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LeBron’s Second Era in Cleveland Could Be Ending Soon

Whether the Cavaliers manage to survive this series could be the least of their worries. Murmurs around the league suggest that the King might be interested in westward expansion in 2018. Here’s what the move would mean for his future — and the NBA’s.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

LeBron James and the Cavaliers are on the ropes in the Finals once again, but this time the conversation happening in NBA circles isn’t about whether or not the Cavs can come back in the series. It’s about whether or not LeBron will come back to Cleveland after he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018. James has left his hometown once before, and after delivering a title, he could again. Rumblings across the league suggest that LeBron will consider taking his talents out West, as Bill Simmons and I discussed this week on The Bill Simmons Podcast. The LeBron noise echoes what The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote last year: With a Finals victory for Cleveland secure, James could get to "run off with his buddies again somewhere warm."

Multiple league sources I’ve spoken to think the Lakers or Clippers are viable destinations for King James. Jalen Rose said this week on First Take that he expects LeBron to make a move from Cleveland to California, where he already owns a house 30 minutes away from Staples Center. The Lakers make sense if LeBron wants to build a sustainable winner with a core blend of veterans and youthful talent like Paul George — if, as NBA gossip suggests, George truly is "hell-bent" on going to L.A. — and Brandon Ingram. The Clippers make sense if LeBron wants to form a Banana Boat Voltron with Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. The Cavaliers are in the Finals for the third consecutive season, and would be the favorites to continue making the final round for as long as LeBron chooses to stay. Leaving wouldn’t necessarily give him better odds of reaching the promised land again. But the league landscape can change quickly. If the Cavs get their doors blown off by the Warriors and are unable to effectively shuffle the deck this summer, their championship forecast for next year won’t look any rosier than it does now. If they fall short of their ultimate goal again, LeBron might look at Cleveland and see little potential for growth compared to other situations. He delivered on his goal to bring "one trophy back to Northeast Ohio," but he has others. Namely, to "win as many titles as possible."

The Cavaliers are likely aware of the possibility. Consider the comments made by general manager David Griffin at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. In explaining the logic behind going all in by trading a top-10 protected 2019 first for Kyle Korver, Griffin said: "It’s our job to win right now and everyone feels that. Ownership feels that, ownership invests in it. When you have that amount of clarity, it makes doing things like trading protected firsts make sense. It may not look good on the books moving forward and people may look at it and say, ‘Oh my god, they’ve mortgaged their future.’ Well, if LeBron and Kyrie [Irving] and Kevin [Love] are gone, and we become a lottery pick, we’ll have those picks because they’re protected."

In other words, they protected the pick as a safety net just in case the core crumbles: LeBron will be a free agent in 2018, while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving could opt into the market the following year. Griffin also said at Sloan that being hired by the Cavaliers in September 2010, months after LeBron left for Miami, was like "jumping into a burning building." If LeBron leaves in 2018, jerseys won’t burn again, but the building will. Is it too early to be discussing where LeBron might be headed? Nah, not when we’re talking about the most important NBA player of this generation. LeBron’s decision will once again change the course of the basketball.

The Cavs Need Much More to Keep LeBron Home

LeBron might feel like he has nothing left to prove, but from a legacy standpoint, if his "personal goal" is to surpass Michael Jordan, then fizzling out in the Finals over and over again versus the Warriors isn’t going to cut it. The Cavaliers will need to make changes to assure LeBron that they remain the best place for him to win.

Irving and Love complete a dynamite trio, but it’s imperfect. The Finals have taught us that the Warriors are too stellar on defense to let themselves get outgunned. Teams need elite two-way players to have any chance of taking down the Dubs, which is where Irving and Love fall short. No matter what happens in the Finals, pieces will need to be shuffled at the front and back end of the roster. They have an expensive roster with overpaid role players (J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert) and no valuable assets to trade for core pieces. Cedi Osman, a 2015 second-round pick, will be a quality backup forward if he comes to the NBA next season, but he alone does not move the needle.

The fact is, when you look at their roster, you’re likely saying to yourself that every single player should be on the trade block except for LeBron and Kyrie. The Cavs have a fundamentally flawed roster, no differently than they did when he left the first time or when he departed Miami. By going into win-now mode, they did complete their mission of winning a title last season. That made it all worth it. But those moves could also end up being the reason LeBron develops wandering eyes over the next year.

The Lakers Could Be LeBron’s Best Option

In LeBron’s "I’m Coming Home" letter, he acknowledged that the Cavs weren’t ready to compete at the highest level, and that his patience would be tested. "I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go," James wrote. "I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys." It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine him saying those same words about the Lakers.

The Lakers are in shambles now. They’re a bad team, period. They’ve won less than 28 percent of their games (91 out of 328) over the past four seasons. On the surface, they make little sense as a home for LeBron. But LeBron is one of the most cerebral athletes in history, on and off the court. If LeBron takes a longview, it’d be easy to see the Lakers’ existing potential. Once you factor in another year of development for their young core, add their draft pick this summer, toss in signing Paul George next summer, then add LeBron, suddenly it’s a roster with a blend of impact players on cheap contracts and veterans ready to win now. A mix of vets and youth is how to build sustainable winners in the NBA.

You should buy stock in George heading to L.A. The vibe I’ve gotten from talking to NBA executives and agents over the past few weeks is that teams aren’t willing to sell the farm for George because of the possibility that he’ll sign with the Lakers is so strong. George is better than both Irving and Love — he’s a rare two-way superstar. He’s also a player whom LeBron respects. If George does indeed go to L.A., the Lakers would have to move their two albatross contracts in Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov in order to also add LeBron. They have picks (the Rockets’ 2017 first-rounder and a couple of extra second-rounders over the next few years) and young assets (Julius Randle) that could be used to sweeten a package deal. They should try to unload those contracts as soon as they can this summer, largely to clear the books, but also to prepare for a splash in 2018.

Los Angeles has a lot of young talent on its roster. Brandon Ingram struggled as a rookie, but Magic Johnson is right to consider him an untouchable. There are few 19-year-olds who possess Ingram’s feel, fluidity, and athleticism. As his body develops and as he improves his ball handling, Ingram could prove to be the best talent from the 2016 draft. D’Angelo Russell requires patience, and even if the Lakers were to dump him, the return could be something that would make their roster more appetizing to LeBron. Ivica Zubac and Larry Nance Jr. have shown the ability to fill important complementary roles.

The perfect point guard for LeBron is one who doesn’t need to dominate the ball, moves the ball quickly, defends well, and can hit spot-up 3s. Hello, Lonzo Ball. The Lakers would be smart to sniff around and see what they can get by trading down from no. 2. There is a lot of talent in the 2017 draft. But on paper at least, Lonzo makes sense for LeBron.

The Lakers aren’t ready yet. But if their young roster continues making strides and the necessary cap space is cleared, suddenly Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka could be only a few chess moves away from bringing back Showtime.

Choosing the Clippers Means Choosing Family

In the summer of 2006, as described in March 2016 to Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony discussed a potential future together. The trio was part of the 2003 draft class and they were all up for extensions. According to Beck, LeBron told Wade and Anthony, "I think I’m going to do a three-year extension, because in 2010 we can become free agents at the peak, right there in the prime of our career." LeBron and Wade opted for three-year deals. Carmelo signed for five. LeBron and Wade joined forces in Miami in 2010, appearing in four Finals and winning two titles, while Melo forced a trade from the Nuggets to the hapless Knicks.

"I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together. At least one, maybe one or two seasons — me, Melo, D-Wade, CP — we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that," LeBron told B/R. "It would be pretty cool. I’ve definitely had thoughts about it." After Beck’s piece was published, James told reporters he didn’t know how realistic it’d be to have all four on one team, but, "If you got an opportunity to work with three of your best friends, [you take it], no matter what."

Eastern Conference teams have been in a never-ending existential LeBron crisis, and if having to deal with a Banana Boat superteam is the price for escaping James’s dominance over them, all East teams would gladly accept. It sounds silly in a basketball sense that LeBron would want to play a few years with his old-geezer friends, but maybe we should listen to what the King has told us. He’s laid out the tea leaves for us to read before, and he may have done so again last year. In August, he signed a two-year deal with a third-year option, aligning with the unrestricted free agencies of both Wade and Anthony. So LeBron and Melo have player options for 2018–19, while Wade will be unrestricted if he picks up his $23.8 million 2017–18 option this summer (one league agent I recently spoke with fully expects Wade to do so).

Signing all four Brotherhood members would be hard, but not impossible. A lot would need to happen, obviously starting with Paul signing a five-year max extension with the Clippers, which is no sure thing. The CP3-to-Spurs talk is interesting. One front-office executive I’ve chatted with thinks the talk is real. An agent views it as little more than a contingency plan and a negotiating tactic for Paul to demand a no-trade clause. I’m not sure what to believe. But if Paul is back, there’s one of the four. Then, if Wade opts in with the Bulls, he’ll be free next summer to sign a cheaper deal to make it two. If Melo’s contract status remains unchanged, the Clippers could conceivably create space and use a sign-and-trade involving Blake Griffin either this year or next. Then, LeBron would likely have to take a discount.

The problem is, this team is nowhere good enough to win a title, even after re-signing DeAndre Jordan. They’d have no depth at all, with no high-value assets to bring back cheaper, talented pieces. The roster might arguably be better than Cleveland, but maybe not. They would definitely be old. The same roster construction issues that plague the Cavs would also manifest there. LeBron playing with his friends could check another goal off the bucket list, but it’s hard to see titles in their future due to a lack of roster flexibility. If that’s what matters most to LeBron, then why do it?

What a Move Could Mean for LeBron’s Legacy

A LeBron journey to the West would unshackle the entire Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks would be rising at the perfect time. The Celtics, banking on internal development and (potentially) Gordon Hayward, would be the new favorites. The Wizards would be contenders, too. We’re all wondering whether the East teams can get by LeBron, but he might just move out of the way.

But as of now, LeBron leaving the East is nothing more than a fantasy. Until the Lakers start making progress or the Clippers find clarity, teams would be wise to operate under the assumption that LeBron will permanently serve as the Eastern Conference gatekeeper. Yet it’s fascinating to think about what a move to L.A. would mean for LeBron’s legacy.

As much as LeBron will be defined by what he did for Northeast Ohio, he will also be remembered for changing the dynamics of team construction. LeBron reshaped free agency and showed just how much power a player can have over his own destiny. He would take that power to the logical extreme by leading out to L.A. LeBron would have the opportunity to live out a certain dream depending on which path he takes. He broke the seal on Cleveland’s curse. Why not try to break the Clippers’ with a bond that goes beyond basketball? With the Lakers, he’d be one of the most recognizable athletes in the world playing for one of the most famous franchises in sports, guiding the team back to glory — and as he ages, he could chase titles now and later with a young core peaking as he begins his decline. No matter the destination, LeBron would have a chance to win a title for a third team, in a loaded conference, in a new era of basketball.

LeBron is only 32, and the "GOAT" conversation has already started. He’s played in more than 40 Finals games and won three titles, and who knows how much higher those numbers could rise? Cleveland may have just suffered a gut-wrenching Game 3 loss at home, but the big question now isn’t whether the Cavs can stay afloat this series — we’re beyond that. The question is whether he’ll take the next step of his NBA journey in Cleveland or whether shining under the bright lights of Los Angeles will be the final chapter of his storied career, the one that leaves no room for doubt that LeBron James is the greatest of all time.