Wiedmer: Wherever LeBron James lands becomes Warriors' new threat

Wiedmer: Wherever LeBron James lands becomes Warriors' new threat

June 12th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Where to, LeBron?

The Lakers? Rockets? 76ers? Celtics? At least one more year in Cleveland?

Is this summer's decision about your legacy? Your family? Is there a way to do justice to both?

As the past two NBA Finals have painfully taught Cleveland Cavaliers fans, 33-year-old LeBron James may well be able to wrap up his career in his home state, keep his family and friends by his side and remain a force in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. Four straight trips to the NBA Finals for the Cavs have made that all but a certainty.

It's winning it all, as they shockingly did in 2016, that may be out of the Cavs' reach as they're currently constructed. Especially if quirky owner Dan Gilbert won't toss aside any semblance of financial responsibility to surround his once-in-a-franchise talent with at least one more All-Star caliber performer, if not two.

For regardless of how close the Cavs came to winning both Game 1 and Game 3 against Golden State this time around, winning it all will take more than one noticeable tweak. It might take a semi-overhaul in funding and philosophy. At the very least, if the Cavs are to more than sort of, kind of challenge for championships, they need the kind of elite point guard they were willing to part company with a year ago in the person of Kyrie Irving.

Beyond that, there needs to be more of an understanding from James that it can't always be his way or the highway regarding teammates. Whatever encouraged Irving to leave Cleveland last summer and wind up in Boston, James was surely at least a little bit to blame for that exit.

Yes, he's the best player on the planet, arguably the most complete individual player in all phases that we may ever see, excluding, perhaps, Michael Jordan. But the league's best franchises are too good to be defeated by a single otherworldly talent. One could argue that it now takes three, though James certainly tested that theory in knocking off the Golden State Warriors in those 2016 Finals.

There's also the very pertinent question of how long James can continue to perform at the level he did this past season. This coming October will be the start of his 16th year in the league. He just finished the 15th playing more minutes and more games than in any previous season of his career. Though not often, there were at least two or three games in the postseason where that wear and tear was obvious.

It wasn't enough to do in the Cavs this time around against an Indiana squad that didn't have quite enough experience and firepower to win a Game 7 in Cleveland. It wasn't enough to stop them against a Toronto squad that quivers in their presence. It wasn't enough to deny them the Eastern Conference finals against a Boston team playing without its two best players, including Irving.

But the Celtics will be healthier and deeper next time around. So will Philadelphia. The Raptors might even act like a bunch of adults instead of starstruck teenagers at the sight of King James.

Regardless, if James opts to remain with the Cavs — and that seems to be a very big if — Cleveland must be better, perhaps much better, to reach the Finals for a fifth straight season.

And if you assume Gilbert and the rest of the Cavs brass will find a way to screw that up, then the next two logical landing points would appear to be the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets, with Philly a possible third option.

The Lakers' obvious attraction — reportedly a potential $70 million in salary-cap room as well as the fact that James owns a home in L.A. — also could prove to be the glitter gang's undoing, however. The Lakers just weren't very good this past season, and unless another NBA superstar could be encouraged to join James, they would seem to have no way to be a serious contender in the tougher Western Conference.

Houston doesn't have the competitive problem, of course. Houston automatically moves from Western Conference runner-up to NBA favorite if James is aboard. But since he's apparently determined to get the same $36 million in salary he can earn if he remains a Cav, a whole lot of creative bookkeeping and salary cutting would have to take place for the Rockets to sign James and still keep their current nucleus of Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela.

As for Philly, the Sixers have the best young center in the game in Joel Embiid, the most unique talent in Ben Simmons and a potentially outstanding point guard in Markelle Fultz, who was hurt most of this past season. Throw in streaky J.J. Redick from the perimeter and the addition of James could make them the odds-on choice to dethrone the Warriors.

There is also this regarding the Lakers. Though Kevin Durant insists he'll remain a Warrior, he's not yet signed. Let James decide to go to L.A. and recruit Durant to join him and, well, now you've got Showtime III, as well as partially dismantling the Warriors. Second-year Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball could focus on what he does best — passing. The Lakers also could draft a deep-shooting threat with the No. 25 pick, someone on the order of former Duke star Gary Trent Jr. or Final Four MVP Donte DiVincenzo, to shore up their biggest weakness.

Beyond that, you'd jumpstart the renewal of the best rivalry in the NBA: Lakers versus Celtics, a hate like no other.

Yet whatever he chooses to do, James's next decision figures to cast a huge shadow over which teams realistically could short-circuit a Warriors three-peat a year from now.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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