When LeBron James returned back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, he made it clear that his only goal was to bring a title back to the city that he grew up in. Once he did, he solidified without a doubt that he was the greatest to ever play the game. He got the city of Cleveland its first title in 52 years. He did what no other person has been able to do.
However, the celebration that came in 2016 now feels like it was decades ago. Now, the Golden State Warriors run the NBA, winning the NBA title 3 out of the past 4 years, sweeping the Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals. The Warriors thoroughly dominated the Cavs, outranking them in talent, effort, and firepower. Despite the superhuman capabilities that LeBron showed this postseason, his team’s effort was futile as they were dismantled in historic fashion. The 105-85 victory on the Cavaliers’ home court was the final nail in the coffin.
LeBron in his last press conference of the year, with a cast on his fractured right hand.
The writing was on the wall for this result during each of the Cavaliers’ matchups in the postseason. They underwent a significant overhaul in the late months of the season, and were in the midst of gelling when it came time for the playoffs. They were pushed to the brink by the upstart Indiana Pacers, losing Game 1 of the opening series. They were eventually forced to beat the Pacers in seven games, with LeBron receiving little to no help from his supporting cast.
The lack of support that LeBron James would get from the rest of his team would be the reason for their struggles throughout the postseason. Without LeBron, the Cavs are nothing more than a lottery team. They acted like it as well. LeBron dragged them through the playoffs, backed by nothing more than a semi-consistent Kevin Love and a crapshoot of backup players that could never be counted on.
He understood that a Herculean effort was necessary for him to even make the Finals for an 8th straight year. He averaged 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists throughout the postseason, one of his best performances ever considering that he was in his 15th season. But as he checked out of the game with four minutes left, futility had finally set in. The Cavaliers’ inconsistent play and effort that had been a hallmark of their season doomed them against the deeper and more talented Warriors team. The fans in Cleveland chanted “MVP” at James, almost as a desperate plea saying, “We can’t do this without you.”
The thing is, LeBron can’t do it with them either. He understands that, as does the rest of the league. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr in the championship presser last night said that, “The fact that they (the Cavaliers) got here surprised me, frankly.” Every decent NBA mind knows that the Cavaliers don’t have the talent to compete with the Warriors, so a basketball savant like LeBron knows this as well. The chasm between the two teams led many to believe that LeBron could be on his way out of Cleveland. He is able to opt out of his contract on July 1st and enter free agency. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will take this route and test the waters.
Adding LeBron to any team makes them an instant contender to make the Finals. Each team knows that. NBA players didn’t even wait for the body of the Cavs to be cold before they started putting their pitches to the King on social media. Every team in the NBA wants LeBron. It would raise their franchise to levels once unseen. The issue for most is that LeBron just doesn’t want to make another Finals, he wants to win them. “It’s never a success when you lose in the postseason,” James said during the end of season presser. “Not for me.” The team that LeBron joins would have to be able to compete for the title, not just show up. He is looking to construct a new super-team that could challenge the Warriors and help him win more titles.
Throughout this past season, there were rumbles in the League that the Houston Rockets were at the top of pack in the hunt to sign LeBron during free agency. LeBron joining the presumed MVP James Harden and the quintessential point god Chris Paul, with the solid supporting cast already there would give LeBron his best chance at stopping the Hamptons 5 dynasty. The issue is that the Rockets lack the proper amount of cap space to easily bring LeBron to Houston. Due to Chris Paul already announcing that he would not be taking a pay cut, GM Daryl Morey would have to work Criss Angel-like magic to pull off the most valuable signing in recent years. But to sign the best player in our generation, he would find a way to get it done.
The Philadelphia 76ers are an intriguing destination for the King. Center Joel Embiid has been recruiting LeBron for presumably the entire season. LeBron is also very fond of Ben Simmons, heralding him as next in line for the throne. Simmons is coincidentally represented by Rich Paul, LeBron’s close friend and business associate, for what that is worth. The issue is, Simmons’ playing style does not gel with James’, as LeBron needs solid three pointers around them to space the floor and to complement his ball dominant playing style. Simmons apparently has a phobia of the three point line and is the main distributor on the 76ers. Philly has tons of potential but LeBron may not be looking for a team that needs growth when he is trying to compete for a championship.
The Los Angeles Lakers name has been tossed into around as a potential landing spot for James, but if you put the team under a microscope the problems arise. The young Lakers squad would need to undergo a lot more team building than the Rockets or 76ers. Their main pieces, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma have all shown great potential to be solid NBA players. They also all have their drawbacks. Ingram needs to grow into his frame and refine his game to be more efficient. Lonzo has to improve from an average rookie season, become a more consistent shooter, and be more aggressive in order to be ready to play with LeBron. Kuzma has a solid offensive game, but his defense leaves much to be desired. Even if the Lakers were able to grab Paul George, who would love to return back to the city he calls home, they would need to improve greatly to even have a chance to compete with the Warriors.
If San Antonio was so inclined to sign LeBron, as well as convince former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to return and commit to the Spurs, the trio of LeBron, Kawhi, and LaMarcus Aldridge coached by Gregg Popovich would rattle cages in the Western conference. The team is already well formed and would sufficiently complement LeBron’s play style. Boston could even be a destination for LeBron. A far-fetched one, sure. But one nonetheless. The team has a treasure trove of young talent that could entice LeBron to join them via trade. Don’t think that the Celtics would not listen to the offers either. Combining the young core that they have with the immeasurable effect of LeBron would make the Celtics a top 2 team in the League. It would also keep LeBron from beating the Celtics again, so take that into consideration Boston.
As discussed before, it is seeming more and more likely that LeBron is departing from Cleveland. The Cavs struggled at times during the season. James has probably already devised that the Cavaliers in their current form are unable to compete with Golden State.
Game 4 felt like a goodbye. Or at the very least, an “eh, we will see.” James made no indication about his future. When asked about it, he said, “So sitting down and considering everything, my family is a huge part of whatever I’ll decide to do in my career, and it will continue to be that. So I don’t have an answer for you right now as far as that.” That is not a promising answer for Cleveland. For the rest of the NBA, it was a whistle telling them to get their recruitment presentations ready.