With Promises Kept, LeBron James has Choices to Make
You suddenly don’t hear much around the N.B.A. about the majesty of LeBron James’s eight consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals.
The justified awe inspired by James’s feat — his entree into a club whose only prior members played for the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics in the 1950s and ’60s — didn’t even last two weeks.
Blame Kevin Durant for that. For the second straight June, Durant coldly strolled into Quicken Loans Arena for a Game 3 in the finals and was just too much, too ruthless, for James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.
Only this time, Durant didn’t merely usher James to the brink of a humbling sweep on the game’s biggest stage. With his 43-point, 13-rebound, 7-assist masterpiece on Wednesday night, Durant started the clock on James’s third foray into free agency.
Fretting has thus quickly replaced fawning as the reflex reaction in this part of the world when it comes to the subject of the Akron, Ohio-reared James. This playoff series (and the season) technically isn’t over. But it realistically is — and the locals know it.
They are surely aware that N.B.A. teams are 0-131 in N.B.A. history when facing a 3-0 series deficit. They likewise understand that the odds of James electing to stay with his home-state Cavaliers this off-season appear to be only marginally better than the prospect of four consecutive wins against the mighty Warriors — unless merely getting to the championship round is enough for James at 33.
Those who know him best say that it isn’t.
Those privy to James’s thinking say that at this stage, pleading from family members appears to be the only force that could persuade him to extend his second stint with the Cavs and resist the opportunity to switch teams, as he did in 2010 and again in 2014.
The leaguewide belief, of course, is that chasing championships is James’s priority, which necessitates relocating to a team far better equipped to do so than the Cavaliers. He can do so either by signing elsewhere as a free agent after July 1 or opting into the final season of his current Cleveland contract and forcing a trade to a new home.
he prominent ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith reported Wednesday that James plans to speak to six external suitors in addition to the Cavaliers. Philadelphia, Houston, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers were all mentioned — as were the juggernaut that has inflicted seven losses in James’s last eight finals games (Golden State) and his longtime Eastern Conference nemesis (Boston).
My best forecast at this juncture? Fixate on Chris Paul.
If Paul stays with the Rockets, Houston becomes the closest thing to a favorite on my scorecard, no matter how complicated it would be for the 65-win Rockets and their general manager, Daryl Morey, to orchestrate the requisite salary-cap gymnastics to bring James in. But don’t discount the idea that James could try to bring Paul with him to a team that can afford two superstars, such as the Lakers, because he and Paul really are that close.
I tend to believe the suggestions in circulation that even James himself isn’t sure yet where he’s headed. Yet I also suspect he has much more of an inkling about his summer plans than he would ever consent to let on while his Cavaliers are still playing. He’s too studious, too into preparation, not to have some thoughts stored up.
You will hear much leading into Friday night’s Game 4 about James’s unflattering finals record, which is poised to drop to 3-6. You will be reminded that only Jerry West (eight times) and Elgin Baylor (seven) have tasted finals disappointment more often.
Just don’t forget that it’s James’s unwavering brilliance, above all, that convinced the Warriors — after a 73-win season in 2015-16 — that they had to do anything they could to add Durant to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala to ensure they could beat this one guy.
“They go 73-9,” James lamented, “and then you add one of the best players that the N.B.A. has ever seen.”