LeBron James shouldn’t feel the need to chase rings

LeBron James can opt out of the final year of his contact with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday and become a free agent.
LeBron James can opt out of the final year of his contact with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday and become a free agent.

Credit: Jason Miller

Credit: Jason Miller

The only certainty about this next chapter of, “LeBron James Holds Sports World Hostage,” is that the league’s best player will not soon declare, “I want to be a Hawk.”

Because this is not sports Neverland. Rebuilding franchises from cities without championship pedigrees don’t get to play in the rich man’s sandbox, notwithstanding this tweet from the bubbly Trae Young:

“What’s up LeBron!? Come to the A and let’s get these Rings Fam,” the Hawks’ rookie typed the other day.

Oh, these kids today.

Let’s hope Young’s shot selection is better than that.

James must decide by Friday whether to opt out of the final year of his contract with Cleveland and become a free agent. The opting out part of this equation seems obvious: It swings open the door to a new max contract of four or five years, whether he leaves the Cavaliers.

But the real question regarding James’ future shouldn’t be: Where is he going?

It should be: Why would he leave?

James’ legacy is secure. He is a lock Hall of Famer. He has won three championships and four MVP awards, which doesn’t account for the several years he was robbed. He’s a 14-time All-Star, a past scoring champion and a perennial all-defensive team member, with the ability to play all five positions. He delivered two titles in Miami as a relative sports mercenary, then returned home to Cleveland, where they once burned his jersey, and lifted the nation’s most mocked sports city out of an ash heap.

He is forever cemented as central member of the unwinnable greatest-player-of-all-time debate, even if you tilt toward Michael Jordan or an old-school, one-name icon (Wilt, Magic, Kareem, Larry, etc.).

Beyond being a great player, James has led an exemplary life off the court. Fact is, he has done only one thing wrong since turning professional out of high school: His free-agent departure to Miami was punctuated by an ill-conceived, television production that made him appear the ugly centerpiece of the look-at-me generation. But that’s it: one blemish in 15 years as one of the world’s highest profile athletes.

This is not somebody who needs to chase rings.

This is not somebody who should feel the need for an ego boost.

This is not somebody who should feel compelled to go to Los Angeles or Philadelphia or anywhere in the belief it will somehow strengthen his resume or his income or his image or economic stature or even his enjoyment.

This is somebody who, in fact, could actually enhance his image more by staying in Cleveland, and possibly be part of a franchise that tries to continue to contend for championship, regardless of whatever roster deficiencies and salary-cap obstacles the Cavaliers face.

You know, like athletes used to do.

When did staying in one place become a bad thing?

Shaquille O’Neal won four NBA titles with Los Angeles (three) and Miami (one) before his late-career hop-scotch in search of more rings. Phoenix. Cleveland. Boston. Now he looks back with regret.

“My problem toward the end of my career was I was trying to shut everybody up and I was greedy (for more championships),” O'Neal told ESPN recently. “After I got to three (titles), everybody was saying I couldn't get another. So I got four. After I got the fourth, they were saying I couldn't get another one. So I was trying to make quick stops to get it.”

Feel free to cast this as an old-man, get-off-my-lawn, shake-my-fist-at-a-cloud rant: But I’ve never been a fan of teams built through fantasy free agency.

It cheapens sports.

I covered the Lakers at a time when great teams were built organically through drafts and trades, not via spasmodic impulses by an owner with his first American Express gold card.

The great Lakers and Boston Celtics teams in the 1980s were only enhanced by free agency. They were built mostly through drafts and trades. And when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did not win a title, they did not jump to the other team -- like Kevin Durant. (Noteworthy: Durant aside, the core of Golden State’s three title teams was built through the draft: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.)

O’Neal said James’ career “book” already is written.

“He done already passed up legends. He’s done already made his mark,” O’Neal said. “He has three rings. His mentality now is probably: ‘I want to get four before Steph does.’ But if I was him, I wouldn't be trying to get four, five and six because it ain't going to matter.”

Bookmakers have posted odds favoring James opting out and signing with the Lakers, leading a parade of others to L.A. for the next potential store-bought champion. Cleveland would again become a wasteland. The Lakers would again be relevant, in a far different way than when they drafted Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, James Worthy and Kobe Bryant (who actually was acquired from Charlotte in a draft-day trade).

It’s probably a long shot that James stays put and the Lakers get shut out. I have no dog in this hunt, but I would take great joy in that unlikely series of non-transactions. If James really wants to enhance his legacy, he should do something almost nobody does and stay home.

It would be a nice final chapter to his book.

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