When it was over, the best player in the NBA, the best player of his generation, maybe the best player ever, didn’t want to watch another team celebrate on his floor, in his town. That would not have been easy for LeBron James. Just two seasons ago, James served up the first championship that title-starved Cleveland had consumed in 52 long years. Friday night was different for him and the city.
The Warriors beat the Cavaliers 108–85 at Quicken Loans Arena to win their third NBA championship in four seasons. It’s the second straight season that James lost his last game. That has to sting. But at least last season the Cavs stole a game in the Finals and the Warriors had the decency to win it all in the Bay Area. That wasn’t the case this time. This time the Cavaliers got swept in historic fashion. James scored 23 points and added eight assists and seven rebounds in Game 4. It wasn’t nearly enough. Despite his immense talent, he was powerless to stop the Warriors from claiming the season’s final victory and then celebrating the achievement in front of Cleveland.
LeBron didn’t stick around to watch the postgame proceedings. As the final buzzer sounded, James walked off the floor and into the tunnel. He was the first Cavalier into the locker room.
“It’s never a success in the postseason when you lose,” James said when asked how he would characterize the season. “Not for me.” James confirmed a report that he suffered a right hand injury following Game 1 after punching a whiteboard out of frustration. He had a cast on it after Friday’s game and the camera shutters went crazy when he put it on the table in full view during the interview. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” James continued. “There’s been ups and downs. It’s been good, it’s been bad. For me, I just try to be consistent throughout the course of the season and be the leader I know I can be for this ballclub, for this franchise every night no matter what was going on for the outside or the inside and be reliable every single day … grinding every single day. I have no idea how the story will be talked about, and my season.”
By the third quarter, when the game started to slip away, it felt like LeBron and the Cavs knew it was over. So did the crowd. With a little over four minutes left, James checked out of his final game of the season — and maybe his final game as a Cavalier. As he went to the bench, the fans serenaded him with one more “MVP” chant. He deserved it for lots of reasons, among them that this could have been a very different series if James’s teammates had played even slightly better. There’s a universe where the Cavaliers might have won Game 1 or Game 3 or both, it’s just not the one we live in.
We were always barrelling toward this scenario — LeBron doing all he could to get the undertalented Cavs to the Finals, only to crash headlong into Golden State and lose once more to a Warriors team that’s just deeper and better. As Steve Kerr said candidly Friday night, “We had more talent than they did.”
“I wondered if we could hit a switch in the postseason,” LeBron said. “I figured if I stayed laser sharp, if I came in with the right mentality, if I came in with the right mind-set, that I could help fast-track this throughout a lot of the games in the postseason because of my experience and because of some of the other guys that experienced a lot of games. I was able to do that. We were able to do that.”
During Game 4, the Cavaliers played a hype video where LeBron came on the giant video scoreboard and screamed, “Cleveland, us against the world.” The crowd loved it, of course, but you have to wonder how long the statement will remain true — if it isn’t over already. When he was asked whether he’s played his last game for the Cavs, James said he has “no idea at this point.” But he also didn’t say he’s sticking around.
“The one thing that I’ve always done is considered, obviously, my family,” James said. “Understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age. They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this four years ago. I’ve got a teenage boy, a pre-teen, and a little girl that wasn’t around as well. So sitting down and considering everything, my family is a huge part of whatever I’ll decide to do in my career, and it will continue to be that. So I don’t have an answer for you right now as far as that.”
While the Finals were anticlimactic, what happens next with LeBron won’t be. It’s a near certainty that James will opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. But Decision 3.0 won’t just be about where he’s taking his talents next. It will also be about the best opportunity to assemble a new super-squad that will help him challenge the Warriors’ supremacy. As LeBron said Friday night, “being a part of start-fresh mode is something you don’t want to be a part of.”
“I still want to be in championship mode,” he said. “I think I’ve shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.”
During the playoffs, there was a lot of chatter about LeBron’s next move among media members, agents, and executives. All the usual suspects were floated. The Sixers are interesting. There were those rumors about James scoping out area schools for his kids earlier in the year. Embiid was already recruiting LeBron before Game 4 was even finished. And he’s famously fond of Ben Simmons, who is also represented by Rich Paul and Klutch Sports. Earlier in the season, James said he was “honored” that a “young, gifted kid” like Simmons “would even allow me to be part of his life and be able to mentor him and be a brother to him.” Then there’s the assortment of chummy pictures they’ve taken together. James even took to Twitter to wish Simmons happy birthday. They seem to like each other, but the fit on the court would be odd. As we’ve learned, James is best when he’s surrounded by shooters (which Simmons is not) and when he has complementary pieces that aren’t ball-dominant (which Simmons is). Meanwhile, the Sixers don’t have a GM at the moment — you might have heard — and it’s impossible to know what LeBron thinks about that whole situation, beyond leveraging it for an easy joke last week.
If he went to Houston, combining forces with Chris Paul and presumptive MVP James Harden would probably give LeBron his best shot to stop the run of Bay Area parades. Plus he’d be halfway to a banana boat reunion, which would be fun. The problem is that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey would have to do some serious gymnastics with his roster to pull it off, and even then they’d likely have to send away to NASA to calculate the sky-high luxury tax bill since Paul already declared that he’s not taking a discount on his next contract.
The Lakers’ history and cachet is unmatched, and LeBron loves Los Angeles enough that he bought a second Brentwood mansion. But he’d have to do a lot more team-building in Los Angeles than he would in Houston and Philly. Brandon Ingram improved quite a bit last season, but he has work to do on his game and his frame. Kyle Kuzma was a nice find, but his defense fell somewhere between lacking and completely absent. And would James want to play with Lonzo Ball — or deal with his dad? It wouldn’t take much to convince Paul George to join him in L.A.; as PG already said several times during the regular season, he loves that city and that city loves him back. But even a team-up with George probably wouldn’t be enough to counter the Warriors.
Miami would be a good fit from a team and lifestyle perspective, but LeBron isn’t just the King of basketball, he also rules over the NBA story lines. Returning to Miami wouldn’t make for the same snappy narrative as some of his other options. He already went back to a place once and won a championship, and Miami wouldn’t provide the same feel-good vibes that came complete with LeBron’s return to his (almost-but-close-enough) hometown of Cleveland.
You could even throw San Antonio into the conversation about potential landing spots if you were so inclined because of the Spurs’ pedigree and Gregg Popovich’s pull. Or maybe LeBron will end up in Boston. Or maybe not.
It’s also possible he’ll remain in Cleveland, but after the year they had that seems increasingly unlikely. It was not an easy season for the Cavs, as they’ve admitted so many times. Beyond that, James is one of the smartest basketball players of all time. Like everyone else, he must have already made the calculation that the Cavs as currently composed aren’t good enough to unseat the Warriors from their throne.
“I came back because I felt like I had some unfinished business,” James said. “To be able to be a part of a championship team two years ago with the team that we had and in the fashion that we had is something I will always remember. Honestly, I think we’ll all remember that. It ended a drought for Cleveland of 50-plus years, so I think we’ll all remember that in sports history.”
If LeBron is thinking about staying put and not leaving the Land, it didn’t sound that way after Friday night’s season finale. It didn’t feel like To be continued … it felt like goodbye.