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LeBron’s Terrifyingly Plausible Path to Boston

If the King is looking for an ideal situation in both the short and long term, the Celtics can offer him one last chance at a dynasty before his career is over. Yes, really.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James can’t beat the Warriors by himself. He is averaging 37.7 points on 52.5 percent shooting, 10.7 assists, and 9.0 rebounds a game in the NBA Finals, and the Cavs are still down 3-0 heading into Game 4 on Friday. With Kevin Durant confirming that he will re-sign with the Warriors this offseason, Golden State clearly isn’t going anywhere, so creating a team that matches up with them should be James’s main priority as a free agent this summer. There are many interesting destinations he can choose from, but there’s one under-the-radar option that stands out. LeBron should go to Boston. It gives him the best chance to not only win a title next season, but also create a dynasty.

LeBron saw the Celtics’ potential first-hand in the Eastern Conference finals, when they took him to seven games despite not having Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, one of the most talented young duos in the league, are the perfect wingmen to complement him on both sides of the ball, while Al Horford combines the best elements of Chris Bosh and Kevin Love in one package. Boston also has Brad Stevens, the best young coach in the NBA, and a creative front office with a treasure trove of future first-round picks to add more talent going forward, either in the draft or through trades.

Kyrie, who left Cleveland last season to strike out on his own, is the obvious complicating factor. He may not want to play with LeBron again, but his opinion doesn’t actually matter that much if Boston decides to go after James. The quartet of LeBron, Horford, Tatum, and Brown matches up well with Golden State’s four All-Stars. Kyrie, as the point guard in that starting lineup, would have an embarrassment of riches to play with. The Celtics could still use him, but they wouldn’t need him, either.

LeBron would need to take the same path to Boston that Chris Paul took to Houston. He could opt into the final year of his contract at $35.6 million, and the Celtics could trade for him with a package based around either Hayward or Irving. Since both teams are over the salary cap, the first step would be matching salaries, which would be easier with Hayward (who will make $31.2 million next season) than Kyrie ($20.1 million). The Cavs might prefer to acquire Hayward, who they once chased in free agency, over Kyrie considering all the prior history between the two parties. Hayward is also under contract for two more seasons, while Kyrie could be free next offseason.

The simplest deal would be trading LeBron for Hayward, Marcus Morris, and a first-round pick. Cleveland, as much as they might hate to trade LeBron within their conference, would have to do it. If Hayward returns at 100 percent from his ankle injury, he would be their new franchise player, and a team built around Hayward and Kevin Love would immediately be relevant in the Eastern Conference. They could round out their starting lineup with some combination of George Hill, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., Morris, and the no. 8 overall pick.

The optics of trading Hayward would be horrible from Boston’s perspective, but it wouldn’t be the most ruthless trade of Celtics GM Danny Ainge’s tenure. They already shipped off Isaiah Thomas after he gutted through a severely injured hip and the death of his sister in last year’s playoffs. Hayward has played a grand total of five minutes with the franchise. They don’t owe him anything in comparison to Thomas, who may have ruined his career by playing through the pain and not opting for hip surgery. The NBA is a cold world, and no GM is more cold-blooded than Ainge.

LeBron, much like Paul last season, has the bargaining power to make this happen. If the Cavs refuse to trade him, he can opt out of his contract and sign with the Lakers. In that scenario, Cleveland would still be way over the cap with nothing to show for losing LeBron, and the team would be faced with the possibility of losing Love in free agency the following offseason. At that point, the Cavs might have to trade Love for pennies on the dollar and begin yet another rebuilding project, which can’t be too appealing considering how poorly that went the last time LeBron left.

Trading Kyrie would be more complicated financially. Boston doesn’t have that many salaries it can use for matching purposes. Horford, Hayward, Brown, and Tatum would be off-limits in that scenario, while Marcus Smart couldn’t be moved if he signs a one-year qualifying offer with the team. A trade would work as long as the Celtics aren’t absorbing more than 125 percent of their outgoing salary, so they could give up Kyrie, Morris, and either Terry Rozier ($3.1 million) or Guerschon Yabusele ($2.7 million) to get to the roughly $28.5 million they would need to send out. Cleveland could ask for minimum-salaried players like rookies Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, as well.

Another alternative would be including a third team in a trade and sending Kyrie to another team like the Knicks, who Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix mentioned as a threat to acquire Irving in free agency next summer. One trade-machine possibility that Ringer CEO Bill Simmons threw out was sending Kyrie to New York, with the Cavs getting at least two more first-round picks in the deal (no. 9 and no. 27 in this year’s draft) as well as a bunch of expiring contracts (Marcus Morris, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Enes Kanter). There are plenty of other alternatives that the Celtics and Cavs could explore, and both front offices would have the motivation to get something done.

The bottom line is that LeBron can get himself to Boston if he wants to, and he should, because none of his other options are as appealing from a purely basketball perspective. He could go out west to Houston or one of the Los Angeles teams, but that would mean battling Golden State before the Finals and exposing himself to the wear and tear of competing in the superior conference. Philadelphia is the other option for him if he wants to stay in the East, but the on-court fit between LeBron, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid isn’t as natural as the one between LeBron and the young Celtics. Given Bryan Colangelo’s resignation, there are concerns about Philadelphia’s organizational stability, as well.

Going to Boston would kill two birds with one stone. LeBron would be in a position to break Bill Russell’s record of 10 consecutive NBA Finals appearances (he is currently at eight between Miami and Cleveland), while simultaneously removing the biggest obstacle in his path. It would be the exact opposite move that Kevin Durant made. Instead of joining a team that eliminated him and had already won a title, LeBron would be partnering with a group of young up-and-comers whom he had beaten almost single-handedly. Nike could sell it as LeBron imparting his wisdom to the next generation of players.

There would be pushback from fans and the media, but LeBron knows how quickly that can change. He was the most hated athlete in America after The Decision, and no one holds that against him anymore. Even his hometown fans in Cleveland wouldn’t be that mad this time around, since he’s leaving after “winning one for the Land.” American society is a prisoner of the moment. It won’t matter how LeBron’s move to Boston is initially perceived if he ends up beating Golden State, arguably the most talented team of all time. It would be great for the NBA as well, since LeBron going up against the Warriors on equal terms would likely create the highest-rated Finals in the past 20 years.

The possibilities are tantalizing. Brown is 21 and Tatum is 20, and both have so much room to get better. Brown would relieve LeBron of his defensive responsibilities during the regular season, while Tatum could step up on offense when he needs a night off. They could be the Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to LeBron’s Tim Duncan, allowing him to extend his career deep into his 30s. With Stevens as its version of Gregg Popovich, Boston could be San Antonio Northeast, and the Celtics would have the flexibility to keep adding talent for years to come.

It’s obscene how many more picks the Celtics have in the pipeline. Boston has the no. 27 pick in this year’s draft, and it could have as many as four first-round picks in the 2019 draft. The most notable is the Kings’ 2019 pick, which is only protected if it’s no. 1 overall. They also have a pick from the Grizzlies that is top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020, and completely unprotected in 2021. Given how well the Celtics have drafted lately, it’s not hard to see a scenario in which they add two more All-Stars over the next four years.

The other wild card on the horizon is Anthony Davis, who has two years left on his contract before a player option for the 2020-21 season. Considering all that could happen with DeMarcus Cousins, who is entering free agency this offseason after tearing his Achilles, the situation in New Orleans could go south in a hurry, and no team could outbid Boston for Davis. The Celtics may have enough assets to give the Pelicans an offer they can’t refuse. Davis is eight years younger than LeBron. They could have the same dynamic as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, except with the big man as the younger player.

Everything is on the table for LeBron. Get to Boston and he could make a run at Jordan’s six championships, Russell’s 10 consecutive Finals appearances, and Duncan’s streak of 19 playoff appearances. He may be able to top Jordan on longevity alone, much less if he can create one final dynasty. He could also turn the tables on Durant, who is 7-1 against LeBron in the Finals since signing with Golden State. LeBron vs. the Warriors isn’t over. It’s only begun.