A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
A study in controlling the narrative
The art of media manipulation lies not in what you say, but what it makes people think of.
The Lakers and Clippers, in the leadup to their Christmas game, have been fighting a proxy war over load management. The Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard, who hasn’t played in a back-to-back game in years, believe in it. The Lakers, on the other hand … well, here’s what LeBron had to say about it.
“Why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me, personally,” he told reporters. “I mean, I don’t know how many games I’ve got left in my career. I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game that are there to see me play. If I sit out, then what? That’s my obligation. My obligation is to play for my teammates, and if I’m healthy, then I’m playing. If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy. It’s that simple.”
Forget the fact that LeBron once took two weeks off in the middle of the regular season and has regularly sat out games to rest. James positioned himself on the side of the fans — Will somebody think of the children? — the Lakers as tough, and he invoked the Clippers without once having to mention them. Everything James says is overanalyzed and extrapolated. James didn’t need to mention Leonard. Every time the media talked about his quote, they did that for him — including us.
On Tuesday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was asked about James’ comments.
“It’s our philosophy,” he said. “I don’t know what theirs is. I think theirs is whatever LeBron says it is, to be honest. That makes a lot of sense to me. No, I think I like what we’re doing, I think it’s the smart thing to do, and you know, who knows? We’ll see at the end.”
Rivers, in a game in which the object is to dance around the bait and jab back with increasingly creative buzzwords, took it. He said the name, and in doing so, he set the news cycle ablaze and turned the mirror on himself: Didn’t Leonard get the Clippers to trade for Paul George? And doesn’t the Clippers’ injury-prevention plan look eerily similar to the Raptors’ last year? And why did Rivers have to take a shot at LeBron? That’s the question every talking head is asking.
For example, let’s consider what would have happened if Rivers said the same thing and didn’t invoke James, perhaps adding that the Clippers were focused on the long game: being healthy for the playoffs. The conversation would have stayed right where it was before Tuesday: Why are the Lakers straining themselves in the regular season, while the Clippers, despite never making the NBA Finals, are the ones acting like they’ve been there?
Rivers and James are experts at using the podium as a pulpit. They use it to play mind games and harness the narrative in their favor. This won’t be their last proxy battle, but LeBron won their first.
Bucks vs. Lakers just got a lot more interesting
Earlier this week, a potential NBA Finals preview got way more interesting. The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, who will face off Thursday night, entered the week with streaks that were broken. The Indiana Pacers survived a clincher against the Lakers on Tuesday, breaking L.A.’s 14-game road winning streak. The Bucks lost to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, ending their winning streak at 18 games.
Both teams entering the game in Milwaukee with their streaks intact would have made for a fun yarn to spin, but the losses have given way to more revealing records: The Lakers haven’t lost consecutive games all season. Neither have the Bucks, who only lost consecutive games once last season.
There are no tell-all’s in December, but with Anthony Davis suiting up, we could be in for a dogfight that reveals much more than your average game. The Lakers and Bucks are both prideful, defensive-minded and they own the paint offensively, but in completely different ways. The Lakers clog it up and play bully ball in the post, while the Bucks space it out, leaving it empty to clear a runway for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who leads the NBA in points in the paint. Davis and LeBron James rank fourth and fifth, respectively — different personnel, same shot chart.
Both teams love scoring in the paint, and they both take pains to protect it. The Bucks, somewhat controversially, freely let open 3-pointers fly in the service of keeping opponents away from the rim. The Lakers’ length, especially with Davis at the four, deters drives. Consider Antetokounmpo driving against Davis: It’s the definition of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. And on Thursday, something has to give.
Get your money, Brad, but it makes me sad
Bradley Beal is third in the NBA in minutes. He is taking a ton of shots, and by most standards, he is having a career year. His turnovers have increased with his usage, but Beal’s season thus far has answered the pertinent question about his ceiling: He can handle the smoke. He is scoring 27.6 points per game, sixth in the NBA, and dishing seven assists — leading man numbers for a team being led nowhere. And therein lies the rub: If a player dominates on a team that can’t cobble together any wins, does he really even make a sound?
You could argue, of course, that Beal could only put up big numbers on a bad team, but the problem with that logic is he’s actually accomplished just enough to prove he’s not a gimmicky empty-stats guy. He’s a strong and willing defender. Year-by-year his shot chart has swelled into a model of modern efficiency, and he is capable of playing off the ball. More than anything, this season is proving he can play just as well with the ball in his hands. He’s turning into damn near the ideal playoff wing.
This development coming right on the heels of Beal signing a two-year, $72 million extension could be good news for the Wizards, but they might want to re-open the trade market for him. Beal is the only reason their win total is bad instead of awful, and you wonder if that outcome is in the long-term interest of their rebuild. Every improvement Beal makes would be better served elsewhere. In Washington, a superstar could be emerging in a wreckage.
More from Yahoo Sports: