In a free-wheeling, nearly 90-minute podcast, LeBron James sent some subtle, if good-natured, shade (and praise) at Michael Jordan, talked about how his legacy slipped into the back of his mind as he contemplated mounting a 3-1 comeback in the NBA Finals, and answered the critical question: What animal would J.R. Smith be?
LeBron is an interesting, nuanced, and often remarkably distant person, and every utterance he offers can make news and turn sportswriters like myself to their keyboards to make sense of them.
Perhaps because of that, LeBron is hard to know -- or at least to connect with, given all the obstacles and barriers. But in those rare times when you see past the curtain a superstar full of cliches and guarded evasions can be replaced by someone unexpected, funny and thoughtful.
Perhaps because the Open Run podcast with Jesse Williams and Stefan Marolachakis now falls under LeBron's Uninterrupted banner, the reigning NBA Finals Most Valuable Player offered up a more open version of himself that we're perhaps used to getting.
Here are some of the major takeaways from the podcast:
Friends go way back
LeBRON'S QUOTE: "I'm watching the '93 NBA Finals, Bulls versus Suns. And it's a close game in the fourth quarter, I think Phoenix is winning, Game 3 or Game 4, and Scottie Pippen is shooting free throws. And Barkley is on the lane line and he's boxing out MJ. They're actually laughing at one point. They're actually laughing. They're actually laughing on the court. That right there -- kind of was ... 'They never talk.' 'There was no way they talk on the floor.' And they're laughing at a crucial point."
MY TAKE: There is probably a lot of truth to this idea that players didn't just suddenly start becoming friends in this era. We're certainly more aware of their off-court relationships now with social media, but let's not forget Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas famously kissing one another's cheek before Game 1 of the 1988 NBA Finals.
That said, it's pretty hard to imagine Larry Bird and Michael Jordan riding a banana boat together in the south of Spain.
The Game 7 block
LeBRON'S QUOTE: "We always talk about, in practice, I always tell J.R. and Shump and Kyrie and all our guards, 'If you see me running, if you can just make the offensive player just change his momentum just a little bit, it'll give me enough time to track it. Buy me a second.' If you look at the play, J.R. swung over the top and Iguodala had to scrunch just a little bit instead of just going up and jamming. He made him scrunch a little bit and that gave me the split second."
MY TAKE: Just watch this block:
Given the stage and circumstances, that was arguably one of the greatest plays in NBA history. It gets more amazing every time you think about the ground he covered. If Iguodala finishes that break, there's a very good chance the Warriors win their second consecutive title, become the best team in NBA history, while LeBron falls to 2-5 in the Finals and the Cleveland misery continues. That block saved a team, a city, even, in many ways, LeBron's legacy.
Losing Game 4 of the Finals
LeBRON'S QUOTE: "Before I even went to sleep ... I know one guy who's going to send me a message is always Maverick (Carter), we talk after every game. The only thing he said was, 'F---.' With three exclamation points. And I sent him back, 'I know. I know. We had it.'"
MY TAKE: I'll admit, I thought the Cavs were done when they went down 3-1. Everyone did. Except for LeBron, who sent a message to his teammates to get read to go to Oakland and take care of business and bring it back to Cleveland for Game 6.
LeBron was clearly upset with this loss. He nearly lost his cool with Stephen Curry in the waning moments. However, in hindsight, the Game 4 loss merely provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for LeBron to erase whatever doubt still existed as to his ability to perform in the clutch by pulling off a comeback the NBA had never seen.
Will anyone ever again dare to doubt this man?
LeBron a Laker?
LeBRON'S QUOTE: When asked what team in the history of the NBA he'd like to play for, LeBron said, "Give me the '85 Lakers."
MY TAKE: LeBron, with his size and handle and near alien-like vision and passing creativity, has often been compared to Magic Johnson. It's an interesting exercise to swap out LeBron for Magic with that Lakers team. Most likely, nothing much changes. That team might actually be a little better with LeBron's scoring and defensive prowess.
Looked at the other way, what if you swapped out Magic Johnson in his prime for LeBron on this year's Cavs team? For all of Magic greatness, you have to wonder if that team could've beaten the Warriors. It has become a 3-point game, and Magic could never really shoot (though LeBron isn't exactly a marksman from deep). But the defense is the real difference. Can anyone see Magic making the aforementioned block on Andre Iguodala? Or any kind of similarly impactful defensive play?
This really becomes a debate between Magic and LeBron, and it's a fascinating one.
If J.R. Smith were an animal
LeBRON'S QUOTE: "He's like a dolphin, man. You want to know why? Dolphins, they're really killers. Sharks are afraid of them. But they have to have a group around them to come to the best of their abilities."
MY TAKE: This is just a spot-on analogy from one of the great basketball minds in history. LeBron is right. J.R. Smith can, at times, be a killer, though at times in his career it's been a question of which team he's killing -- the opponent of his own. But he has never been more effective than he has been in this current run with the Cavs, largely for the exact reason LeBron referenced.
In Cleveland, Smith is surrounded by the right pieces to bring out the best in his game. He's still a gunslinger, but he's found a balance and he's an underrated defensive player. Now the Cavs just have to sign him to a deal, which LeBron has lobbied for. Something tells me if LeBron wants it, he'll get it.
Most promising young player
LeBRON'S QUOTE: "If it's someone that's under the radar right now that I believe is going to be a really, really, really All-Star player in our league, [it's] Devin Booker from the Phoenix Suns."
MY TAKE: Bank on it. LeBron truly has a deep and impressive basketball IQ, and he sees plays -- and players -- before they fully develop. And LeBron doesn't heap praise on young guns (outside his own teammates) unless they've truly caught his eye.
Favorite athletes growing up
LeBRON'S QUOTE: "Jordan. Griffey. Deion."
MY TAKE: Three sports, three legends, three guys who did it their way. And each, in their own way, speaks to a different part of LeBron's ambition. With Jordan, there's the pursuit of the Greatest Of All Time. With Griffey, the idea of a purity and joy for the game. And with Deion, LeBron sees a player whose star power transcended his sport. At his best, at least, LeBron is capable of being a blend of those three.
This is a very long podcast, but it's worth a listen. I covered LeBron a long time, and I've spent some time around him. This is the most likable and open I've ever heard him.