On the morning of July 4, 2016, I arose abruptly as a phone was thrust into my face. A friend’s sigh of existential dread was the alarm clock that particular day.
My family was fine — those I hold dear, unharmed. But there, behind 11.24 square inches of outsourced sapphire glass, stood an unforgettable image:
On the 240th birthday of this nation, Kevin Durant did the most quintessential of all American things: consolidate corporate power.
In step with typical media proceedings, the term ‘super team’ was once again beaten to an unusable pulp. As an athlete in the modern news landscape, it’s apparent you have reached rarified air if the sports world continues talking about you through the start of football season. We saw it with Tiger Woods. We saw it with the 2016 Chicago Cubs. And most recently in the NBA, we saw it with KD. Yet, since the turn of the millennium, all of these story-lines have been superseded by a singular name: LeBron James.
James’ two previous free agency moves have figuratively rocked the ground upon which all of us stand. His departure from, and then return to, Cleveland seemingly dominated every headline for weeks, if not months, following the announcement. Nearly a decade later, critics still cite LeBron’s handling of ‘The Decision’ as a knock against his legacy.
Durant’s move two summers ago marked a fundamental shift in NBA free agency. It set the standard for excellence to which everything was measured against. The question swirling the front offices of all ‘contenders’ immediately became: how do we build a roster to beat this team of human flame throwers out West?
LeBron’s 2018 off-season has the ability to shake up the state of the NBA as we know it. With 2018 free agency looming, a new, more ominous, question has been unearthed: does the game’s greatest player have a home?
On March 8, Kevin O’Connor reported that LeBron could potentially play for four teams next season: the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers. I still struggle to completely come to terms with any of these options for a James that is entering his fourth prime (which is just ri-goddamned-diculous), but when reviewing available cap space and projected fit, those four stick out head and shoulders above the rest.
Without batting an eye, the teams that didn’t win 30 games this season are out. Their ability to win championships now, even with LeBron, is simply not feasible.
Under 30-wins in 2017-18: Chicago, New York, Brooklyn, Orlando, Atlanta, Sacramento, Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix.
Since it’d be more likely for Dan Gilbert to execute himself than a sign and trade involving LeBron James, teams without practical cap space this off-season are also out.
Toronto, Washington, Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota, Detroit, Portland, Boston, Milwaukee, Denver, New Orleans, Golden State, San Antonio, Indiana, Los Angeles (Clippers), Oklahoma City and Utah.
That leaves the four aforementioned destinations: Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles (Lakers) and Cleveland.
From an external perspective, the ‘Decision Pt. 3 looks to be predicated on a team’s ability to best check the following three boxes (in order, many would assume):
1. the ability to win immediately (e.g. – to beat the Warriors)
2. the ability to bolster LeBron’s legacy (e.g. – the eternal chase of Jordan)
3. the ability to play with a roster LeBron enjoys (e.g. – the uniting of Team Banana Boat)
Operating within that criteria, which landing spot makes the most sense?
As it currently stands, this is the least likely of the four remaining possibilities, in my opinion. No, I am not one of those morons that screams, “there is only one ball!” Let’s not mince words: this team has the potential to dick on every team in the history of the NBA.
Houston can win now and LeBron can play with Chris Paul for the first time. 100% of the minutes would be lead by one of the three best basketball minds in the league. Yes, that’s right — the Rockets would have the first-best, second-best and third-best offensive facilitators on one roster, operating within a system designed to snatch souls and frustrate basketball fans alike.
This is the only option that doesn’t remotely check the ‘legacy’ box, though. It would be naive to think that LeBron doesn’t care about the outward perspective of his career narrative. Is it his primary driver? Unlikely, but I’d be hard pressed to find it holds no weight.
Los Angeles Lakers
Six months ago, I wanted to cast the Lakers into the camp of playing themselves out of the LeBron sweepstakes. I figured there would be no way he wanted to be the only star in LaLa Land helping fix a 25-win team.
The Lakers are on pace for a 36 or 37-win season and freed up enough cap space with their trade deadline moves to sign two max contracts this offseason. Their ability to add Paul George, effectively completing the NBA small forward Pokemon evolution on one team (Brandon Ingram –> Paul George –> LeBron James) may be the only path to acquiring James. It would require letting Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk and raise questions about rotational depth.
Serving as the primary factor in three franchises’ championships would be an unparalleled feat. But is a team comprised of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Luol Deng, Ivica Zubac, Tyler Ennis, Thomas Bryant, Paul George, LeBron James and a smattering of vet minimums enough to consistently compete in the overly-saturated Western Conference?
To the chagrin of many Lakers fans, this is more likely to be an impetus behind the dissolution of conferences in the NBA than it is the solution to raise a 17th championship banner.
Based on what we’ve seen with the Eagles and Villanova, the City of Brotherly Love may be destined to never lose in a playoff again. I can see it now: Philadelphia, Pa. – home of Rocky Marciano, Nick Foles and Sam Hinkie statues.
“Yes son, Philadelphia is that city with the statues of a movie character and Nick Foles”
— Andrew Stephens (@StephensAndrew) February 5, 2018
With the return of Markelle Fultz, the Sixers are in the midst of an 11-game win streak. Trusting of the Process is at an all-time high. Philadelphia should have about $33M in cap space, enough to acquire a max free agent.
Their rotation would then consist of: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, LeBron James, Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, TJ McConnell, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson.
Christ on a bike.
If the Cavaliers fail to win the Eastern Conference this season, I would lightly pencil in Philly as the King’s next NBA stint. They can bolster his legacy. I find it hard to believe that any human being on Earth wouldn’t want to regularly hang out with Joel Embiid or mentor Ben Simmons. But viewing the Sixers as a legitimate title contender in 2019 may still be considered a stretch.
Following their 2017 Finals loss, it appeared that the wheels began to squeak on the Silicon Prairie. Kyrie Irving was traded for half of Isaiah Thomas. Reports leaked of palpable tension between James and Dan Gilbert. LeBron even received pointed criticism involving the signings of J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Dwyane Wade, citing concerns that, “he is more concerned with playing with his friends than winning.”
The late-2017 Cavaliers looked dead on arrival. While still unlikely to dethrone the current champs, the post-trade deadline, new-look Cavaliers are much better suited for Playoff success than their first-half predecessors.
I will offer this caveat: if the Cavaliers somehow win the title this year, LeBron might just take up JuJu on his offer and go play for the Steelers. He will have unlocked all basketball achievements. His desire to win now will be satiated. His legacy will be cemented.
Operating within the likely reality that a Western Conference team cuts down the nets, I am still of the ilk that the Cavaliers remain the front runner to sign LeBron this offseason.
But, if LeBron fails to make the Finals for the first year since 2010 and if tensions continue to rise with Dan Gilbert and his seemingly tangible ego, forcing The King out of his childhood home – the question remains: does the game’s best player have a home?