LeBron James’s ability to contribute at a high level at all five positions places him among the most versatile players the NBA has ever seen. This week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which features James on the cover, breaks down James’s stunning array of skills, position by position, with takes by Lee Jenkins, Chris Ballard, Ian Thomsen, Mark Jackson and Bill Walton. This is the 19th SI cover for James; the last time he appeared was when he was named the 2012 SI Sportsman of the Year.
Small Forward: Since every player requires a position, Heat coach Erik Spoelestra pencils in James at small forward. Often manned by the most versatile player on the floor, the three spot is where the 6′ 8″, 250-pound star seems to fit best. Jenkins says, “James performs all the job’s diverse duties: slashing inside for layups and stepping out for three-pointers, handling the ball and hitting the glass, accepting the toughest defensive assignments and smothering them.” (PAGE 32)
Point Guard: Warriors coach Mark Jackson, a former point guard for 17 years in the NBA, says James’s skills at the point are similar to Magic Johnson’s, if Johnson had possessed the ability to score 30 every day. “To me, he has the chance to be the leading scorer in the history of this game and one of the top five assists guys,” says Jackson. “That’s how special he is.” (PAGE 33) Jackson says that in addition to being an excellent passer, James uses his length and strength to disrupt opposing point guards on the defensive end. “Even if he had to play only point guard on both offense and defense, he’s my Number 1 pick at the position right now,” says Jackson. (PAGE 33)
Shooting Guard: When James entered the league, he struggled with his outside shooting—teams dared him to shoot threes as he often took off-balance shots. Since his days in Cleveland, Ballard finds that James has worked with a shooting coach to create a “calmer” shot, which has helped turn him into a better long-range shooter. Now, Spoelestra takes James off the ball for large chunks of time, which enables James to take more efficient spot-up jump shots.“LeBron James could be, would be and is an excellent shooting guard,” says Ballard. “He can drive, he can score and he can defend opposing twos.” (PAGE 34)
Power Forward: James recently developed a post-up game, in which he bangs and bruises like a power forward, writes Ian Thomsen. After working on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon before last season, teams now fear James inside—a place where he is one dribble from the basket and one kick-out pass from finding a wide-open shooter. “When the time is right, James could yet become the league’s most challenging power forward, having both an unparalleled ability to pass out of the post combined with a touch that will stretch defenses out to the three-point line,” says Thomsen. “It’s shocking to be the best player in the world and continue to improve,” says Pacers coach Frank Vogel. (PAGE 36)
Center: Hall of Fame center Bill Walton says James, who has played some center in the Heat’s small-ball lineup, can handle the pivot for even longer stretches of time should his team need him to. “He’s an outstanding passer and has outstanding footwork, which are two things you look for in a center,” says Walton. “Plus, who could guard LeBron? What center is equipped to take on that challenge? He can post you up and take you outside and shoot effortless jump shots.” (PAGE 37)
This week’s Sports Illustrated features a profile by Ben Reiter on the St. Louis Cardinals and how they are the most consistent franchise in baseball due to an organizational philosophy dedicated to measured and constant evolution. At the forefront of their sustained success is diverse and dominant starting pitching, made up this season by a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Jamie Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook—all of whom appear on SI’s cover. The cover is inspired by the iconic October 7, 1968, SI cover that featured Roger Maris, Tim McCarver, Bob Gibson, Mike Shannon and Lou Brock. Inside SI sat down with SI creative director Chris Hercik to discuss the cover and how the process of being inspired by an old cover unfolded.
Who came up with the idea to use the iconic 1968 cover to inspire this week’s cover?
Hercik: SI managing editor Chris Stone had the idea of recreating this iconic cover. He came to our team and described that baseball in St. Louis, with their passionate and loyal fans, is nearly the same now as it was in 1968. It is consistent and powerful. Basically if you’re a Cardinal’s fan…you know about this cover.
Hercik: What you don’t see is that the original cover folds out and reveals the entire starting lineup of that Cardinals team. And it also included their salaries. It’s hard to believe, but their total team salary was only $607,000. The highest paid athlete was $85,000…boy have times changed.
What do you like about this week’s cover? How is it different?
Hercik: We really tried to mimic the old cover as much as possible without the gatefold of course. What I love the most is that it’s simple and very powerful. The starting rotation looks very comfortable…their smiles are genuine and the chemistry is real.
How did the photographer go about recreating the cover?
Hercik: It was as simple as lining them up. But an interesting nugget is that we did leave the styling up to the players to decide. And that’s always nerve racking, as you never know what someone will show up wearing. Yet, they all arrived dressed very nice and looked really good. Most importantly, they seemed very comfortable together. I think that illustrates how much chemistry they do have as a starting rotation, which is chronicled in Ben Reiter’s excellent article.
This is the Cardinals 39th SI Cover. Does their rich history lend itself to being inspired by an old SI cover?
Hercik: When you look at the original cover and see the faces and names of all-time great players, you can’t help but be inspired. Their success spans many generations, which is a big reason why this franchise appeals to so many people. Reiter’s article also touches upon the organization’s consistent strive for “constant evolution”. Us at SI can relate to this philosophy since we have such a rich history but are always looking for innovative ways to evolve our brand.
Tell us about the decision to place an image of the 1968 cover inside the magazine on the Lineup page.
Hercik: At one point I had designed the actual cover with the 1968 one on it as well. But it was too obvious. I wanted the reader to be surprised. So I played around with various sizes and placements. Then Chris Stone recommended making it the main image on the Lineup page. Readers can flip two pages from the cover and see how this week’s cover was inspired. It was the perfect call.
Cover Inspired by Iconic 1968 SI Cover
The St. Louis Cardinals are the most consistent franchise in baseball due to an organizational philosophy dedicated to measured and constant evolution, writes Ben Reiter in this week’s Sports Illustrated. At the forefront of their sustained success is diverse and dominant starting pitching, made up this season by a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Jamie Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook—all of whom appear on SI’s cover. The cover is inspired by the iconic October 7, 1968, SI cover that featured Roger Maris, Tim McCarver, Bob Gibson, Mike Shannon and Lou Brock.
“When we think of the Cardinals, we think of a distinct organizational culture: Anodyne, diligent, supportive, resolute,” says Reiter. “Mostly, we think of consistency. Their 11 championships have been well distributed. No son or daughter of St Louis born since 1902 has reached the age of 25 without having lived through at least one victory parade.” (PAGE 64)
At week’s end the Cardinals sit atop the National League with just nine players from their 2012 championship team. They are there, in large measure, because of a starting rotation that has been historically good. “The Cardinals have ended up with such a rotation by doing what they’ve always done, and what any team or corporation ought to do if it seeks success in the long term. Which is to ceaselessly, though judiciously, innovate,” says Reiter. (PAGE 64)
When the game had become power crazy, former longtime St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan worked with the team’s pitchers to mix in ground ball inducing two-seam fastballs since he believed most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their deliveries down in the strike zone. Wainwright busted on the scene as a closer late in the Cardinals 2006 title run throwing the two-seamer, and continues to use it now as the rotation’s ace and leader.
However, when John Mozeliak was promoted to G.M., in 2007, Duncan began to lobby him to add power pitchers to the mix, especially since home runs were on the decline. “We decided to emphasize not just pitchers who were throwing hard, but guys we thought might throw harder in the future,” says Mozeliak. (PAGE 67) Within three years they drafted Lynn, Miller and also added Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, each of whom throw around 100 mph from the bullpen and could be future starters—perhaps very soon since Garcia and Westbrook both recently were placed on the disabled list.
The Cardinals have evolved financially, too, as they made the difficult choice to not re-sign Albert Pujols before last season. “Losing an iconic player was not easy—it was jolting,” says Mozeliak. “From a very simplistic standpoint, [once we let him go] we knew we had resources to deploy elsewhere.” (PAGE 67) The flexibility led to extensions for Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina.
“While an overriding ethos—the Cardinal way—has developed over the years, it is flexible enough to allow the team to capitalize on the game’s changing realities better than any other,” says Reiter (PAGE 65)
New York Mets ace Matt Harvey is the most fascinating young power arm in baseball, writes senior writer Tom Verducci in this week’s Sports Illustrated. Harvey, who appears on SI’s cover with the headline “The Dark Knight of Gotham”, has taken New York by storm thanks to four plus pitches and a chip on his shoulder from a draft slight six years ago. “In an era dominated by pitchers, Matt Harvey has the ferocity of stuff and of will to rise above all of them,” says Verducci. (PAGE 64)
Harvey’s blazing start—he is 4-0 with 62 strikeouts and a 1.44 ERA—brings up memories of Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, homegrown power pitchers who helped the Mets to their only world championships. “I want to be that guy,” says Harvey, “when they know you’re starting against them, they go, ‘Oh, crap.’ ” (PAGE 66)
Verducci notes that Harvey was groomed to become a great power pitcher with disciplined mechanics by his father, Ed, who coached Matt in high school in Connecticut. Ed always told his son that if he maintains his mechanics, nobody’s better. “He saw me coach for a long time,” Ed says. I always tried to have a level of excellence with how I wanted my teams to play. Maybe he saw some of that.” (PAGE 66)
Harvey declined a $1 million offer to sign out of high school when he was picked later than expected by the Angels in the third round of the 2007 draft. He enrolled at North Carolina, where he initially struggled. He later reestablished his status as a top prospect, and the Mets chose him with the seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft. “What happened when I was 18 will be in the back of my mind,” Harvey says of the ’07 draft. “That was the biggest thing in my career.” (PAGE 68)
Now, Harvey’s signature pitch is a 97-mph fastball. Verducci notes that the rest of his repertoire includes “a roundhouse 1-to-7 curveball, a changeup that seems to float into the ether and, most recently, a tight, hard slider that reaches 92 (PAGE 65).” Verducci thinks Harvey’s best comparison may be with Roger Clemens. “His arm goes stock straight behind him as he shows the ball to second base while sitting on a bent back leg—just as the Rocket did.” (PAGE 65)
Like Clemens, Harvey wants to own the game. When pitching coach Dan Warthen told him that he could win 17 games if he threw 210 innings, Harvey said, “If I throw 210 I’m winning 20.” (PAGE 70)
This week’s SI also features an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Mike Conley Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies. Senior writer Lee Jenkins spent seven days with the Western Conference contenders as they devised a game plan for the Thunder, bounced back from a devastating defeat—and got their hair cut just right. Conley is featured on a regional cover, the first SI cover for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jenkins takes readers through the Grizzlies’ preparations for Game 1, including reserve swingman Quincy Pondexter doing push-ups and power forward Zack Randolph reviewing Floyd Mayweather’s victory the night before. Jenkins writes, “The Grizzlies are heavyweights, not welterweights, an antidote to the go-go teams of the Western Conference and a throwback to the days when large men stood on the block with their backs to the basket.” (PAGE 36)
In Game 1, the Grizzlies, the league’s top defensive team, forgot who they were. Memphis allowed Kevin Durant to score 35 points and Kevin Martin to score 25 off the bench. They still had a chance to tie the game with 1.6 seconds left when Pondexter went to the line to shoot three with his team down three. He missed the first shot and Memphis lost. In the locker room after the defeat, Pondexter already had a Twitter account filled with awful messages. He said, “I let down my team.”(PAGE 37)
After every game, coach Lionel Hollins fills a note card with his thoughts for the following practice. Jenkins saw the card—it was filled with ways to slow Durant. “We have to treat KD the same ways as Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul,” Hollins said. “He can’t just dribble down the floor and see one guy. He has to see three guys.” (PAGE 37)
Jenkins also observed a team that is very close knit, from eating meals and seeing movies together on the road to Conley hosting a Warriors-Spurs watch party in his hotel room. “I’m in awe of what he’s doing,” Conley says as he watches the Warriors’ Stephen Curry. In the Grizzlies’ Game 2 victory, Conley finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jenkins says that he delivered “a sequence as awe-inducing as Curry’s.” (PAGE 39)
The coaching staff has encouraged Conley to look for his own shot more often since leading scorer Rudy Gay was traded in late January. “I got a chance to show the world I can do the same things as those other great point guards,” Conley says. (PAGE 38)
With the Grizzlies back home with three days off before Game 3, forward Tony Allen took his daughter to school, Pondexter made his 38th community appearance of the season and Randolph got his weekly haircut at Christyles, where he stops in every Friday or Saturday and always before nationally televised games. Jenkins says, “On the road the Grizzlies are basketball players. At home they are husbands, fathers and dog owners.” (PAGE 40)