Sam Smith: LeBron gets star treatment

Sam Smith: LeBron gets star treatment

Sam Smith

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Posted by Sam Smith | | 04.06.09 | 9:35 a.m. CT

The Bulls, inching closer to qualifying for the NBA playoffs, could be opening against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have just about clinched the No. 1 seed, and they have the likely league MVP, LeBron James.

James, certainly, is having a terrific season in carrying a Cavs team to the best record in franchise history without another true star.

There's been talk of James being the only player in the game today who one day could average a triple double, the long thought unreachable mark achieved only by Oscar Robertson. James is averaging 28.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists this season.

But perhaps even more remarkable is in a season James is being pushed by many to be on the all-league defensive team, that James is being called for fewer fouls than perhaps any top perimeter player in the history of the game.

We always joke about stars getting all the calls, and we heard plenty of this in Chicago in Michael Jordan's era. Now, I'm not saying there's some sort of conspiracy. But James may well be the most protected star we've ever seen.

Do the referees consciously protect James knowing he is perhaps the league's top marketing figure and he is featured more than any player on the nightly sports highlights? I always doubt that knowing the integrity of the refereeing corps as a group and believe NBA officiating is the best in sports.

Still, we've never seen anything like this. Especially at a time when it is generally agreed with rules changes it is the most difficult time to defend on the perimeter without committing fouls.

James is averaging 1.72 fouls per game in an average of 37.9 minutes per game. James hasn't even been in foul trouble one game this season. He never has had more than four fouls called on him in a game, and since March 1 is being called for fewer than 1.3 fouls per game.

In 12 of the 20 games since then, James has been called for one or zero fouls in a game. James had a stretch of five straight games to conclude March averaging 36.8 minutes per game without being called for one foul. Not one in five games! In the last nine games, James has been called for three personal fouls. It's really amazing given the involvement James has in the action of the game.

"It's impossible," said one team executive.

The executive said there is one slight explanation. That the game has changed to so much drive and kick that the perimeter defenders end up guarding the three so much, and don't foul as often. That there is less one on one penetration. Still, he said not for five consecutive games like that.

James is now averaging 2.02 fouls per game in his career and has fouled out just three times in six seasons. Jordan averaged 2.6 fouls per game in his career and had fouled out eight times in his first six seasons.

Jordan averaged fewer than two fouls per game only in his last two seasons when he was not as active as a defender, and never as few as James' current 1.72. Among some of the great perimeter players in history, at a time when substantially more perimeter contact was allowed, Larry Bird averaged about 2.5 fouls, Magic Johnson 2.26 and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson well above two per game.

In the game now, Kobe Bryant has a career average of about 2.7 fouls per game and is about 2.3 this season. Dwyane Wade has a career average of 2.67 and is about 2.2 this season.

The all-time star with the fewest personal fouls was Wilt Chamberlain, who never fouled out of a game in his 14-year career. It was a point of pride with Wilt, who averaged 1.99 fouls per game in his career, barely below where James is now.

It simply defies explanation how James, who is an aggressive player, can be whistled for so few fouls per game, and especially at a time his team is saying he never has played better defense and when the rules are more stringent regarding perimeter contact. Can he truly be that perfect?

The Bulls next play the Knicks, whom I almost feel sorry for. But not that much. That "plan" the Knicks have for 2010 NBA domination? The idea that NBA stars are anxious to play in New York? Sorry, that's just about dead. There's plenty of reasons, including the fact that hardly any free agents ever wanted to go there. Did you ever hear Shaq say he wanted to go to New York? Grant Hill? Tim Duncan? Tracy McGrady. There was this notion they never had room under the salary cap. But also no one treated their post 1973 stars as badly as they have in New York, where Patrick Ewing was routinely booed and demeaned by the public and media. Players notice. Anyway, that's not the reason.

Maybe the biggest reason is the Knicks are going to be the worst team in the Eastern Conference next season. And no one goes to 20-win teams, as the Bulls painfully found out in 2000. How could James, for example, ever justify leaving a Cavs team that is a championship contender and go to New York and then say he's about winning. He'd be the league joke.

It's also why the Bulls know they cannot sit still this summer. It's still wise to have enough flexibility to be prepared for the free agents who might be available in the summer of 2010. But it's not going to be easy to make the make the playoffs in the East next season.

The East took one step this season winning more games against Western Conference teams. Next season, the East should be far better because the bottom rung teams figure to be much improved.

Washington will get back Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood to add to Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.

Milwaukee will get back Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd.

Toronto can't possibly be as bad and will have Andrea Bargnani settled in and if they can bring back Shawn Marion at a reasonable price, they could move up. It's why some general managers are now saying it's more likely the Raptors hold onto Chris Bosh through the summer and move him, if necessary, next trading deadline.

The Bobcats will have a full season with the roster that closed the season strong.

The Pistons could add a major free agent or two this summer with Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace off the books. And they still have Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey.

The Nets have Devin Harris, Vince Carter and top rookie big man Brook Lopez. And they'll likely have a new coach as Lawrence Frank seems to have run his course. Frank's controlled style seems to have held back the team, and reports out of New Jersey is upper management wants a change. Longtime godfather Rod Thorn has been neutral on a return. Thorn and Frank's father were longtime business partners, but you'd think Thorn has been loyal enough to Frank thus far.

And the Knicks aren't likely to even have the roster they have now. In this salary space creating mode they likely can't keep David Lee and/or Nate Robinson and pay them. Mike D'Antoni's system is fun, but it also tends to inflate statistics. And you can be sure the representatives for Lee and Robinson will be seeking deals commensurate with Lee averaging 16.1 points and 11.8 rebounds and Robinson being featured in Knicks advertising as the new face of the team.

It's a roster with perhaps one true NBA starter in Lee, and he really is a solid role playing four at about 6-8. Perhaps Al Harrington is a starter, though more sixth man. Chris Duhon? Wilson Chandler? Jared Jeffries. Good luck moving Eddy Curry, who is owed an average of $11 million through the 2010-11 season after he's barely played for two years and has a mountain of personal issues.

The Knicks also will suffer from an unexpected change in the landscape, as the Bulls did in 2000. The Bulls were prepared to overpay for a star, which is the sure way to get one, and then the new collective bargaining agreement set salary ceilings. So with the same salary, who needed to go to a 20-win team? For the Knicks, it's the economy. It's likely to drive down the salary cap, so they may not have room to add a second maximum salaried free agent. And who's going to go there with that roster and without another star?

Actually, this all presents an intriguing issue for the Bulls. I've long advocated the Bulls try to trade for a star type player like Stoudemire or Bosh—maybe Chris Kaman—if there's some sort of fire sale this summer because of economic changes, as many teams expect.

I talk at times with someone connected with the James inner circle. A lot of people say they have such contacts, so you never know for sure if it means anything. And this guy close to James told my guy he hasn't discussed it with James. But he believes if James were to leave the Cavs for a major market—which, I emphasize he doesn't think he will—he's more likely to go to Chicago with its far better roster where one star could make a major difference. So should the Bulls take a chance and wait? I've never believed James would come to Chicago. But it makes a lot more sense than going to New York. And all the sponsors pay those extra dividends if you are in any of the three large markets, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The general consensus these days is Wade is unlikely to leave Miami. With the Heat's cap flexibility in 2010, they'll be able to add a major free agent. And the speculation is it will be Bosh. I've heard Bosh prefers to be the No. 1 guy. Though that scenario seems not to make that much sense given Bosh has shown he cannot carry a team. Toronto's performance this season is Exhibit A. Also, there been talk of this private pact among the 2008 Olympians to be joining forces, and Wade and Bosh makes a lot of sense.

The other scenario you hear most often is James recruiting Joe Johnson to play with him in Cleveland. The Cavs have managed their cap nicely as well, and that's probably one big reason they didn't move Wally Szczerbiak when everyone expected them to in February. They have a real chance to create a dynasty around James like the Bulls did around Jordan with ample cap room in 2010. That's the big reason most expect James to stay with the Cavs. Jason Kidd, who had 20 assists Sunday in helping put the Suns out of their playoff misery, already is lobbying to play with James, even in a backup role.

Johnson, meanwhile, would be a major weapon. Many still point to his free agency departure as the reason the Suns never were able to take that next step to true championship contender. Johnson is not talked about like James, Wade and Bosh. But he may be the surprise prize of that class.

Look, Dirk is staying in Dallas, the Nuggets are hanging onto Carmelo, McGrady's about done. Same with Jermaine O'Neal, Shaq and Steve Nash. Michael Redd isn't opting out after an injury. Carlos Boozer's glow has receded. The Trailblazers aren't letting Brandon Roy get away. Manu Ginobili's ankle is taking a long time to heal and he's wearing down. That 2010 bonanza is looking less bountiful, and you figure the guys who go somewhere will be looking for a nice landing spot and a chance to be competitive immediately. Joining Wade and James would seem to provide that.

So maybe Chicago has a slight chance with Derrick Rose and some solid supporting players. New York? It's going to be another long, lost decade.

Same old Chapu...

-- I was on the road and caught up with Noce the other day at a Kings game. He was still Noce, arguing every call, hammering guys and not letting anyone get a three-point play, talking to himself on the court and the coaches in the huddle.

"I don't understand what happened (to the Bulls team)," Nocioni was saying. "For me, two years ago, I think this team will be in the Finals. Maybe it is about contracts, rumors about Kobe Bryant, Ben Wallace, Scott Skiles. I am really sad for them. Two years ago, I think I will be in the Finals this year. Now I am here."

Nocioni laughed enthusiastically at the sudden juxtaposition. He didn't seem embittered at all, just disappointed and resigned to his situation. He stirred things up a bit after arriving in Sacramento when he suggested to a Spanish language publication he could want to be traded and the players were selfish, like in Chicago last season. He backed off that, and when I asked him he said the small city was fine with him, the fans and everyone treating him well. It's just...

"I have no complaints," he said. "I just feel bad for the (losing) situation. This time in my career I (hoped) for something better. All my life I was with good teams. I was in Europe fighting for the title, same thing with the national (Argentina) team. Right now, it is a little frustrating to be in this situation. It is what happened. That is it. I will try to help put Sacramento back in the playoffs."

But Nocioni seems delighted for the Bulls.

"Brad Miller is playing well," he noted. "(John) Salmons, too. It was a good trade for Chicago. I saw some games. They are playing much better. They are going to be in the playoffs. For sure. I understand. It's part of the business. With me, the team was not working out really well. So I was part of the deal. Chicago Bulls proved it is a good trade for them. That's it.

"I was disappointed to leave Chicago," Nocioni said. "I love Chicago, the people. Everybody was with me. For the team, it wasn't going really well the last two years. John Paxson needs to do some moves. We lost confidence in ourselves, about the system of play. After that, we threw away so many games. John Paxson did a good move trading people because the thing was not going well. I was frustrated this year. I can see we have a lot of talent, a lot of people who can do a lot of things. And we throw away the opportunity. I think we are a great team. I don't know what happened."

I asked Nocioni about his highlight, and it was in the playoff series with Washington with everyone chanting his name.

"It was awesome," he said. "To be in Michael Jordan's house and people chanting out your name. Awesome. The people were great to me. I give my effort and I feel well with what I did. I could not have done anymore. I left everything on the floor. I try to play hard. I tried to do too much last year. Things were not going well. But I could not do nothing for my teammates.

"It was like a train going forward," said Nocioni. "Everything was going well. The first three years. No problem. After that, everything started going down. I am happy for the situation now. With Brad Miller it is a different team, a center with experience. He knows the game well. John Salmons plays strong without Luol Deng."

But one thing was good recently, Nocioni said.

"I met Michael in Sacramento when we play Charlotte," Nocioni said. "I play five years in Chicago and never meet him. So that was good. But it is a business. I have, how you say, no rancor. Is that right?"

Yes, right. It was a heck of a trade for the Bulls. But we miss the guy.

No-Ci-O-Ni! No-Ci-O-Ni!

Trouble in Beantown

-- It's not good in Boston, where they shut down Kevin Garnett. They continue to win, and Paul Pierce, once an out of shape selfish scorer, has become one of the most difficult players in the league to stop, a real star. But the talk is there's still pain in Garnett's knee that won't go away, and surgery is inevitable. It's difficult to imagine Garnett getting through a tough playoff run again. So give the edge to the Cavs and Magic for the conference final. Doc Rivers has been predicting Charlotte would get the final playoff spot, which took a hit Sunday with their loss to the Pistons. Though the game the Bobcats blew to the Celtics after being up by eight in the last two minutes April 1 was likely the one they'll most remember if they don't make it.

The Knicks' Nate Robinson showed up for Saturday's game against the Raptors with the Knicks trying to avoid playoff elimination with an orange Mohawk hairstyle. Robinson scored seven points in the elimination loss, but seemed happy teammates were calling him the "new Dennis Rodman." Face of the franchise, eh?... The Raptors Jose Calderon is shooting a mind boggling 97.9 percent on free throws, 140 of 143. The all-time record is Calvin Murphy's at 95.8 percent in 1980-81. Calderon, by the way, shot 65 percent on free throws when he played in Spain as a rookie and 80 percent over five seasons there. Yes, you can improve.

Cavs struggle with Magic's trick

The Cavs lost the season series to Orlando and are 0-5 on the road against the Celtics, Lakers and Magic and 2-6 overall The Cavs have lost eight of their last 11 to Orlando. ... How about Crane Tech's undrafted Will Bynum carrying the Pistons Sunday in their must win over Charlotte and coach Larry Brown with a franchise record 26 points in the fourth quarter? Bynum won a championship in the Israeli league in 2007 and played there in 2008 as well after playing in the D-league in 2006. Bynum beat out Lindsey Hunter for the last spot with the Pistons and the scoring point guard is one of the surprises of the league, averaging 11.9 points since March 1 with four games of at least 20 points, including one against the Bulls. Allen who?

-- The story getting the most views on the Orlando Sentinel sports website last week was the campus visit to the U. of Central Florida of Marcus Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan. Jordan visited with guard Nik Garcia. The story said they are friends with UCF freshman point guard A.J. Rompza, who played at Whitney Young with Jordan. Garcia played for Evanston Township High and was on the same AAU team with Jordan. ... The Houston Chronicle caught up with Othella Harrington, who spent two seasons with the Bulls, in the D-league trying to get back to the NBA. ... I've doubted the Nuggets all season. But with the Spurs in a rare late season funk, it's looking more like the Nuggets, first round playoff losers for Carmelo Anthony's five years (is he hanging with Tracy McGrady?), will get that second spot behind the Lakers. The Spurs are 10-9 since March 1, their worst such run in 12 years in March. Manu Ginobili is back starting and even Drew Gooden with 13 of 20 shooting the last two games and averaging 16 points isn't making a difference yet. Obviously, the Chauncey Billups trade and getting rid of Allen Iverson was the big thing. But George Karl is doing a great job with the defense, Anthony is no longer shooting away when he feels like and Nene's recovery from cancer has been an amazing story. "Last year, we were more macho," said Karl, who seemed to give up coaching that wild bunch. "This year, we don't strut it. We just believe it."

Zo gets his day

-- It was nice to see Alonzo Mourning get his jersey number retired by the Miami Heat last week. I thought it was appropriate, though I wondered about Vlade Divac in Sacramento. Chris Webber? Maybe. Though with the Kings last in the league in attendance, it did fill the arena, and times are tough for everyone. Are they going to retire the number of LaSalle Thomson next? Mourning, who broke down in tears, was interesting because there were few athletes in NBA history more mean spirited and angry than Mourning when he came to the NBA. I recall him trying to throw women out of the locker room because he said they didn't belong and going on expletive filled rants. A lot changed, obviously, when he contracted kidney disease, and though never quite Grant Hill, Mourning became something of a statesman and committed charity worker. He even mentioned his early media and public failings to reporters after the ceremony: "I made one mistake when it came to the media. I had a feeling you are very malicious. I didn't give you a chance. I always had my guard up. I think that cost me, just based on what happened, the MVP vote (in 1999). I should've won it. I felt I hard a better year than Karl Malone. But it's a political award. I'm not saying Karl didn't have a good year. But I was getting it done on both ends of the court. I think I cost myself that, based on how I dealt with the media." Miami, meanwhile, is having one of the most remarkable one season turnarounds in league history after going 15-67 last season. It's what makes Wade a legitimate MVP contender given the Heat is playing mostly rookies and retreads with him.