Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.
Here we go again.
On Monday, Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today reported on LeBron James' frustration with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offseason. A year away from unrestricted free agency, and with sources around the league believing that LeBron could head west to join the Los Angeles Lakers, here’s a closer look at the thinking behind LeBron’s potential departure from Cleveland, and how all the pieces add up:
What is behind LeBron's frustration?
It all starts and ends with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who parted ways with general manager David Griffin after a third consecutive Finals appearance, then pursued Chauncey Billups - who had no previous front-office experience - only to see him pass, leaving Cleveland with assistant GM Koby Altman running the ship as the team went into the draft and free agency this summer.
The result: Cleveland added Jose Calderon and Jeff Green and re-signed Kyle Korver - an underwhelming offseason considering Griffin was in talks to acquire either Jimmy Butler (who told Cleveland he was not interested in joining the team) or Paul George (who ended up in Oklahoma City). The Cavs had not done anything to close the gap between themselves and the Warriors.
LeBron has never been shy about expressing his frustrations via social media. He has tweeted his appreciation for Griffin, not-so-subtly reminded Gilbert - who will be paying over $210 million in salaries and luxury tax this season - it’s the players who drive up the values of franchises, and showed up courtside to watch Lonzo Ball (potential future teammate!) at summer league.
Have we seen this before?
When LeBron is on your team, the championship clock is always ticking - and there’s no time to approach roster-building with anything else in mind but winning now. This has come with mixed results over LeBron’s career.
During his first stint in Cleveland, the Cavs made one Finals appearance, fell short many other times, and failed to put together a sustainable title roster, resorting to trading for Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal in LeBron’s final years with the team. None of those moves put them over the top.
In Miami, the Heat surrounded the LeBron-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh trio with veteran players, and rode that to four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships. By the end of that run, Wade was struggling to play in back-to-back games during the regular season and was no longer a dominant postseason player.
If a roster hitting its particular ceiling is the reason why LeBron has left in the past, Cavs fans have reasons to be concerned. Despite Boston’s addition of Gordon Hayward, the mass exodus of superstars to the West this offseason means Cleveland will be heavy favorites to make their fourth consecutive Finals this season - but this roster is no better equipped to take on the Warriors than it was last year.
Okay, but how would going to the Lakers improve his chances at a championship?
This question requires a two-part answer.
First, if LeBron does end up on the Lakers, their roster will not be even close to what it looks like right now. Aside from Ball and Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles would be pairing LeBron with one or maybe even two other superstars, and would likely turn over the rest of the roster to surround LeBron with the veterans he so craves for a title run.
The likeliest players to join LeBron: George and Russell Westbrook, both set to become unrestricted free agents next July. This would align with LeBron’s career narrative, in which he left twice to reboot the roster around him.
The second part of this answer will likely determine where LeBron ends up after the 2017-18 season: LeBron might just want to end up in Los Angeles for reasons beyond basketball. For the entirety of his career, LeBron has always been conscious about maximizing his brand potential, he’s pursued plenty of Hollywood ventures, and being in Los Angeles would align with his stated plans to continue furthering his brand.
After losing to the Warriors in this year’s Finals, LeBron knew that it just wasn’t his time to win a title - and that could stay the same for perhaps the next half-decade if the Warriors continue to dominate. Even in a defeat that dropped his career Finals record to 3-5, LeBron seemed more secure about his own basketball legacy than ever before, especially when you contrast it with his "you all still have to wake up to your sorry-ass lives" speech after losing the 2010 Finals.
But what about his homecoming letter?
Three years ago, when LeBron announced his return to Cleveland on Sports Illustrated, we all immediately thought: there’s no way he can ever leave the Cavs again. There’s still reason to believe that.
In the letter, LeBron went into detail about how much of a difference he wanted to make off the court, to inspire kids in northeast Ohio and help them realize there’s no better place to grow up. But LeBron could still make his impact felt even if he left, thanks to his work in the community through the LeBron James Family Foundation.
There’s also the belief that having won a championship for Cleveland, LeBron is free to go. In the letter, James likened the experience of going to Miami to going to college. Could you not envision another letter next summer in which LeBron talks about going to Los Angeles to gain a postgraduate degree?
Read through the entire letter, and there are plenty of reasons to think LeBron - despite his frustrations with ownership - won’t leave Cleveland, yet several more rationalizations of why he could hit the road again.
So, what should Cavs fans hope for this season?
Barring injury, suspensions, and other unforeseen circumstances, it will take a superhero performance from LeBron to defeat the Warriors in a potential fourth consecutive Finals matchup between the two teams.
Even if LeBron scales that mountain, he will be turning 34 during the 2018-19 season, and with a roster that has limited room to improve, the championship window will be closing in Cleveland. At some point, even LeBron has to confront his own basketball mortality.
Add in his future off-court aspirations - and the fact the Lakers are positioned to land multiple superstars under the cap next summer - and this will end up being not only a basketball decision, but also dependent on whether LeBron wants to get a head start on setting himself up after retirement.
The Cavs' fan base has been through this once before, and it'll do it all over again next season. We’ll read between the lines of every single thing LeBron says, dissect it multiple times, then wait for the summer of 2018, when all eyes will be on where the King ends up once again.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)