and Magic and Bird and having an opponent in the Finals who defines you.

It’s one thing for Nike to be running these ads with James and Bryant puppets. We know what they are selling. But for the NBA to be cooperating with its partner to feature Bryant and James this way is shocking and leads to just what the NBA tries to fight all the time: The idea that it manipulates series for the best television and ratings matchup.

Especially coming after disgraced referee Tim Donaghy alleged something similar, suggesting referees make calls to favor the stars in the playoffs, the thinking being if they please the league and a better matchup occurs, the referees will get the choice Finals assignments and thus much more pay. I believe it’s nonsense and I also have found the many referees I know to have high levels of integrity.

So I cannot believe the NBA would not ask ESPN to at least hold off until after the conference finals on this kind of thing. I know the NBA has influence in its contract with what ESPN can say regarding certain issues. Remember when all the ESPN experts after the Palace brawl suggested the Pacers were provoked, and then after David Stern “talked” to them they decided it was an outrage. Dwight Howard, who fouled out of Game 2 after an obvious missed foul call for James, who shot a stunning 24 free throws in Game 3, was asked after Sunday about the league and ESPN featuring Kobe and LeBron and said all they could do was try to win the game.

Yes, Howard fouled out for the third time in the playoffs and has been in foul trouble virtually all series against the Cavs. James, who was voted first team all-defense and was runner up to Howard in defensive player of the year, again is being called for the fewest fouls of any of the top players in the playoffs.

James, who is averaging almost 14 free throws per game in the playoffs and only just started to defend Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu after hiding early in the series on Rafer Alston, is averaging 1.6 fouls per game in the playoffs and never has been in foul trouble with a three fouls the most he’s been called for in any game.

It’s still hard to believe.

Bryant is averaging 2.6 fouls and has had four fouls four times. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 3.9 fouls per game and five times has had five and fouled out once. Howard is averaging more than four fouls per game and has fouled out of three playoff games and had five fouls three times. James is great. There’s no doubt. Better than Kobe, as Jerry West said? Better than Jordan eventually? as some suggest. Who knows. But just that someone is in the debate is remarkable. We’ve never seen a player like James, the amazing combination of power and skill. James’ dramatic game winner in Game 2 was an alltime great shot, in many ways better than Jordan’s series winner against the Cavs in 1989 because less time was remaining and it was a far longer shot.

It wasn’t a series clincher, so it was in some respects like the Bulls/Celtics playoffs this season. Perhaps the best series ever but hardly the most significant. Jordan’s shot was way more significant because of the circumstances. But you can’t be in the middle of everything as James is on a team that relies on one player like perhaps no other conference finals team ever—OK, maybe the 1989 Bulls—and be called for so few fouls.

I know. They said it was the same way with Jordan. He got every call.

OK, let’s go to the record book.

In that 1989 series against the Cavs when Jordan was last at his most one man gang, Jordan actually fouled out of Game 4 and averaged four fouls per game in that opening series against the Cavs. Five more times in those playoffs as the Bulls beat the Knicks in six and lost to the Pistons in six Jordan had five fouls in a game. It’s the playoffs. The play is rougher than the regular season. You get involved in tougher matchups, though James does rest on defense a lot other than when he is chasing guys from behind for highlight blocks. But Jordan always had a high number of playoff fouls. The season before when the Bulls beat Cleveland in five games, Jordan fouled out of Game 4 in Cleveland. In 1991 when the Bulls won their first championship, Jordan was in foul trouble with five in two of the five Finals games. It simply defies logic to see James at the free throw line so much and virtually never being called for a foul.

So what else has been going on in the playoffs?

--- Is this the end of the era of the dominating point guard? Hey, we thought it just started with Steve Nash and Tony Parker and Chris Paul and Deron Williams and the coming of Derrick Rose. But they’re all at home watching, and one general manager pointed out to me that what you see is every team having a big guy who can score and make plays handling the ball to close games.

“You’ve got Kobe with the Lakers. LeBron with the Cavs. Hedo Turkoglu with the Magic all having the ball in their hands at the end of games,” he noted. Yes, Chauncey Billups has been a difference maker with the Nuggets. But until Game 3 against the Lakers, Carmelo Anthony, playing both sides of the ball and taking the toughest guy on defense unlike Bryant and James, may have been the best player in the playoffs. Having a big man like that make plays to close games causes all sorts of matchup issues that may trump a team with a traditional point guard.

Please, someone, do something about this ridiculous block/charge. We heard at the beginning of the year flopping was going to be exposed and punished. Seen anyone get called for that? A guy running halfway across the court, jumping into someone and collapsing like they were shot is not defense. If the league and referees stop rewarding it maybe we can actually see guys try to play defense by moving their feet and accepting responsibility for whom they are defending.

Before LeBron hit that three to win Game 2 I called a friend and said, “Would you foul him?” I probably wouldn’t have. But I was thinking. James still cannot be counted upon to make those fourth quarter free throws. He blew three down the stretch in the Game 1 loss to Orlando and two more in Game 3. He did make 18 Sunday, so perhaps you excuse him some. Again, he deserved to be MVP. He did more for his team this season—and you can clearly see now—than anyone. But you still can’t trust him shooting a pressure free throw.

Vinny Del Negro must be enjoying this. Mike Brown gets caught using most of his timeouts too soon almost every game. George Karl can’t get an inbounds pass completed. Hey! You can throw it into the backcourt! Phil Jackson decided to go for a last shot not to Kobe but to Derek Fisher, who has been fortunate to hit the backboard on most of his shots in the playoffs. The Cavs continue to get burned having big oafs chasing Rashard Lewis or Turkoglu. And Orlando didn’t double James on that last shot in Game 2 when no one else likely wanted the ball.

The Magic did cut off the play, which was a lob. But having Lewis guarding no one and not harassing the inbounder, which has made Lamar Odom almost MVP of their series, hurt. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy did sniff out the play, remembering the Cavs-Pacers game right before All Star break when James and Danny Granger were fouled on identical lob plays in the last second, Granger by, yes, LeBron, and won the game with a free throw. I remember watching that game in which I recall T.J. Ford hitting a jumper that looked like it would win it with less than a second left. And then there were two more plays.

Yes, there’s been some amazing stuff in these playoffs, and if you’re missing these playoffs, you’re missing some of the best stuff in sports in years. After all, when can you second guess like this? If only they’d just lay off the Kobe/LeBron hype and let it happen.

Could BG end up in Detroit?

--- The Pistons are supposed to be the big players in free agency by letting go Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson. Carlos Boozer and Ben Gordon have been mentioned as possibilities. Now, you have to figure Hedo Turkoglu with the playoffs he’s had, though one team executive says he doesn’t expect the Pistons to be throwing around huge, maximum deals because of the collapse of the auto industry and major sponsorship deals the team is losing with inevitable attendance declines. ... Michael Jordan is said to be studying whether to try to buy the Charlotte franchise from Bob Johnson. I wonder if he’d rename them the Mikecats. Anyway, Johnson supposedly wants $300 million to $325 million after paying $300 million. Good luck. Check with Michael Heisley in Memphis. Like properties everywhere, the values have tanked and one analyst who has looked into franchise sales recently said he sees Charlotte worth about $220 million, and that’s assuming you can get financing. If you want Gerald Wallace, I’d say line up. Johnson isn’t going to be able to sell the team. So I’m guessing he’ll likely take the Heisley path—and I can’t really condemn it because you cannot expect anyone to take $20 million to $30 million annual losses—and start shedding his top contracts for expiring deals. I’d guess you probably could get Emeka Okafor, assuming you want that bad contract that goes up to almost $15 million in 2013-14.

Lottery's bad luck bears

--- Speaking of Mr. Heisley of Memphis and St. Charles, Ill., he’s got the No. 2 pick. Classic for the Grizzlies, who have been the bad luck bears in the lottery. They have No. 2 in a one player draft. No. 2 supposedly is Spain guard Ricky Rubio, who may have consulted Steve Francis. Rubio supposedly doesn’t want to have to pay an estimated $6 million buyout to play in Memphis. Or Oklahoma City, which has the No. 3 pick. But I’m here to help everyone. Rubio isn’t Pete Maravich. It would take Rubio a week to score what Maravich did in a half. But Rubio can run a team and there’s some sense that the Knicks have interest. The Knicks probably can’t pay restricted free agent David Lee and have the money for the two big free agents in 2010 who are going to turn them down. But, like Custer, they will be sticking to their plan. Of course, Heisley may not want to spend, either. But maybe the Grizzlies get Lee and No. 8 and the Mike D’Antoni gets his Nashesque point guard (no shot, I know) and maybe an expiring deal like Darko’s. Seems like there’s something there, if not exactly that.

--- Ron Ron. Now that’s a tough one. The Pistons, Grizzlies and Thunder seem to be the main teams with money this summer. We assume Ron Artest isn’t going back to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Memphis and Oklahoma City and Ron? Don’t think so. So you’re Houston and Ron wants to stay and his agent says four years and $37 million that was possible is not enough, and, sure, Ron was good this season. But it was his contract year. And do you want to give him a long term deal? And do you want a Ron Artest signed but unhappy with his contract? I know the GM, Daryl Morey, is a big stats guy, but I don’t think you find Ron in the saber metrics. Yao’s coming off surgery. McGrady is coming off really big surgery. Even I may not be able to help them.

--- Suns General Manager Steve Nash…What! He’s not? I love this one. Nash played a big role in running out Shawn Marion for Shaq. Now, he’s saying the Suns have to do better with personnel if he is to resign after next season. When, by the way, he’ll be a 36-year-old point guard with chronic back problems who’s played more than 30,000 minutes and, oh, by the way, wants a raise on his $13 million salary. It’s hard to say what Nash really wants as he surely helped speed Terry Porter’s exit, and the Suns have a lot of talent. You hear Shaq and Amare Stoudemire might be available, as was rumored in the winter. But perhaps the Suns might do well to keep the 26-year-old Stoudemire. Nash can help a lot of teams and I’m sure there’ll be a good market, especially with an expiring deal. But if you are going to try to fix things in the long run in Phoenix, it’s hard to see how you can do it investing in Nash.

Talk about your tough acts to follow

--- Stacey King knows.

King, the former Bulls player and current Bulls TV color announcer, was the designated star to follow the best player and best guy the U. of Oklahoma basketball ever has known, Wayman Tisdale.

“When I was in high school (Lawton, OK), I followed him,” recalls King. “I played on the same AAU team he did. I met him before I even thought about going to Oklahoma. He was more big brother. People compared us because of playing style (left handed, turn around jump shot scorers). He was the reason I chose Oklahoma. I remember him telling me it was important for state kids to go to the state university, to make something happen in Oklahoma, a place known for football, that it was a way to be a pioneer.

“He took me around, took me under his wing,” recalls King. “He told me he was going pro (the year King was coming in). I patterned my game after his. He never came across as a super star, never acted big time. No matter how crazy or stupid my questions, he never hesitated to help and point me in the right direction.”

Last week, King had the sad duty of going to Tisdale’s funeral. The former basketball star (25 ppg in college and 15.3 per game in a solid 13-year NBA career) and star musician died of cancer. King had visited with Tisdale a few weeks before and everything seemed fine. Tisdale never indicated any problem. It was typical of Wayman, who never wanted anyone to feel uncomfortable no matter how much discomfort he might be feeling.

“We talked a few weeks ago and he never let you know how serious things were,” said King. “I was shocked when I got the call. It caught all of us off guard. Even to the end, he was performing, taking these 14, 15 hour bus trips after chemo. He had to have known. He always said he wasn’t going to let (the cancer) consume him. He said he was going to live life to the very end. Nothing would keep him from being him. He was just here, in Wisconsin a few weeks ago at a church telling his story.

“Anybody you ever know in life someone said something bad about them,” says King. “At least one negative thing. There was a chance I was going to get drafted by Sacramento. He was there and even though our games were similar and I could be a threat, he pushed for me to come there. There’s not a person I ever met or heard of who ever said anything bad about Wayman. MJ, Pip, Horace, me, any of us. But you never heard anything about Wayman. Forty four years old and something like this happens. It shakes your faith.”

What to do with Big Baby...

--- The Celtics have an interesting decision with Glen Davis, who is upsetting their championship blueprint of three max salary stars and the rest of the roster guys looking for good clam chowder. It is a formula several teams were looking to duplicate after the Celtics won in 2008. It’s a reason Boston didn’t bring back James Posey. The Celtics are well into the luxury tax, and now find unrestricted free agent Glen Davis as at least a second degree star after big winning shots in the playoffs and averaging 15.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in the playoffs. He made $711,517 this season. Most doubt Boston can afford the double hit for the 100 percent match for exceeding the luxury tax for Davis. Boston has expiring contracts in Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen and you figure they’ll offer their first round pick to someone who’ll take those salaries. Davis made it clear where his loyalties are. Said Davis to Boston media after the loss to the Magic: “I want to be here in Boston but if the opportunity brings me somewhere else, I’ll be there,” And Boston has to take care of Rajon Rondo, who can be a restricted free agent after next season when so many teams will have big money to spend. Paul Pierce said the Celtics will be the best again next season when they are healthy. Though you wonder if they’ll be able to afford that anymore. No truth to the speculation Kevin Garnett faked injury so he wouldn’t have to play with Stephon Marbury.

--- The Contra Costa Times came up with the transcript of the new management team’s conference call with season ticket holders and among the responses by new general manager Larry Riley was that Monta Ellis really can’t run a team and they still are looking for a passing guard. Though the Warriors deny it, I’ve thought since they punished him for his moped crash last summer you could get Ellis. No, he’s not a point guard. But he’s an exciting player and if I were the Raptors with the Warriors hungering for a big time player, if they’d include Ellis and some stuff with Andres Biedrins I’d move Chris Bosh in a minute.

--- I don’t remark much about tattoos because I don’t much care what you look like if you can cross over and find a cutter. Though, I admit, I always am distracted by those lips on Kenyon Martin’s neck. Hey, I don’t understand Twitter and American Idol, so I’m not exactly current. The Nuggets’ much decorated look became a sort of side issue when Mark Cuban got into it with Martin and his mom and there was this talk of thugs, that being the shorthand for the tattoo wearers. I cannot see how that is the case since whenever I’m at the community pool I notice most of the women have various tattoos in various places. I notice this only in the interest of writing my Monday column, of course. Actually, I find it tougher when the kid at a cash register at the mall opens his or her mouth and something is stuck in there and I always want to call for help. The Nuggets’ Chris Andersen has a bunch, but I’d take him on my team the way he works. Really, it’s just the lips. And that thing Mike Tyson had. I’ve talked to players at times about it out of curiosity and find they often like to hang out at the tattoo parlors, sort of a barber shop thing. So if you’re there, heck, you may as well buy something. A lot actually have strong meanings about family and lost loved ones, which I really do find touching. Though my favorites remain the guys who use the Chinese characters. The Arizona Republic did a recent survey of this—hey, it’s hot and you spend a lot of time inside—and found Marquis Daniels has some Chinese lettering for his initials, though the symbols actually translate to, "Big woman standing on a roof." Shawn Marion also has Chinese lettering which was supposed to read “Matrix.” Hanzismatter.com, a Web site that says it is devoted to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture reported the symbols actually translate to "Demon Bird Moth Balls." Now, does that sound menacing? How can you not love these guys?