The past two summers when LeBron James hit free agency with buzz of him switching teams, his decision to relocate caught the NBA world off-guard.
That won’t be the case this time around.
James moving to another city isn’t just a possibility this summer, it’s almost expected. There was more than enough speculation throughout the season of him hopping to another franchise, but the momentum has swelled after the Cleveland Cavaliers came up short of the finish line once again, suffering a sweep to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
LeBron is now 1-8 against the Warriors in June since Kevin Durant decided to drastically change the league’s balance of power, which has left the best player in the world banging his head against the wall – or hand against a whiteboard – at the end of the past two seasons.
Golden State have inspired a feeling of hopelessness around the league, but few have the means to actually do something about it like James does. He may not topple the Warriors wherever he goes, but trying and failing has to be a better alternative than staying put and suffering the same fate over and over again like he’s in Groundhog Day.
That is the problem with remaining in Cleveland – it’s gotten stale. And freshening it up to the extent needed may not be possible.
The team’s two biggest assets, Kevin Love and the eighth overall pick in the draft via Brooklyn, give Cleveland the slightest bit of maneuverability to change the roster. But Love as a standalone piece likely doesn’t get anywhere near equal value, while packaging the forward with the pick may not move the needle enough to make them competitive against the Warriors.
The same reason why the Cavaliers are facing these roster dynamics, however, is the same reason why LeBron can leave with a clear conscience. Cleveland have made win-now personnel decisions every year since James returned and the 2016 championship made it all worth it. LeBron delivered a title and because of it, his legacy and standing in Cleveland is secure. He doesn’t owe the fans or organisation anything anymore.
So unlike in 2014 when he cited his desire to lift up his hometown as a reason for his return, his decision this summer will be extremely personal.
James wants to win, sure. But he also has his family to think about. His oldest son, Bronny, is 13, while his younger son, Bryce, is about to turn 11. His three-year-old daughter Zhuri wasn’t even born last time LeBron made a move in free agency. Their stability, education and development will play a factor, likely more than ever.
Outside of Cleveland, the options are several. The issue, however, is that there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut right option.
Los Angeles offers James the opportunity to grow his brand and enterprise, as well as the chance to start fresh with the Lakers capable of creating enough salary cap space to absorb two max contracts. But while building something new with a fellow star and a cast of promising kids may sound exciting, as James said after the Cavaliers season ended, “being a part of the start-fresh mode is something that you definitely don’t want to be a part of”.
What about Houston then? The Rockets were one win away from dethroning Golden State and have the likely MVP in James Harden, as well as one of LeBron’s best friends, Chris Paul. The sheer talent would give the Warriors a run for their money, but the fit between three of the most ball-dominant players in the league is a question mark.
Similar concerns over fit hurt Philadelphia’s chances. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are two of most talented young players in the league, but neither has proven to be reliable off the ball or capable of hitting an outside shot consistently.
Other teams may be in the running as well, but the point is there is no obvious choice for James. It seems like a foregone conclusion he’ll go somewhere, but where that destination is no one knows at this moment. Not even LeBron himself.
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