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James is leading the NBA in playing time at age 32, this despite the fact he’s already logged more minutes than Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Steve Nash played in their respective careers. The Cavaliers are playing a perilous game of injury roulette by overplaying their late-career star. And it suggests a smart rival — ahem, such as a certain franchise based in Canada — needs to be ready if and when Cleveland finds itself on the wrong side of health-related luck.
Still, healthy or not, getting past the Cavaliers won’t be easy for the Raptors, or for anyone, and not simply because James is the best player of his generation. It’s also because he has emerged as one of the most maniacally uncompromising athletes on the planet. And his urgings, if you’re betting, will most likely spur the Cavaliers to get even better and deeper before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.
On Thursday ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that James and owner Dan Gilbert are at odds over payroll spending, of all things. Now, it’s easy to frame James as an entitled nitpicker in such a public showdown. Gilbert’s franchise, after all, has spent more money in salary and luxury-tax penalties than any NBA team since James rejoined the club in 2014-15.
Then again, James is only asking for what every great player ought to demand: his best chance at maximizing his career. He’s pushing for excellence and wondering aloud if the Cavaliers, in the glow of their first championship, have lost some of their win-at-all-costs edge. If you’re a Cleveland fan, you should be grateful.
And if you’re a Raptors fan, it’s worth wondering: Who’s playing that role in Toronto?
We know who used to play it. It was Tim Leiweke, the bulldog of a MLSE CEO who arrived in town back in 2013 and almost immediately pulled a version of what James pulled this week. Leiweke would tell anyone who asked that the way Toronto’s sports teams had been operating was unacceptable. Piling up profits wasn’t enough. Being happy with modest successes and accepting of sub-mediocrity — none of it was worthy of a market this rich and this massive.
And now that Leiweke is gone — well, you can make an argument the Raptors are in danger of becoming too comfortable. They’ve been to the playoffs three straight years. They’ve come through the 41-game mark at franchise-record pace, playing to nightly full houses at the Air Canada Centre. If they don’t make a significant personnel move this season they’ll probably still rake in millions upon millions in playoff-related revenues.
Yet there are holes in the lineup that need filling — a long-sought power forward, for starters. And who, exactly, is advocating for team president Masai Ujiri to exhaust every option and spend what it takes to fill them?
It’s probably not Leiweke’s successor, Michael Friisdahl, whose resume highlights include the creation of Air Canada Rouge, the no-frills, less-legroom discount airline. Let’s just say the man who created Canada’s preeminent winged torture chamber isn’t a likely candidate to endorse breaking the bank for the benefit of tall people.
It’s probably not Larry Tanenbaum, the MLSE chairman, who seems positively delighted by the recent sniff of success. And it probably won’t be Toronto’s best players, DeMar DeRozan and Lowry, even if Ujiri owes it to both to maximize the soon-to-be-closing window of their overlapping primes. Lowry, 30, certainly has some leverage given his status as an impending free agent. But James’s power is nearly unique in pro sports.
The Raptors, to be fair, haven’t been financial slouches. Their current payroll for 2016-17 sits in the league’s top 10. Still, last season they were the only franchise among the post-season final four that didn’t spend into the luxury tax — a credit to everyone involved, for sure, but also a predictable development.
For years Toronto GMs, including Ujiri, have parried suggestions of profit mongering by insisting there’s an organizational green light to spend into the luxury tax if it makes sense. The fact remains no Toronto GM has ever crossed the proverbial intersection into luxury-tax territory. You don’t need to be a forensic accountant to detect the pattern there.
Still, there’s a certain feeling of resignation when you talk to NBA executives and coaches not based in a select few cities. A Cleveland-Golden State final can seem inevitable. The other day Gregg Popovich, the owner of five championship rings as coach of the San Antonio Spurs, pronounced the Warriors “in a different league than the rest of us.”
So what’s the point of the rest of the league trying to compete?
“The challenge is what makes it exciting,” Popovich said, offended by the notion that the fight was futile. “If you’re of the mindset . . . of ‘What’s the point?’ — then you’re in the wrong business.”