Still fresh on Barkley’s mind was the NBA’s opening night, which saw Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers beat LeBron James’s Lakers, 112-102, in a crosstown battle at Staples Center on Tuesday.
“I don’t hesitate,” Barkley said when asked about the brewing rivalry between James and Leonard. “At this stage, Kawhi is a better player than LeBron. He does everything better. He’s a better defender, a better scorer. He’s better at imposing his will on the game. You just saw him will a good Toronto team to the championship. They played Philadelphia and then Milwaukee [in the playoffs], and it’s fair to say they were underdogs in both of those series. But Kawhi would not let them lose.”
Although the 34-year-old James has been widely viewed as the NBA’s top player for most of the decade, Barkley wasn’t interested in being overly deferential. After all, he has seen the baton pass before during his nearly 40-year run as an NBA player and commentator.
“You don’t get to have the mantle of best player for your whole life,” Barkley said of James. “It passes on. [Anthony Davis] is going to have to be the best player on the Lakers if they’re going to win the championship. Father Time is undefeated.
“When it hits, it’s a shocker. You start to realize how hard the game is. When you’re 25 or 26, the game is easy. I knew it was time to retire when guys who couldn’t play were kicking my [butt]. It’s tough. One of the things that makes you great is your ego and your pride. Guys keep hanging on because you think mentally you can still do it, but you can’t do it physically.”
In addition to James’s basketball mortality, Barkley weighed in on the playoff races in both conferences, Zion Williamson’s knee injury, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future and the NBA’s ongoing China controversy.
The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity.
Q. What else did you take from James’s debut?
The Lakers have to take LeBron off the point [guard position]. They need to play at a much faster pace to get those other guys involved.
“LeBron and [Davis] are going to have to ball to get out of this Western Conference. I’ve been in the NBA over 30 years. The Western Conference is the best I’ve ever seen it. Utah, Denver, Portland. There’s no bad teams. I mean, Sacramento is solid. Phoenix and the Pelicans might be the two worst teams, but they’ll be young and exciting.
Q. Clippers forward Paul George finished third in 2019 MVP voting. Could he be in contention as a top-five player?
[Finishing third in MVP] doesn’t mean you’re in that group. It means you’re having a good year. Nobody says he’s a top-five player. Stop that. He hasn’t had a lot of success in the playoffs. In Indiana, people said he didn’t have a lot of help, but Indiana did just as well without him. Then he goes to play with Russell [Westbrook] and Steven Adams, and they still have no success. There’s a lot of pressure on Paul George this year.
Q: Did the NBA go too far by scheduling Zion Williamson to play 11 of his first 20 games on national television as a rookie? The plan backfired when he injured his knee before his debut.
I think the NBA probably did him a disservice. He is a very talented kid, seems like a great kid. I hope he gets healthy.
Q: Williamson has suffered three knee injuries in 2019. Does he need to lose weight or change his playing style to avoid persistent injuries?
When I got to the NBA, I was 300 pounds. I had to lose 50 pounds to become a great player. But I was kind of fat. He doesn’t look fat. He’s a lot more explosive than me, but 285 pounds is a lot. Two-eighty-five is a big man.
Q: The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are the favorites in the East. Can any other team crash the party?
They are my top two teams. Boston is the third-best team. I love them getting Kemba [Walker] and Enes Kanter. My sleeper is the Detroit Pistons. I think they could be the fourth-best team, but Blake Griffin pissed me off last night because he’s hurt already. They can’t beat Milwaukee or Philly, but I think they’re going to surprise some people.
Q: A lot of stars have relocated to big markets. Have the Bucks done enough to convince Antetokounmpo to re-sign next summer?
It’s really unfortunate where all these guys want to play together and they’re best friends. Our whole [team-building] goal is stealing the next superstar.
I think the owners are going to do something. They’re not just going to keep letting these guys make their own decisions. This is a business. I think [the owners are] going to lock out [the players]. We can’t have players making trades for each other.
Clearly, Kawhi had already orchestrated that he would come to L.A. if they could get him Paul George. Clearly, there was a lot of tampering going on behind the scenes. Even with the Anthony Davis situation, it’s clear that LeBron’s guys were like, “He’ll only be traded to the Lakers."
Q: What’s your advice to Antetokounmpo?
I would love to see him stay in Milwaukee and win it there. That’s one of the reasons why we respect Dirk Nowitzki. He kept banging on the door and finally won one.
Q: Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sparked a controversy with a tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters. LeBron James criticized Morey’s timing and received a lot of backlash. You have defended James. Why?
Morey has the right to freedom of speech, but he also has to understand that he works for the Houston Rockets. That’s the No. 1 brand in China for the NBA because of their affiliation with Yao Ming. You can’t insult a foreign country and go make money there. If he believes that [tweet] so much, he should not work for the Rockets.
Everybody in this country does business in China. All of a sudden, these people want to get on LeBron and Adam Silver for trying to protect their money. Why should [James] sacrifice his money because of some tweet this fool put out? Why should [the NBA] sacrifice their billions?
We have not heard from [Morey] since that tweet. All these congressmen and politicians were saying Adam Silver needs to stand up to China and that LeBron is selling out. That’s the problem I had with the whole thing: Daryl Morey hasn’t had any consequences. He’s been hiding out since he put out the tweet.
Q: What next? Should Morey resign or apologize to his NBA colleagues?
If you’re going to jump in the fire, stay in the fire. But he jumped right out. He was not wrong, but he put the NBA, the Rockets, LeBron and Nike in a really bad situation. I don’t know exactly what I want to hear from him now. I don’t want to give you a bogus answer. I hope it goes away.