The Highs And Lows Of This Year's NBA Season

Jan 24, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 11:37 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In a career littered with milestones, LeBron James chalked up another last night. The basketball star became the youngest NBA player to score 30,000 career points. At age 33, he is having one of the best years of his career. His team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, though, are struggling. To check in on the Cavs and other things NBA, we turn to NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: How are you?

KELLY: I am well, but I'm going to start you off with a challenge. Let's just sit here and try to say things to each other about LeBron James that have not been said a thousand times before.

GOLDMAN: OK. That's easy. He's fantazing (ph), Mary Louise.

KELLY: (Laughing).

GOLDMAN: That's a combination of fantastic and amazing. Wait.

KELLY: I'm with it.

GOLDMAN: He's stupendible (ph).

KELLY: There we go.

GOLDMAN: Stupendous and incredible.

KELLY: Superlatives, superlatives - keep them coming.

GOLDMAN: You know, the scoring milestone is significant, especially for him. As he said, I'm not even a score-first guy when it comes to playing basketball. And in fact he was criticized early in his career for not taking shots sometimes at the end of close games, choosing instead to pass to an open teammate. So he was always making great basketball plays. But now he's just the eighth player in pro basketball history to score at least 30,000 points. And you know what? He's got some good years left, so he could end up very high on this select list.

KELLY: Yeah, he's going to keep climbing up those numbers if he keeps up at this rate. But let me ask you this. If he is so good and having such a great year, why is his team - why are the Cavs so disappointing?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well, one man can do so much, even LeBron James.

KELLY: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: You know, they've gone a bit off the rails. Since Christmas Day, they've lost 10 of 13 games. They're not playing good defense, and reportedly there is a split between players who've been there for years and have been part of the successful Cleveland teams that have gone to three straight NBA finals and won a title in that time and the new guys. Cleveland added a bunch of new players this season. One team member told ESPN there's no trust among players on the court. So it's a good thing it's January, though, before the All-Star break - plenty of time to fix things.

KELLY: All right, let me turn you in the other direction. We've been talking Eastern Conference. Let's talk Western Conference, where the defending NBA champion, the Golden State Warriors, have been looking just as unbeatable as ever. But looming on the horizon - the Houston Rockets. Have they finally met their match?

GOLDMAN: You know, we're a long way from saying that. And as I just mentioned, it's January, and Golden State still is the team to beat in the NBA for the next few years, let alone this season. But Houston has beaten Golden State twice this season. Those wins are giving the Rockets a lot of confidence.

Their big move of bringing in All-Star guard Chris Paul has paid off so far. A lot of people were skeptical about that because Paul is a guard who controls the ball, and Houston already has someone like that - a guard who controls the ball - in James Harden. But they've existed - coexisted wonderfully, and the team that Houston built to challenge the Warriors is showing it can do that. So if these two teams continue on their current paths and meet in the Western Conference Finals, it could be a doozy.

KELLY: A doozy - let me ask you about one other thing playing out on the court, and this is the relationship between the players and referees. That can always get heated, can be dicey, but things seem to have really soured this year. What's going on?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, if you ask players, the refs are inconsistent in the way they call games, and they're becoming more combative. If you ask the refs, the players are more combative and being disrespectful. Something is happening. The worst moment was an early game in December when a ref and Golden State's Shaun Livingston touched foreheads in an angry gesture by both. It was called a head-butt, and both were suspended. So things are tense right now. They're going to meet during the All-Star weekend next month, and they hope to fix the problems.

KELLY: All righty, thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That's NPR's Tom Goldman.

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