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Thoughts on LeBron James and Free Agency: While We’re Waiting

LeBron 15 Nike Basketball Pop Up
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No sport has an offseason quite like the NBA. The way we rapidly move from NBA Finals to the NBA Draft to the start of Free Agency and then Summer League is like nothing else. The league has managed to turn its offseason into a season of its own as opt-outs and discontent leads to an annual shuffling of power.

You may have heard: LeBron James is going to (potentially) be a free agent. The four-time MVP may have lost to the Warriors, but he continues to triumph over Father Time. At 33 years of age, James continues to be not just headliner, but the headliner. Where will he go? How will he announce it? Did you hear he renewed his pass at the Akron Zoo?

As rumors and speculation fly through the air like the clay pigeons, it only make sense to put all of my thoughts in one spot.

I believe LeBron James does not know where he is going to play next season.

Nor should he. So much will change between Thursday’s draft and the start of free agency in July that any decision today would be made without all of the information needed. Imagine interviewing for a job where the duties, reporting structure, and quality of coworkers are still up in the air. Some fans want to label this as some form of disloyalty or “holding the team hostage”. Even if we ignore how ridiculous these assertions are, we still need to realize that it would be silly for James to commit to something so unknown at this stage.

I believe LeBron James wants to stay in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers, however, are making this very, very tough. Koby Altman’s history with the Cavs goes deeper than last August, but the Kyrie Irving trade was an unmitigated disaster. The No. 8 pick in the draft will provide some closure to things, but what is done with this pick will be the make-or-break move.

It’s difficult to envision a scenario where James signs on to compete against the Warriors with the team as currently constructed plus a rookie, whomever that may be. The trade market is there, but the only issue—be it for Kawhi Leonard or someone else—is that other teams are also attempting to get better. JR Smith and Jordan Clarkson for Damian Lillard may work in the Trade Machine, but the reality hammer packs a mean punch.

The irony here: Altman has to put the Cavaliers in a position to win without LeBron James in order for it to be the best place for him to play.

I believe this will be very tough to accomplish.

I’ve seen way too many fan-made trade scenarios involving Kevin Love that err more on the side of simply wanting to try something else than they do improving the team overall. Kevin Love is really, really good. He’ll eventually be in the Hall of Fame. Sure, his lateral movement on the defensive end isn’t among the best in the NBA., and sure, he’s not a rim protector. This said, he’s a floor-spacing big who happens to be among the best shooters at his position and was the only consistent player not named LeBron to show up in the NBA Finals.

Moving Love for CJ McCollum—which also works in the Trade Machine—adds some firepower to the backcourt, but it doesn’t make the Cavaliers better. Altman needs to add a dynamic, two-way player to Love if the Cavs are going to present any scenario where they can compete for a title moving forward, not trade him for one.

Maybe there’s a scenario where they pitch LeBron on the expiring deals of Smith and George Hill and say they’ll have space for a max contract players next season, but I’m not sure that’s a gamble I’d take considering what other teams can offer this year.

I believe family will play a major role in his decision.

As well it should. The catch, of course, is thinking this means Cleveland is a lock. Yes, James is from Akron. And yes, Savannah and the kids have essentially grown roots here, but James’ future as it pertains to business and production will extend far beyond his playing days. I believe Los Angeles is much more realistic than many Cleveland fans want to admit. As Andrew mentioned yesterday, James never intended to leave Cleveland after returning in 2014, but things have changed.

And finally, I believe you need to read this story by Bryan Curtis.

Fans see the reports, read the quotes, and watch the postgame press conferences, but fans also have no idea how rare LeBron James is off of the court. For someone to be as good as James is to be as accessible as he is during this stage of his career is like nothing else in sports. In the NFL, players hide in the training room until reporters leave. In baseball, the clubhouse is treated like some sanctuary where the only thing more outdated than the unwritten rules is the BBWAA. With James, however, it’s the game’s best and most important player being willing to discuss things on or off record with a handful of folks who treat him fairly.

It wasn’t always this way. James’ first stint with the Cavaliers saw him shielded more often than not. Today, if I need 30 seconds on a topic that isn’t necessarily fit for postgame address, I’ve been able to get those 30 seconds. Following a game this season, I asked LeBron about instinct and knowing where Kevin Love was on the floor during a key moment in a game. I pride myself on picking my spots and not being someone who has to ask a question every time a mic is on. This one wasn’t my best question, and LeBron wasted no time in sniffing it out. “C’mon,” he said. “How long have you been covering me?” I appreciated that. While I would have preferred he not swat my question into the third row, it was a way for James to show that while he’s willing to talk, reporters have to be on their A-Game as well—it’s a two-way relationship that not many in sports are willing to build. It takes time. It takes reps. It takes trust.

With James, a 33-year-old who’s still at the top of his game, you have it all.

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Have a great hump day, kids. The draft is Thursday.