LONDON, Kenya, June 12 – When LeBron James departed the Quicken Loans court as time expired during Game Four of the NBA Finals, he set in motion what is set to be the most important free agency period in the history of the league.
James will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 when he opts out of his Cleveland Cavaliers deal, meaning he is able to sign with any team he chooses.
Still the NBA’s best player, where James picks as his next destination could shape the future of the league for the next five seasons.
James was outstanding once again during the 2018 playoffs as he carried an out-matched Cavaliers team to the Finals to set up a fourth straight meeting with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. For the third time in four years, Cleveland lost.
It was the eighth consecutive time James has reached the NBA Finals and the four-time MVP remains the undisputed king of the Eastern Conference.
But standing in his way now is the most dominant super team created in the modern era. In 2015 and 2016 the Warriors boasted two-time MVP Stephen Curry as well as All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
For 2017 and 2018 the Warriors added Kevin Durant, arguably the second best player in the NBA, and James’ task transformed from daunting to nigh-on impossible.
James has made two huge free agency decisions during his career already. He shocked the league by announcing he’d leave Cleveland to join Miami Heat in 2010 live on a TV show entitled ‘The Decision’, forming the first modern era super team.
After winning two NBA titles in four seasons with the Heat, James made an emotional return to Cleveland in 2014 and delivered on his promise by winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy for his hometown team in 2016 – defeating the Warriors in an epic seven-game Finals series.
The Warriors’ dominance has left the rest of the league desperately seeking to arm themselves in order to halt Golden State’s relentless run of success. Where James chooses could shift the balance of the NBA entirely.
At 33 years old, this will be the last free agency decision he will make while still at the peak of his career, the last opportunity he has to shape his legacy and his standing among the very greatest to play the game.All 30 of the NBA teams will likely make their pitch to James but only a handful will be given serious consideration by the four-time MVP.
Cleveland remain serious contenders to recapture their prodigal son for another stretch. The bond James holds with the Cavaliers remains strong, strong enough for him to return in 2014 despite the despicably treatment he received from owner Dan Gilbert and sections of the fans.
But after delivering the city’s first major sports title in 52 years in 2016, James might feel he has now honoured his duty to his hometown franchise. Looking at the Cavaliers’ roster, he could also be forgiven for wanting a little more help having almost single-handedly dragged them to the Finals this post-season.
The bookies favour James making the move out west to the glamour of the Los Angeles Lakers. Much has been made of the fact LeBron owns two homes in the city and is currently in business with a Hollywood-based film company.
In basketball terms, the Lakers have the cap space to build a super team capable of competing with the Warriors having traded Larry Nance Jr and Jordan Clarkson midway through the season, ironically to the Cavaliers.
The Lakers would likely need another star to persuade James – with Paul George on the market after his lone season with Oklahoma City Thunder. Convincing big names to join the purple and gold has always been easy given the pull of Los Angeles.
Second favourites for James’ signature and probably the strongest team in terms of talent are the Western Conference Finalists Houston Rockets. They threw away a 3-2 lead over the Warriors to lose 4-3 in a series many deemed as the ‘real Finals’.
LeBron would join a star-studded Houston roster featuring the MVP-elect James Harden and close friend, All-Star point guard Chris Paul. The Rockets would need to be a little flexible with cap space but with general manager Daryl Morey one of the most inventive in the NBA, they could find a way.
James may be put off by how a move to Houston would reflect on his legacy, given the strength of the Rockets roster he would be joining. But after Durant’s move to Golden State, he would be more than justified in making the move to Texas.
Should LeBron leave Cleveland but remain in the Eastern Conference, both the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers boast exciting young teams filled with untapped potential and in the ascendancy.
In both Boston and Philadelphia, James could lead without being expected to do it all on every possession as he did with Cleveland this season. Heading into what will be his 17th season, LeBron might jump at the chance not to carry the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders.
The most controversial option of all would be Golden State themselves, with speculation rife ever since an ESPN report emerged midway through the season suggested James would be open to a move to the Bay Area.
Golden State would have to trade away one of their four star names, likely Thompson, to take on James’ mammoth $35.6million salary. But should they manage they could create a roster headlined by three of the top five players in the league.
‘How do you put together a group of talent but also a group of minds to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?’, James asked before Game Four. He might decide that it’s an impossible task.
It all depends what James wants from the twilight years of his career. Whether he believes he can beat the Warriors, whether he simply wants to chase championships, what the Cavaliers still mean to him and how he wants to be remembered.
The NBA will be on tenterhooks waiting for the decision. Now, over to you LeBron.
-By Daily Mail-