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.
Here are Seven Deadly Stats from the Warriors’ triumphant Finals win.
ESTABLISHING A DYNASTY
This postseason was all about elevating themselves to the status of dynasty for the Warriors. And although there were a few hiccups along the way, especially the dogfight that was the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets, they got there in the end.
The Warriors are the 4th different NBA franchise to win at least three titles in a 4-season span. They join the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
THE THIRD QUARTER LEGENDS
The Warriors’ third-quarter surges have become the stuff of legend. The last two games of the conference finals was proof enough – they overturned double-digit halftime deficits in the space of one quarter both times – but the last game of the Finals served as an encore, as they blew the game open with a typical third quarter.
The Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 12 points in the 3rd quarter.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
This postseason, Golden State has outscored its opponents by 153 points in the 3rd quarter, the largest point diff in a single playoff quarter in the Shot-Clock Era (since 1954-55). h/t @EliasSports
IN ELITE COMPANY, PART I
Durant is the player who’s made the Warriors virtually unbeatable, but Curry remains the engine of the team. He averaged 27.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 6.8 assists in the Finals, scoring 37 points in the clincher to put himself in a select group of players.
Stephen Curry is now the 8th player with 3 titles and multiple MVPs, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan. pic.twitter.com/fXqmshRgSZ— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
IN ELITE COMPANY, PART II
Speaking of Durant, he’s in an even more select group after his performance in these Finals, winning the series’ MVP award for the second year running.
It was a close call between Durant and Curry, but the former’s Game 3 performance – 43 points and a dagger three-pointer – probably clinched it in his favour.
Kevin Durant is the 6th player to win back-to-back Finals MVPs.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
The others? LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. pic.twitter.com/3x40zhKm2c
And on the off chance there was any room for doubt after that, Durant’s Game 4 performance sealed it. Even though Curry scored 37 points, a triple-double to close out a championship series is hard to top.
Kevin Durant posted his 1st career #NBAFinals triple-double with 20 PTS, 12 REB, 10 AST to help the @Warriors become 2017-2018 NBA Champions! KD is the 5th player in NBA history to produce a 20-point triple-double in a Finals-clinching victory. #SAPStatLineOfTheNight pic.twitter.com/4UBB5nAmdB— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) June 9, 2018
WHO’S THE GOAT?
Speaking of hard to top, LeBron James was so ridiculously good this postseason, there’s only ever been one playoff scoring run better than this. And of course that record belongs to Michael Jordan. Will the debate ever end?
With LeBron James out of the game, he finished with 748 points this postseason. That is the 2nd-most points in a single postseason in NBA history. Michael Jordan has the most with 759 points in 1992. pic.twitter.com/6XR5LDtM6z— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
CURRY’S DEFENDING HOLDS UP
James’ primary strategy on offense was to target the obvious mismatch: Curry. But the Warriors point guard did a good job of minimizing the damage – as did his teammates’ help defense whenever this matchup presented itself.
In the NBA Finals, there were 54 plays that ended with Stephen Curry on LeBron James. Curry held LeBron to 12 points, and the Cavaliers shot 36% as a team on those plays. pic.twitter.com/6DHhJ212QL— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
Watch basketball player Gaafar ElSouri on his road to recovery
The Golden State Warriors just completed the best four-year stretch in modern NBA history, and yet their greatest achievement during the run hasn’t been their dominance, but rather what their invincibility has inspired.
In the aftermath of the Warriors winning their third title in four years with a sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, there has naturally been a need to contextualise Golden State’s place in history. They are, of course, a dynasty now, having joined only three other franchises – the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls – with three championships over a four-year span.
Their record of 328-83 (.798) in the regular season and playoffs during that stretch is the best four-year winning percentage in NBA history, beating out Magic Johnson’s 1985-88 Lakers (.754) and Michael Jordan’s 1995-98 Bulls (.758). The only season over the past four years that didn’t end in Golden State lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy was one in which they set a record with 73 regular-season wins.
Including the postseason, the Warriors are 328-83 (.798) over the last 4 seasons. That's the best 4-year winning percentage in NBA history, beating out the stretch the Warriors had from 2014-17. H/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/DtH10sxoBx— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2018
The Warriors are historically great and everyone recognises that. But for as many conversations that are going on today about how great this team is, there are just as many, if not more, centred on how they’ve ruined basketball.
Think about that for a second. We’ve just witnessed a team reach the very peak of the sport – not just in terms of overcoming 29 other challengers to win the title, but in how flawless they were to get here. Their collection of shooting, talent, unselfish personalities and playing styles melded into something we’ve never seen before and the result feels like someone solving a problem and all of its variables.
We’re in awe of that, sure. But we’re also upset and dismayed a team can have everything figured out and, frankly, be this good. At the end of the day, sports are a vehicle for entertainment and we want to be entertained. Greatness can be entertaining – how many people have you ever heard say Jordan ruined basketball? – but these Warriors feel inevitable and infallible in a way we’re not used to.
They have us questioning rudimentary concepts like competitive balance and fairness, while making the NBA season feel like a formality, even if the end result was in doubt along the way.
Golden State’s players and coaches seemed more relieved than anything after completing their task on Friday. There was unbridled jubilation after they won it all in 2015 and a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ after their triumph last year. This time, however, it felt like an unburdening.
“It’s still euphoric,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But three years ago was, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ and now it’s, ‘I can definitely believe this happened.'”
That may sound arrogant, but that’s exactly the overwhelming sentiment the Warriors inspire. They’re supposed to win and they’re supposed to do it in a way which makes you feel helpless.
Golden State have cracked, if not completely broken our psyche. We’re annoyed by how easy they make it look. Which is why after the Finals ended, the focus immediately turned to LeBron James‘ future. That’s expected considering he’s the best player in the world and the face of the NBA, but part of the reason we’re so invested in what LeBron decides to do this summer is because we’re desperate for someone to end the Warriors’ reign. And if James can’t do it with a handpicked situation, who can?
Well, the Houston Rockets nearly did in the Western Conference Finals. They were one win away from eliminating Golden State and up double digits in Game 6 and 7, only to falter.
This may be the last time we have this loathing attitude towards the Warriors for how hopeless they’ve made us all feel, although it’s not out of the question this keeps going for another few years, especially if Golden State want it to.
For now though, if you don’t want to celebrate this team for what they’ve achieved because it feels unjust or unfair, then at least recognise they can make you feel that way despite doing it all within the confines of the rules.
The Warriors haven’t’ just beaten the rest of the NBA, they’ve defied our construct of competition.