Anyone wondering why LeBron James might leave Cleveland this summer need look further than the second half of Game 4 on Friday. The game was getting out of hand as the Warriors inched closer to a sweep, and like many Cavs losses this year, when it began to go bad, it got shockingly dark. This was a roster that would occasionally prompt disbelief and force you to squint at the court. Is that really Larry Nance taking pull-up jumpers? Why is Jeff Green guarding Kevin Durant—is that really the plan? Those were the moments when it became both incredible and a little bit hilarious that this team made it to the NBA Finals.
And now the Finals are over. LeBron checked out of the fourth quarter Friday night with a little more than four minutes to play—and Golden State up 25—and there’s a good chance that will be his final game in Cleveland.
In the minutes immediately following the buzzer, we learned that LeBron punched a white board and badly damaged his hand following the Game 1 loss. At the postgame press conference, he briefly flashed a black cast on the podium, and we immediately heard a hundred flashes go off from photographers camped across the back row. The noise prompted LeBron to crack a smile while trying to assess his past four years in Cleveland. “You guys like this cast, huh?” he asked. Then he perched it on the podium. “You want me to sit it right here for you?” The rest of room burst out into laughter.
At the risk of reading way too much into press conference banter, let’s just say LeBron has known for 15 years that he is the center of attention. He’s more comfortable than he’s been at any point in his career, but he’s still keenly aware of how he’s perceived, what people want from him, and how he’ll be discussed. And all of that calculus will factor in to how he approaches free agency. “I have no idea at this point,” he said postgame when asked about his plans this summer. I believe him.
As he considers his options, I think the most exciting aspect of this summer will be the opportunity to find out exactly what he values going forward. Will he become a mercenary and jump from contender to contender, obsessed with taking down Golden State? Will he try to be a mentor and play off the ball in Philadelphia? Will he try to build a new empire on and off the court in Southern California? Is there a move on the board that nobody has considered? He could always try to stay in Cleveland, too. LeBron said Friday that his now-teenage children will influence this decision. The question is whether other factors—his obsession with countering the Warriors and/or chasing Michael Jordan—will mitigate desires for stability.
LeBron small-talk was a recurring theme among media during these Finals. It saved us when halfhearted attempts at talking about the games inevitably went nowhere. And every LeBron conversation I had ended the same way. “Honestly,” each writer concluded, “I really have no idea.”
The only thing we can say for sure is that each potential destination will shed real light on LeBron’s motivations and how he wants to be remembered. Even after 15 years, eight straight trips to the Finals, 100,000 interviews and almost as many cover stories, we still have an opportunity to learn something new here. When LeBron returned to the Cavs he chose an option that provided him the best story, the basketball situation, and a move that made sense for his family. There’s no magic bullet this time, and we’ll watch LeBron choose a priority instead.
Part of this summer’s intrigue is obviously a byproduct of the Warriors. The combination of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond and Kevin Durant is a problem for LeBron that might not have a viable solution. Golden State creates urgency for LeBron to make a move while at the same time rendering most of his options futile.
For example, if LeBron uproots his family and sells the world on his new life as a Houston Rocket, there’s always a chance that he loses in six games in next year’s conference finals. Then what? He’s living in Houston, playing with an aging Chris Paul, James Harden making $40 million-per-year and dominating the ball, and the Warriors have left him looking more humbled than ever. The same risk applies with Philly if Joel Embiid gets hurt, or Ben Simmons can’t shoot or the Celtics are too much to handle even with all the Sixers healthy.
Another risk: if LeBron is leaving again, that move will bring more scrutiny than he’s faced the past two years in Cleveland. With the Cavs he’s been insulated from blame, because most everyone cites Durant’s move as a cheat-code that no one could be expected to counter. In a way, all of Cleveland’s vulnerabilities have made LeBron bulletproof to critics. When he loses, people blame his teammates. When he wins, they call him the greatest of all time. But once LeBron begins to build something else, teaming up with new superstars, he may be graded on a different curve.
So maybe he chooses a place that will make sense even if the Warriors continue to reign. That would probably be L.A., right? He could commit long-term, he’d be given all kinds of freedom by Magic Johnson, and he could settle his family in California. The Lakers have room to win now, but there’s also potential to attract more talent as the years pass, and Golden State’s core changes. The only problem is that unless L.A. pulls off something truly outrageous next month—not entirely out of the question—it’s unlikely that “LeBron on the Lakers” is really a Warriors threat next year. Even with Paul George, they would probably need more.
Of course, there’s always a chance LeBron goes galaxy brain and engineers moves none of us have even considered. Again, not out of the question. Maybe those moves could keep him in Cleveland, or they could take him to teams nobody has even mentioned.
For now, walking out of Quicken Loans arena at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, I was thinking about this Cavs season. The Cavs were so undermanned this year that anyone watching them succeed couldn’t help but conclude that LeBron was one the two greatest players to ever live. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” James said of this season in Cleveland. “It’s been good, it’s been bad. I just try to be consistent throughout the course of the season.”
What was amazing this Cavs season was watching LeBron transcend all of this dysfunction while also keeping in mind that he played a central role in creating it. He didn’t attempt to repair the relationship with Kyrie last summer. He stopped playing defense for months. He checked out midway through the season and incited the trade deadline overhaul that eventually became a punchline. Veterans he’d recruited and lobbied to sign were exposed. And most importantly, the exhaustion surrounding that team was all too familiar, triggered by a superstar who refuses to commit to franchises long-term and brings incredible levels of scrutiny in the meantime. Chaos had always been a core feature of the LeBron experience behind the scenes, but this year in Cleveland, the subtext became text.
And then LeBron made it work anyway, because that’s always been the story. His personality can make things difficult on the people around him, he creates a unique set of exhausting challenges for his teams, and he’s usually great enough to win anyway. This year in Cleveland was the entire experience in technicolor. The challenges he created had never been more glaring, and the hero-ball playoff success made LeBron’s singular brilliance more undeniable than ever. But if this year was an extended opportunity celebrate LeBron for his ability to win on his own terms and respond to every challenge he creates for himself, the past two weeks were a reminder he hasn’t come close to solving the challenge that KD created when he joined the Warriors. Maybe he can join another contender and try to solve that Warriors team on the court, or maybe he’ll try to build a different kind of legacy that’s less reliant on titles, but every bit as compelling as Jordan’s rings.
All we know is that he’ll respond this summer, and the decision will be a lot more interesting than anything we saw over the past four games. “When I decide,” James said Friday, “My family, and the folks that have been with me for 20 years, have say-so. Then it ultimately will come down to me.”