November 9, 2018

LeBron James, Cavaliers

By J.M. Poulard

There is nothing wrong with leaving home. Heck, the critically acclaimed film Batman Begins demonstrates that a young Bruce Wayne had to leave his hometown to train and eventually embrace his destiny as Gotham City’s city protector.

Wayne’s departure ultimately ended up shaping his legacy given that it permitted him to ascend to legendary status by the end of the movie and in the sequel The Dark Knight. By the third installment, though, Batman conquered his greatest nemesis and saved Gotham one last night in The Dark Knight Rises, and vacated his hometown for good. He had given the city everything he could and now wanted something different.

The parallels between the Christopher Nolan iterations of Batman and LeBron James are eyebrow raising to say the least.

James left the franchise (Cleveland Cavaliers) closest to his hometown of Akron in the summer of 2010 to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The trio went to four straight NBA Finals and won two championships together.

James then felt he had accomplished enough with the Miami Heat and sought to bring glory back to the city of Cleveland. LeBron said as much in his 2014 Sports Illustrated essay announcing the return to home:

“When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

James’ quest was thwarted in the 2015 Finals, but he got another opportunity against the Golden State Warriors in 2016. The Dubs took a 3-1 series lead, but James helped Cleveland storm back and force a Game 7.

In the days leading up to the final contest of the 2015-16 campaign, Adrian Wojnarowski wrote for Yahoo Sports:

“LeBron James is pushing for lifetime immunity for his legacy in these NBA Finals, an unimpeachable freedom that’ll allow him to come and go the rest of his career.”

That opening line may have been too cryptic, initially, which is why Wojnarowski later added in the same piece:

“One more victory, one more magnificent night at Oracle Arena, and James will get to run off with his buddies again somewhere warm. Miami. Los Angeles. Wherever. There’s a restlessness about James that craves the next big move, the next power play. Franchises are on watch again, believing nothing’s forever in Northeast Ohio. Sooner or later, there’s a belief that James comes into play again, a line of thinking that his inner circle has done nothing to dissuade. As for James himself, well, he has gone so far as to publicly describe an end-of-career scenario that doesn’t include Cleveland.”

And then, James delivered.

His Cavs were crowned champions at Oracle Arena and ended Cleveland’s 52-year title drought. By putting the entire state on his back and delivering despite long odds, James became bulletproof.

Sure, Golden State reloaded by signing Kevin Durant and dismantling the Cavs in five games during the most recent championship round, but LeBron still ultimately fulfilled what many felt was his destiny in Cleveland.

James has a player option in his contract that allows him to opt in for the 2018-19 campaign, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to believe he will do so.

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Next year’s free-agent class boasts names such as Paul George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwyane Wade.

The players mentioned above are particularly intriguing considering the information James casually shared with Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck last year:

“I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together. At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo [Carmelo Anthony], D-Wade, CP [Chris Paul]—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that.”

Keep in mind, Beck mentioned in that article that Wade and James have summer homes in Los Angeles, and that Paul and Anthony spend their offseason in L.A.

One does not need to be Sherlock Holmes to see the trail might eventually lead to Hollywood. Wojnarowski hinted as much a few weeks ago on the Vertical podcast:

“Not only is there no guarantee he’s coming back, I’m not sure there’s an expectation he’s re-signing there. I think they feel, I think within Cleveland and around the league, they feel that he’s very much in play to leave again and likely head out West to one of the two L.A. teams. The Lakers could very well be a target.”

Considering that Los Angeles boasts two teams, the Lakers and Clippers, one has to wonder which franchise could house LeBron and his super friends.

The Undefeated’s Mike Wise provided what may pass for an answer on the Freddie and Fitz radio show:

“I got from a very good authority — a very good authority — that LeBron James will never be a Clipper. I can’t tell you who, but I’m going to tell you it’s somebody that knows, and LeBron James will never be a Clipper. I don’t know if that’s because he remembers what the Clippers used to be, or he just doesn’t want to put his lot in there, or he thinks Steve Ballmer is just too animated on the sideline.”

Since James and Paul are close friends,  one can easily assume that CP – who willingly departed from the Clippers in favor of the Houston Rockets – may have offered a few unflattering reviews with respect to manner the Clippers organization was run.

That essentially puts the Lakers at the top of the list; the very same team that Paul George reportedly wants to join in 2018.

According to Spotrac, the Lakers will have roughly $51 million in cap space if they renounce all of their free agents. If they can flip Luol Deng’s contract, that would free up another $18 million, although the Lakers might have to take a little salary back. Realistically, the Lakers might have to package Jordan Clarkson ($12 million) to get someone to bite on Deng’s deal, which actually creates additional room.

If such is the case, the Purple and Gold could theoretically have about $70 million in cap space as well as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr. already on the roster.

That could provide the impetus for James, Anthony, Wade and Paul to all join the Lakers with George. Oh, and one should not forget that Westbrook is a L.A. native.

Granted, it all seems rather unlikely right?

There’s no way so many egos could join up together, and also, the money does not add up.

It does seem ludicrous at first glance, but should anyone forget, the idea of James joining up with Wade and Bosh seemed preposterous back in 2010.

Remember, the impetus for James’ defection was the inability to best a Boston Celtics team featuring Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

The parallels are similar today. Should the Cavs fail to capture the 2018 crown because of a seemingly unconquerable Warriors team featuring Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, wouldn’t it make sense for James to take a crack at the Dubs in the West with as much firepower as possible no matter how depleted the Eastern Conference is?

Much like Batman, James’ legacy is set after setting his city free, and that gives him an out to team up with the banana boat crew.

The lone true obstacle to making this happen is the salary cap.

In this prospective scenario, George and Westbrook (Westbrook is the trickiest piece of this entire puzzle given that he’s given no indication he wishes to leave OKC, but the puzzle works without him nonetheless) would command the lion’s share of L.A.’s cap space, leaving the quartet to fight for breadcrumbs. It’s worth reiterating that James stated he would take a pay cut to make this dream scenario happen. Whether the remainder of the group is willing to follow suit is up for debate, but have a quick peek at their career earnings per Basketball Reference:

Anthony and James are ahead of the pack, with Wade coming in third and Paul last. Perhaps the group could orchestrate their contracts in concert to ensure they are in reverse order to help narrow the gap some.

There are several hypotheticals tied in to this super group, but it bears mentioning again that such was the case back in 2010.

So yes, LeBron is most definitely a flight risk at this point in his Cavs career, especially if Cleveland cannot add someone of Anthony’s caliber without sacrificing very little in return. The clock on James’ Cleveland career might be counting down…again.

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J.M. Poulard

J.M. enjoys all things basketball and spends an inordinate amount of time catching up on NBA games. He's spent some time writing over at a few ESPN TrueHoop affiliate blogs as well as Bleacher Report.

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