There are two kinds of NBA offseasons. There’s the kind with the draft and free agency and other normal stuff, and there are the Summers of LeBron. This falls under the latter heading. For the third time in eight years, the world’s best player is seriously considering upping sticks.
In 2010, he made “The Decision” to take his talents to Miami. In 2014, he low-keyed it – not that anything involving LeBron James is low-key – and dictated an “I’m Coming Home” missive to Sports Illustrated. Whatever choice he makes in 2018 will reshape the NBA until … well, the next Summer of LeBron.
The Atlanta Hawks play in the Eastern Conference, which was one of the reasons that, after a decade’s worth of tepid playoff yields, they plunged into the tank. Over that span, they’d gone 0-12 against James’ teams in postseason play. They had no chance against him, which is no special criticism. The last Eastern Conference champ not to include James was the 2010 Boston Celtics of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. All three are retired.
Cleveland’s loss to Boston in the 2010 Eastern semis triggered the first Summer of LeBron. Those Cavs had won 61 games and held a 2-1 series lead. After losing Game 4 on the road, they returned home for what stands as the strangest game of James’ career. He played 41 minutes and took only 14 shots. His team was outscored 100-65 over the final three quarters.
The Cavaliers were eliminated two days later. For a franchise that had moved heaven and Earth trying to placate LeBron – Danny Ferry was among the general managers who tried – it was a shattering loss. Rumors of in-house intrigue flew. (The 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal was said to have undercut Mike Brown, the NBA’s 2009 coach of the year.) Even worse: James appeared to have soured on his teammates, the organization and Cleveland itself.
That led to “The Decision,” that self-produced slice of programming that, for the first time in his life, rendered LeBron a villain. He had every right to leave Cleveland – even if he had grown up next door in Akron – but the smugness of the packaging made it seem as he believed he was bigger than the NBA. Then LeBron hit South Beach and proved that he, ahem, was bigger than the NBA.
Four years with the Heat yielded two titles and four trips to the finals. He returned to Cleveland and handed that long-suffering city its first championship since 1964. This latest run to the finals -- his eighth in succession, if you’re keeping score -- stands as compelling evidence that he’s the greatest player ever. And now his contract’s up again.
He has offered few hints as to his thinking, other than to say, “Being a part of the start-fresh mode is something that you definitely don't want.” (Meaning rebuilding projects, such as the Hawks, need not apply.) Speculation has long held that he’ll go West – perhaps to the Lakers, a franchise steeped in history and Hall of Famers, or to the Rockets, who just won 65 games but were edged in the conference finals by Golden State, or to the Spurs, even with Kawhi Leonard’s future in apparent flux.
If he stays in the East, the obvious choice is Philadelphia, currently without a general manager after Bryan Colangelo’s burner-accounts-impelled resignation. Or he could go to Boston, though that would smack of, “If you can’t beat him, buy him.” (Also: Would James want to play with Irving, who forced a trade from Cleveland because he didn’t want to play with James?) Or he could re-up with Cleveland, though I doubt it.
The frustration of that Game 1 loss to the Warriors – charge call reversed; J.R. Smith going blank; Tyronn Lue not calling timeout; the chance to steal a road game gone – led to LeBron punching a whiteboard. “Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand,” he said after Game 4. Not to go all Dr. Freud here, but the sight of the great man’s hand in a brace seemed a signal that he has again had enough of that franchise. He’s tired of doing all the lifting. He’s tired of teammates who literally don’t know the score.
Early Saturday morning, he offered what seemed a valedictory: “I came back because I felt like I had some unfinished business. To be able to be a part of a championship team two years ago … is something I will always remember. Honestly, I think we'll all remember that.”
That championship saw Cleveland override a 3-1 deficit to unhorse Golden State, which had just gone 73-9. That championship changed the NBA. Had the Warriors won, they’d never have signed Kevin Durant and built the best of all Super Teams. But that’s what it took to get past LeBron.
We can’t know what it will take to get past him next season – whether he’s in Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul, in Philly with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, or in L.A. with Lonzo Ball and maybe Paul George – but this we know: Even if he’s not technically sitting on the throne, LeBron James is still the King. This summer, like others before it, belongs to him.
Oh, and just for the record: I think he’ll pick Houston.