CLEVELAND — LeBron James can’t beat the Warriors with Kevin Durant. Maybe he should consider joining them.
That would quickly make James a villain again and the Warriors the most hated team in the NBA. But if James really wants to win as many rings as Michael Jordan, perhaps the best way to do that is to take a massive pay cut and take his talents to the Bay Area.
James is not winning in Cleveland, not as the Cavaliers are constituted. There are other Eastern Conference teams on the rise, including Boston and Philadelphia, so James’ days of ruling the conference with Cleveland are numbered, much like his days in a Cavaliers uniform.
He is 3-6 in the NBA Finals, 1-3 against the Warriors and 0-2 versus Golden State with Durant. Cleveland has won only one game in the last two series against the Warriors, who swept Cleveland out of these Finals after winning the title in five games last year.
James is expected to decline his $35.6-million player option and become a free agent. There’s always a chance he will stay, and he said his family will play a part in his decision. But the general feeling around the league is James is gone. He seemed to be giving his reasons after the Cavs fell behind 3-0 against Golden State.
The teams James has been linked to most often if he leaves the Cavaliers are the Lakers, Rockets, 76ers and Spurs. The Heat, Warriors and Celtics also have been mentioned. James is 33, still the best player in the world and wants to play on a team that can win the NBA title.
James said accomplishing that feat in 2016 with the Cavaliers “made me even more hungry to continue to try and win championships. I still want to be in championship mode.”
The Cavaliers aren’t. Their window of opportunity shut after Durant signed with the Warriors and Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland.
James stopped just short of saying the Cavaliers don’t have enough to beat the Warriors (they don’t). He also said the challenge for presidents, general manager and “players” is to assemble a team that has the talent and basketball intelligence to compete with and beat the Warriors.
“Players” is a critical part of what James said because it takes players deciding and agreeing to team up. Right or wrong, James has always been very active trying to handpick his teammates
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh worked out that they would play together in Miami in 2010. When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, he recruited Kevin Love and others to join him and Irving.
That team essentially was built from scratch. James sounds as if he wants to avoid that this time and perhaps join an established team or play with established players.
This summer, James is expected to talk to Paul George, see where he is going and figure out if there’s an opportunity to go to the same place. He likely will do the same with his good friend Chris Paul. No doubt James will make other calls. He can orchestrate things nearly as well off the court as he does on it.
Of course, Cleveland can pay him the most. James could sign a five-year deal worth more than $205 million with the Cavaliers. If he signs elsewhere, he could get a four-year deal for more than $150 million.
James told Cleveland.com he wants to “try to break the mold” for the next generation of players, especially for players in their 30s. It sounds as if he wants to get paid. That would eliminate the Warriors, as well as a number of other teams. But teams can always make moves to clear the money to add someone of James’ caliber.
The Lakers could have enough to sign two max players and could trade for another star-caliber player, with Brandon Ingram and Luol Deng as chips. The Lakers could position themselves to add a Big Three. James and George have long been rumored as Lakers targets.
You can’t rule out Paul and James uniting with the Lakers either. They’re that close, and James can be persuasive.
Paul could re-sign with the Rockets and work on bringing James with him. A James-Paul-James Harden trio in Houston might knock off the Warriors. The Rockets lost in seven to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals with Paul missing the last two games with a hamstring injury.
The Rockets would need to move Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and other parts to open up the space for James, but they would like to hold on to Clint Capela. Rockets GM Daryl Morey is consumed with beating the Warriors, so he will do whatever it takes to do that.
Kawhi Leonard is an intriguing name to watch this summer. His relationship with the Spurs has deteriorated and he could be on the move. Could he and James become teammates somewhere such as Philly, Los Angeles, Boston or even San Antonio?
James could opt to stay in the East to avoid the Warriors until the Finals. The 76ers and Celtics are the young, up-and-coming teams that are not far off from winning big. Add James and they’re immediate title contenders.
The 76ers would seem more likely than the Celtics because of flexibility and Irving’s presence. James might want another veteran with him in Philadelphia if he doesn’t want to start from scratch.
This season and series might have been different had Irving remained with the Cavaliers. As it turned out, James missed Irving more than Irving missed James.
The Cavaliers don’t have a second dynamic playmaker or scorer, and it put the burden on James to do more. In this series, it was James, Love and a group of role players trying to do the unthinkable. They couldn’t.
James continues to defy logic with his play and how his body is holding up with the pounding it takes nightly. Remember, he’s doing everything he’s doing — he averaged 34.0 points, 10.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds in the NBA Finals — with defenses putting more attention on him now that Irving isn’t on the floor.
That’s why all signs point to James leaving, and playing out the final years of his career with a team where he doesn’t have to do as much, where he can still prove his greatness and where he believes he can win more titles.