One of the most fervent stories in the NBA heading into the season isn't what's going to happen in the 2017/2018 campaign, seeing as that's basically a given; The Golden State Warriors will win their third NBA Championship in 4 seasons, likely over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No, the bigger story is, what happens to those Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018/2019? The assumption among pundits and fans is that LeBron James, with the option to leave his hometown team for a second time in 2018, is going to be leaving for greener pastures, to build a new Super Team elsewhere as the Cavs fall into disarray and blow up the whole thing.
Nearly every franchise you'd expect to be linked in to this theory has been linked. He could go back to Miami to reunite with Pat Riley; perhaps join an amazing coach like Popovich in San Antonio; fulfill the long-assumed destiny of playing for the Lakers; or even join a team built on a much younger core like the Sixers.
But what of those scenarios wins a then-33-year-old LeBron James an NBA Championship immediately? Is there a scenario where that can reasonably happen at all?
Miami Heat - An earlier assumption for the LeBron sweepstakes was that the Miami Heat would pry LeBron back to Cleveland, but how? Although Miami did end their relationship with Chris Bosh amicably (unlike the departure of James and possibly Dwayne Wade), he's still not going to be there, limiting their "sell" appeal towards LeBron. The team beyond this faces uncertainty past 2018-2019; Hasaan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson are all on high-end contracts that include player options for 2019-2020, meaning that if any of them played hard ball with Heat management for salary, LeBron would be right back in the same situation he's already in with the Cavaliers. That's also exacerbated with big money contracts having been handed out to Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, and James Johnson, meaning it will be hard to nab high-end free agents without unloading some hefty deals in the offseason to make room.
San Antonio Spurs - On the surface, it isn't the sexiest end-destination for Lebron, but it could be the most game-changing; a chance for the best player in basketball to team up with the best coach in basketball. In favor of San Antonio, the Spurs can get out of the LaMarcus Aldridge deal if he declines his player option after next season, freeing up the cap room to make a play at a superstar (or two) to pair with Kawhi Leonard. And for two, the only other player with guaranteed money on the books as of 2018-2019 would be Leonard himself; name a Spur that isn't a recent draft pick, and they don't have a guaranteed spot on the roster next season. Yet, this isn't exactly the Spurs' modus operandi; as the Aldridge deal has shown, trying to fit a square peg, even an extremely talented one, into a round hole doesn't always work, and sometimes it results in losing young talent like Jonathon Simmons. Plus, would LeBron James, a player who has not necessarily been the most coach-friendly player in NBA history, mesh well with Gregg Popovich?
Los Angeles Lakers - During the "Decision", Los Angeles was the obvious place that the LeBron James sweepstakes had to end. This was a team that had been utterly dominant in the years prior, still running with a healthy Kobe Bryant and a reinvigorated Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. Everyone forgot, however, that in spite of Los Angeles historically being a "money" location, the "money" wasn't "there" because "they spent it all on those four aforementioned guys and we haven't even gotten to Ron-not-yet-Metta-World-Peace Artest or Derek Fisher yet because we don't have time". 2010-2011 actually offered a glimpse into the reality that Lakers fans have had to deal with today; the following season began the systematic dismantling of the very team they had just built around Kobe, leading into Kobe's eventual retirement and LA being forced into a full scale rebuild.
In some ways, yes, the Lakers have put together a stronger team to handle a LeBron James-led squad now in the rebuild; with Lonzo Ball (who may end up being a more natural SG than PG), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Julius Randle, they have a core built to succeed in the future, and the cap space in 2018 to add all the stars they want. Yet, for one, LeBron James would be forced to match up with his new nemesis, the Golden State Warriors, more than he ever would at nearly any other team in the NBA. He'd also have to deal with the braggadocios, loudmouthed father of his new teammate. Can you imagine how LaVarr Ball would react the first time the Lakers lost with LeBron on the team, blaming James for bringing his son down? Is that really what a 33 year old LeBron James sees as his best situation to win a title, even if he can coax some big name free agents to come along? Worse yet, what if his coming to LA resulted in Ball's exit from the Lakers?
Philadelphia 76ers - The theory on the Sixers has come up more recently, considering that The Process finally seems to have reached a logical end...for the most part. Yes, there's still the stench of Jahlil Okafor being on the team contributing next to nothing, and yes, they're going to have to dole out a big deal for Joel Embiid, but with Fultz, Saric, and Simmons all tied up through at least 2020, the core is there for something special. And they do have the cap space to add LeBron James, but remember that Embiid note? Yeah, that's going to be the hang-up here. Embiid basically controls his own market, and will likely do so before LeBron James enters any conversation for Philadelphia, meaning that the Sixers will need to somehow convince him to take a contract within a reasonable range while keeping enough money on the books to add LeBron and likely a SG at the least. On the surface it sounds like karmic release for Philadelphia's suffering faithful, but in reality, it might be more of a pipe dream than anything else, and that's not even considering if LeBron has any specific player in mind he wants to coax to the Sixers via trade, potentially blowing up the FEDS group in the process.
So...where's the NBA Championship there? Are any of those teams or situations instantly capable of knocking off Golden State?
What about other options? He could go to Chicago, but they're in a full scale rebuild and would have to throw around money like kings. Maybe the Knicks could clear the books to afford LeBron James, but if they keep Carmelo Anthony to do so, they'd be stuck with a 3-forward hangup thanks to Kristaps Porzingis. The Wizards, Celtics, Clippers, and Rockets are going to be far too cash strapped on their own superstars to make a big move for LeBron James, barring him going for anything less than what he's worth. Oklahoma City is going to have a hell of a time convincing Paul George alone to stick around. The Brooklyn Nets are screwed three ways to Tuesday. And I fail to see a small market squad like Charlotte or Utah being capable of adding LeBron James at this point.
Then again, I could be completely wrong on this; LeBron James may see a better opportunity in 2018 to cement his legacy, but too many of the situations he could be in would offer minimal long-term upside. Going to the West, particularly to the Pacific Division, will put him at direct odds with the same Warriors he's desperately trying to unseat. Staying in the East, unless the Celtics can do something astonishing, puts him on a either an extremely young team or a team with talent deficiencies. Where is the benefit for a man trying to prove he's the greatest of all time? To either drag a young squad through the playoffs, or to miss the Finals entirely?
Yes, the Cavaliers are in a sticky spot right now, and LeBron James has all the right to upset, but they also can offer him the most money, and can keep him with at least two viable stars (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) while trying to make the market work for them to add a potential 4th. Their dominance in the East, even with other teams on the rise like Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington, likely won't be taken for granted any time soon, and there's still the ever-present chance that a mid-season deal for a player like DeMarcus Cousins could materialize if things fall apart for a few teams (such as the vulnerable Pelicans squad in the stacked Western Conference).
I won't say it's a for-sure thing for LeBron to remain in Cleveland in 2018. 2010, I think, showed that anything is possible on that front. Yet, I'm not entirely convinced that there's an obvious better situation for LeBron looming in the distance. More than anything, I just wouldn't be surprised if we see LeBron remaining with the Wine and Gold in 2018, the drama be damned; even knowing I could eat all my words in 11 months' time.