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LeBron At 30

As the new season gets underway, all eyes in the NBA are on LeBron James and his new team, just as they were four years ago. The 14-15 Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot in common with the 10-11 Miami Heat, from the massive spotlight they are playing under to a head coach without a lot of NBA experience and three star players learning to play together. The biggest difference between the two teams is their best player, who had to do a lot of growing up in the last four years.

LeBron James at 26 might have been the most impressive athlete in the history of the sport. He was a bundle of fast-twitch muscles who was bigger than the big men and faster than the guards. He was a seemingly indestructible basketball cyborg who could play all 48 minutes without any visible sign of wear and tear. Like most young guys, he thought he was invincible. Miami’s collapse in the 2011 NBA Finals humbled him and made him a better player.

LeBron at 30 isn’t quite the athlete he once was. He can’t play as many minutes and he can’t go as hard on both ends as he used too. He can still turn on the athleticism when necessary, but he doesn’t do it as often. It’s like an older sports car - you can still take it into high gear, but you probably don’t want to wear out the engine revving it through downtown traffic. What he’s lost in athletic ability, though, he has more than made up for in his grasp of the game.

If LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland was Young LeBron, what he was doing by the end of his time in Miami was Peak LeBron. The offensive efficiency numbers speak for themselves. LeBron averaged 29 points per game on 50% shooting in his last season with the Cavs - he was at 27 points on 57% shooting in his last season with the Heat. He became comfortable scoring out of the post and he turned himself into one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.

Where you really saw that was in the playoffs, where he was able to score at will regardless of who he was playing against. Before last season, LeBron had never shot above 51% in the postseason. It makes sense - the game slows down and you are facing much better defenses with much bigger and more athletic defenders. In last year’s playoffs, he shot 56% from the field. Those are prime Shaq numbers and Shaq spent the whole game dunking on people.

That LeBron is able to score at that volume and efficiency while taking shots from all over the floor shows you how easy the game comes to him. In their first year with Miami, everything looked really difficult for the Heat. They had a hard time getting out of each other’s way on offense and they didn’t function all that well as a unit. LeBron at 30 is unlikely to have the same types of issues in Cleveland - he doesn’t make the game any harder on himself than it has to be.

When LeBron has the ball in his hands, he almost always makes the right decision. If the defense plays off him, he shoots. If they press up on him, he drives. If they send help, he finds the open man. He takes what the defense gives him and he doesn’t force the issue. If basketball is an equation, he has essentially solved it. As long as he can play in space, LeBron is one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA - the defense has to give up something.

The big difference for him in Cleveland is that he will have more support on the offensive side of the ball.

Kevin Love is a better three-point shooter than Chris Bosh and he gives them another dimension on the offensive glass, while Kyrie Irving won’t have to sit out games and have his minutes cut like Dwyane Wade. Part of the problem in Miami was that LeBron was using up so much energy trying to carry them on the offensive end of the floor, he had to take off possessions on defense.

By the end of the Spurs five-game rout of the Heat, LeBron just seemed worn out - Wade could no longer dominate on one knee, Bosh had been completely de-emphasized in the offense and none of the role players could do much of anything. Everyone needed LeBron to spoon feed them open shots. The Cavs, in contrast, have more guys on their roster - Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson - who know how to find their way into points.

If LeBron is able to ration his energy more effectively in the regular season, that could pay dividends in the playoffs. A couple of times in the 2014 NBA Finals, he reached into the tank and came out empty, most notably when he cramped up at the end of Game 1. That might not have happened were it not for an air conditioning malfunction in San Antonio, but it clearly had an effect on how he trained in the offseason, as he is at his lowest weight in years.

Dropping weight and playing with teammates who can carry the offense and allow him to take a step back are two of the biggest reasons for Tim Duncan’s amazing longevity in the NBA. The older a player gets, the harder it becomes for them to carry any extra pounds on their knees and the more susceptible they become to injuries. Injuries, not any significant decline in play, are what usually ends the careers of the greatest players, from Shaq to Kobe Bryant. 

Great players don’t age like basketball mortals. As they get older, they can adjust their game and remain effective, compensating for any loss in physical ability with a corresponding gain in mental ability. That’s the biggest difference between LeBron at 26 and LeBron at 30 - he can think the game on a whole different level, seeing two and three moves down the road. Everything he does is about setting himself up for two to three weeks in May and June.

LeBron’s game has changed a lot over the last four seasons and he will have to continue to reinvent himself to stay atop the NBA for the next four, if not longer. If his time in Miami was like Jordan’s first three-peat in Chicago, his second stint in Cleveland will have to be like the second. We are witnessing one of the greatest players of all-time at the peak of his powers. As the next stage of his career begins, everything is on the table, both for him and the Cavs.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Oct. 28-Nov. 2)

Welcome back to Non-National Games of the Week! This should be another strong season of games not played on TNT, ESPN, ABC or NBATV. You can also read my League Pass team column. As much fun as the offseason has become, real games are so much better.

Tuesday

Orlando Magic @ New Orleans Pelicans: The first non-national game of the season features Anthony Davis and his new muscle Omer Asik. Orlando made a series of changes this summer and Jrue Holiday will provide a challenge on both ends for Elfrid Payton’s first game. Plus, any minutes of Aaron Gordon vs. Anthony Davis should be captivating.

Wednesday

Milwaukee Bucks @ Charlotte Hornets: A combination of the first game for the newly rechristened Charlotte franchise and Jabari Parker’s first regular season game. The Giannis / Jabari / Larry Sanders (not all caps…for now) front court will be worth checking in on the first few weeks and Lance Stephenson making his debut should be fun as well.

Washington Wizards @ Miami Heat: A nice opening week game featuring two teams that had some notable turnover this summer. Miami has to learn how to play without LeBron while Paul Pierce works to make his imprint on a Wizards team ready for more success. Since Washington has players suspended due to a strange brawln in the pre-season, Chris Bosh will have an opportunity to show what he can do against shakier opponents.

Atlanta Hawks @ Toronto Raptors: While other games on this list make it for storylines or debuts, this one should be a fun game to watch. Toronto was one of the NBA’s best surprises last season and Atlanta played well before Al Horford’s injury. These teams actually made a trade in the off-season that sent Louis Williams and rookie Lucas Nogueira to the Raps in exchange for cap flexibility so we could see Lou try for some fireworks against his former team.

Houston Rockets @ Utah Jazz: Dante Exum’s debut, Trevor Ariza’s return and Dwight Howard vs. Derrick Favors. Sounds good to me.

Thursday

Detroit Pistons @ Minnesota Timberwolves: There may not be two teams outside of Cleveland with more questions we need answered. Will Stan Van Gundy lay down the law and only play two of Drummond, Smith and Monroe at a time? Can Andrew Wiggins start his career strong? Will Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine get minutes? How many bad shots can Josh Smith take before SVG goes ballistic?

Friday

Philadelphia 76ers @ Milwaukee Bucks: After missing all of last season,  Nerlens  Noel should get a showcase here against the only team that ended last season with a worse record than the Sixers. We might get to see second round pick KJ McDaniels defend Jabari Parker at some point, which happened most recently in a thrilling ACC Tournament game.

San Antonio Spurs @ Phoenix Suns (Game of the Week): The Champs get Game of the Week honors and deservedly so with such a compelling week one matchup. The Suns added Isaiah Thomas to an already fun core and know how important each win will be. I also want to see how the Spurs handle Patty Mills’ extended absence and whether rookie steal Kyle Anderson gets any minutes.

Saturday

Dallas Mavericks @ New Orleans Pelicans: Two teams with substantial changes who should be right in the middle of the battle for playoff spots in the Western Conference. Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler make Dallas a more complete team but Omer Asik provides a defensive identity that New Orleans sorely lacked last season. Plus, Anthony Davis guarding Dirk Nowitzki will be thrilling each and every time down the court.

Denver Nuggets @ Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook gets the reins of the Thunder in what should be a fast-paced game. Ty Lawson and the Nuggets added veteran depth in Arron Afflalo and young talent in Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris while the Thunder will have to survive without Kevin Durant and new addition Anthony Morrow.

Phoenix Suns @ Utah Jazz: This game has five Point Guards I want to see, six if you count Tyler Ennis who likely will not see much time. I also like it when coaches face teams they played on and Jeff Hornacek had great success in Salt Lake City. 

Sunday

Philadelphia 76ers @ Houston Rockets: This will likely only be worth watching for a quarter but Nerlens Noel manning up Dwight Howard should illustrate just how far the rookie’s body needs to develop if he wants to play center in the best league in the world. Plus, Harden could go for 40 or more.

Golden State Warriors @ Portland Trail Blazers: Must-watch NBA basketball on the first Sunday of the season. Just excellent. Damian Lillard has already had some big games against his hometown team and both franchises have making and winning playoff series in their sights already. This game also should be an early test of Steve Kerr’s defensive ethos since David Lee has lots of trouble defending LaMarcus Aldridge.

14-15 Euroleague Power Rankings: Small Forwards

As the 14-15 Euroleague season begins, RealGM presents the ultimate positional rankings of the league's best players. In the third edition, we rank the elite small forwards from one to ten.  

1. Emir Preldzic (Fenerbahce Ulker, Turkey)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. 

The 2013-14 season was arguably the best of Emir Plredzic’s career. In his seventh Euroleague season with Fenerbahce Ulker, Preldzic averaged MVP-worthy numbers of 11.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists in the regular season and despite the ups and downs in Top 16, Preldzic was the most efficient small forward in the whole league. Preldzic was also dominant in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where he once again demonstrated his versatility by averaging 12.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4 assists. The 27-year-old forward was also under the spotlight after hitting the shot of his career, a last second three pointer that carried Turkey over Australia. Preldzic could compete for MVP award in any of the upcoming seasons but he might have to sacrifice his statistics by involving his teammates to achieve better results as a team.

2. Alessandro Gentile (EA7 Emporio Armani, Italy)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 11.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

Despite his young age and EA7 Emporio Armani being loaded with deep backcourt, the 22-year-old Alessandro Gentile was one of Luca Banchi's main options in crucial moments last season. Gentile, who started playing professional basketball at the age of 16, quickly learned how to use his strong body in Euroleague and that helped him to achieve success in 13-14. Gentile also demonstrated his leadership in Italian league, where he helped EA7 Emporio Armani win the championship while Gentile was named the Italian League Finals MVP. Considering that the rising Italian basketball star was also the top scorer for the Italian national team at EuroBasket 2013, within the next three years with EA7 Emporio Armani Gentile has a great chance to become one of the youngest Euroleague MVP award winners ever.

3. Sonny Weems (CSKA, Russia)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists. 

For the second season in a row, Sonny Weems averaged more than 12 points, two rebounds and two assists per game, which helped him to make RealGM's All-Euroleague First Team of 2013-14. Weems established himself as one of the best wings in the league back in his debut season with Zalgiris Kaunas in 11-12 and it seemed that joining a winning team and will provide him an opportunity to fully reach his potential in Europe. However, in two years Weems played twice in Euroleague semifinals and both times failed to carry CSKA to the final. In last season’s final four, Weems was one of the most disappointing players as in two games he collected 14 points, making six shots out of 23 attempts, and dished out four assists.

4. Andres Nocioni (FC Barcelona, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 13.6 points and 6.6 rebounds.

The 35-year-old veteran Andres Nocioni proved last season that he is still capable of playing 26 minutes a game and being a leader in a Euroleague Top 16 caliber team. Nocioni collected 20 or more performance index rating (PIR) points in seven Euroleagues games, including two 35 PIR performances against FC Barcelona and Panathinaikos Athens. Nocioni decided to improve his chances on winning Euroleague title this offseason by leaving Vitoria and joining Real Madrid. Gustavo Ayon, Marcus Slaughter, Felipe Reyes, Ionnis Bourousis, Salah Mehri - Real has one of the best frontscourts in Euroleague, and as lately Nocioni spent more time playing at power forward, therefore no surprise that his role will decrease and playing time will be limited to around 15 minutes per game. 

5. Nemanja Bjelica (Fenerbahce Ulker, Turkey)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 10.4 points (42% 3FG), 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

For Nemanja Bjelica, the 13-14 season was also the best of his career as he averaged solid numbers in both Euroleague and 2014 FIBA World Cup competitions. In 24 Euroleague games, Bjelica averaged career-high 10.4 points and 6.1 boards, including three double-doubles twice against FC Barcelona and once versus EA7 Emporio Armani. However, the Euroleague season for Fenerbahce Ulker ended soon while with Serbian national team Bjelica traveled all the way to the 2014 FIBA World Cup final. Bjelica led the silver-medal winning team in rebounds (6.9) as he was also one of the Top 3 scorers (11.9 PPG). As it is the case with Preldzic, Bjelica will not be the main and only Zeljko Obradovic’s option on offence this season. As Fenerbahce Ulke is once again full of talent, it is going to be difficult for Bjelica to improve his numbers, which would possibly happen if he plays for other Euroleague team. 

6. Matthew Lojeski (Olympiacos, Greece)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 11.1 points (43% 3FG), 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

Matthew Lojeski had a difficult task in replacing Kostas Papanikolaou in his debut Euroleague season for the back-to-back champions. By using his versatility, Lojeski did that surprisingly well - he helped Vassilis Spanoulis to lead Olympiacos all season long and was surprisingly persistent throughout regular season, Top 16 and the playoffs as he averaged more than 10 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in each stage. Despite being his first Euroleague season, Lojeski was also a big threat behind the three-point line as he scored three or more long-range shots in eight Euroleague games last season. Lojeski revealed his intentions to have a bigger role this season, which means that if Olympaicos stays on winning track, Lojeski might become a serious contender for the MVP award.

7. Jonas Maciulis (Real, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 8.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals.

Jonas Maciulis’ performance in 13-14 could be divided in two parts - Euroleague regular season and the rest of the year. Maciulis was one of the Panathinaikos’ leaders in regular season where he averaged 12.3 points and 5 rebounds and played his career game (19 points and eight boards) against Laboral Kutxa. Then Maciulis disappeared in Top 16 as his scoring averages dropped from 12.3 to 5.6 points per game as all his shooting percentages went down as well. The absence of few key Lithuanian national team players gave Maciulis opportunity to become a leader but the 29-year-old forward failed to use the chance. Despite Maciulis being one of the key defensive stoppers in 2014 FIBA World Cup, his contribution to team’s results (6.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game) was far behind the expectations. 

8. Tremell Darden (Olympiacos, Greece)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 5.7 points (46% 3FG) and 2.6 rebounds.

Tremell Darden played an important role in last year’s Real Madrid team and was an important figure during Real’s 31-game winning streak. Darden started in 30 out of 31 Euroleague games last season and despite his statistics does not reflect that, he was one of the best defensive stoppers in the whole league. His direct opponents averaged only 6.3 points in 19.4 minutes while facing Darden, which helped Real become one of the best defensive teams in the Euroleague. Due to his specific role, Darden will never be considered as a contender to win Euroleague MVP prize, but he still holds a chance to win the Euroleague Best Defender award within the next two years with Olympiacos.

9. James White (Unics, Russia)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Italian league): 17.1 points and 5 rebounds.

While playing for three different Italian teams since 2010 (with a break in 12-13), James White was undoubtedly the best scorer in Legabasket Serie A. White, who averaged no less than 17 points per game in each of those three seasons, comes to Euroleague after winning EuroChallenge trophy with Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia, where he was also the most efficient player on the team. The 32-year-old forward averaged 15.8 points, 4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, including his 17 points on 5-of-8 from the floor, four rebounds and two assists performance in the final game. After White registered a double-double in his Euroleague opening game, it seems that the new leader of Unics has ambitions to be make it into the Euroleague MVP conversation too.

10. Stratos Perperoglou (Anadolu Efes, Turkey)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.9 points (46% 3FG) and 2.8 rebounds. 

Stratos Perperoglou had a career year last season after successfully taking advantage of playing some minutes at power forward due to the injury Georgios Printezis. When Printezis was out, Perperoglou played his career game against FC Bayern, scoring 25 points, grabbing four boards and finishing the game with 28 PIR points. Perperoglou collected 20 or more PIR points in four Euroleague games last season and solid performance helped him to secure a new two-year deal in Turkey with Anadolu Efes. Perpreroglou is reunited with Dusan Ivkovic again and as Anadolu Efes frontcourt is loaded with talent, Perperoglou should be again Ivkovic’s main option at small forward position.

Draft Kings' $30,000 1-Day Fantasy Contest For Opening Night

Assembling a winning team while staying under the salary cap allows RealGM readers to take advantage of their deep NBA knowledge with Draft Kings' 1-Day fantasy basketball.

Coach's Corner: Rockets' Big Man Rotation, Utah's Shot Tweeners

The Rockets find themselves now with more questions than answers when it comes to their depth, while we also examine "shot tweeners."

Draft Kings' $30,000 1-Day Fantasy Contest For Opening Night

Assembling a winning team while staying under the salary cap allows RealGM readers to take advantage of their deep NBA knowledge with Draft Kings' 1-Day fantasy basketball.

A Solution To The NBA Draft Lottery

The answer is to keep the current system in place, while implementing rules that prevent teams from getting top picks in successive seasons to prevent sustained tanking.

The Torture Chamber

The Warriors possess a compelling combination of pieces that can be mixed and matched to create problems for their opponents and the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut five should be the crown jewel sooner rather than later.

Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Why Brad Stevens' system will maximize the skill sets of Boston's ecletic group of players, how LeBron experiments in preseason and fallout from Philadelphia's tanking.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

The Raptors were the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement last season. Terrence Ross, Iman Shumpert, Mason Plumlee, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Zeller can offer their teams improvement from within.

Mavericks Regained Contender Status With Nostalgic Summer

The Mavericks enter the new season with a revamped roster and high expectations, thanks to the addition of Chandler Parsons and the trade to bring back Tyson Chandler.

14-15 Euroleague Player Rankings: Power Forwards

Dario Saric, Viktor Khryapa, Georgios Printezis, Linas Kleiza and Jan Vesely headline the top power forwards in Euroleague this season.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

All five teams in the Northwest have committed to building through the draft and Steven Adams, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Gorgui Dieng and Trey Burke are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Coach's Corner: Warriors' Change Of Tempo Style, The Triangle's True Difficulty

The Warriors played fast last season, but any player has the freedom to "rip-and-run" under Steve Kerr, while the Triangle could be a bad fit for Derek Fisher and the Knicks even if they run it right.

College Basketball Preview Summary And Updates

Over the past 12 weeks, we've released a number of conference previews for the upcoming 14-15 college basketball season. Here are a few updates on what's changed since that project began.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jae Crowder and Jon Leuer represent the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs and Grizzlies as young players who are poised to grow and assume bigger roles this season.

Thunder Finally Approaching Prime Contention Seasons

With two of the top-5 players in the NBA and an elite defensive big, the Thunder aren’t just set up to win a championship this season - they are set up to win the next few.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

The top teams to watch on League Pass have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

Why The Mavs Have A Shot Again

Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk Nowitzki is the best offensive 7’0 in the NBA and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive 7’0. Chandler covers up Dirk’s flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player.

How The Morris Twins Will Be Phoenix's Major Contract Showdown

Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieff’s desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, it’s hard to see the twins wanting to be split up.

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