Still in 'Championship Mode' After Frustrating Finals, LeBron's Future Is Clear

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 9, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James walks to the bench during the first half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Friday, June 8, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Whatever LeBron James was feeling late Friday, whatever thoughts and emotions were swirling through that exhausted mind, he would not expose them.

A large white towel shrouded the King's head as he sat slumped, motionless, in front of his corner locker, his left palm over his face. Ice bags covered both knees and his right hand.

His expression remained hidden, but there was nothing ambiguous in the portrait.

Agony, frustration, anguish, doubt. It was all there, in the silence of the Cleveland Cavaliers' locker room, following the Golden State Warriors' mighty four-game sweep in the NBA Finals.

When James finally stirred, it was to look up and greet LeBron James Jr., aka Bronny, his oldest son. Then a slow walk to the shower, right around midnight.

We would soon learn that James "pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand," stemming from a moment of fury after the Cavs' overtime loss in Game 1.

We would learn little else about LeBron's feelings or his intentions or whether this 108-85 Game 4 loss was, in fact, his final night in a Cleveland uniform.

"I mean, I have no idea at this point," he said from the postgame podium, his hand in a soft cast.

Free agency looms, as it did in 2010 and 2014, and with it the potential for the NBA's balance of power to shift all over again. As ever, James was guarded. And, as ever, he sprinkled enough clues through his comments to give a strong sense of his thought process.

There was but one logical conclusion: He's leaving. Again.

The Warriors, by virtue of their sheer dominance and devastating assemblage of talent, have left him with no other option.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

James just turned in one of the greatest seasons ever by a 33-year-old. He'll likely finish in the top three in MVP voting. For the postseason, he averaged 34.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 9.0 assists while playing 42 minutes per game. He opened these Finals with a performance for the ages: 51 points, eight rebounds, eight assists.

Arguably his greatest accomplishment was just getting here—with one of the worst rosters in Finals history.

These are things James can't say. But he spent the last two days articulating quite clearly what he wants in a supporting cast, and it's everything the Cavs lack: elite talent, of course. But also brainpower, the ability to perform under pressure, to think the game. James wants reliability as much as ability.

It's what he sought in 2010, when he left Cleveland for Miami, where he partnered with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It's what he sought in 2014, when he returned to Cleveland to forge a new power trio with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

"I made the move in 2010 to be able to play with talented players, cerebral players that could see things that happen before they happened on the floor," James said Friday night. "And your teammate can do the same throughout the course of a season, throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a playoffs, throughout the course of a Finals.

"So when you feel like you're really good at your craft, I think it's always great to be able to be around other great minds, as well, and other great ballplayers."

For the second straight June, the Cavs were thoroughly overmatched by the Warriors' quartet of All-Stars: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. For the second straight June, James spent his media sessions lavishing praise on the Warriors—his envy thinly veiled.

While Curry was zipping passes to Durant and Thompson, James had the nightly quandary of whether to give the ball to JR Smith (31.7 percent shooting in the Finals), George Hill (32.3 percent), Jeff Green (28.6 percent) or Jordan Clarkson (23.1 percent).

And you can safely bet that when James pines for "cerebral" teammates, he's saying he wants players who wouldn't, for instance, forget the score in a critical moment, as Smith did in the final seconds of regulation in Game 1.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 31:  JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbles in the closing seconds of regulation as LeBron James #23 attempts direct the offense against the Golden State Warriors  in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 31, 2018
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

So expect James to do what he's always done at these critical career junctures: find better running mates.

It almost certainly won't happen in Cleveland. The Cavs don't have the payroll room, or the general allure, to land star free agents. The eighth pick in the draft won't help them in the near term or be valuable enough to land a significant player via trade.

So it seems almost certain that James will be calling the moving trucks, for the third time in eight years.

League sources view the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers as leading contenders, with the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat also likely to get a look. Sixers star Joel Embiid tweeted his pitch shortly after the Finals ended Friday:

Could the list expand? Perhaps. Are all of these teams ready to contend? No. But the landscape could change radically this summer, just as it did a year ago, when Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Carmelo Anthony were traded.

This summer promises more upheaval, more power realignment, more superstars conspiring to play together. James, George and Paul are all free agents. Kawhi Leonard could force a trade. Other stars will shake loose along the way. Maybe Portland makes CJ McCollum available. Maybe Washington puts John Wall or Bradley Beal on the block.

All James has to do is persuade a couple of stars to join him somewheresalary-cap rules be damned. If LeBron says he's coming, and bringing his friends, teams will find a way.

Ten years ago, the Boston Celtics launched the modern superteam era, acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to flank Paul Pierce.

Eight years ago, in response to the Celtics, James fled to Miami to form his own superteam. That move launched the player-empowerment era, with the best players now choosing their own destiny, whether through free agency or forced trades.

The next LeBron superteam could be hatched in a series of player-to-player text messages over the next few weeks.

Around the league, the sense is that if James is prioritizing family and sentiment, he might stay put. His ties here, as a native of nearby Akron, run deep. His sons are older nowBronny is 13, Bryce is 10and their opinions will weigh heavily in his decision this time.

But if the goal is to keep making Finals runs, to maximize the prime years he has left, to add a fourth ring, or a fifth, there's little choice but to go.

Four years ago, James made a poetic return to Cleveland, declaring in Sports Illustrated, "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball." He set out to uplift the region, to deliver a long-awaited championship. That vow was fulfilled in 2016, in dramatic fashion.

James could not have known then that Irving would force his way out, that the Cavs' roster would wither so badly, that Durant would join a 73-win team, creating a nearly unbeatable basketball behemoth.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 8: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks off the court and waves to fans in Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriorson June 8, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User ex
Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Nor could he have anticipated that, at age 33, in his 15th season, he'd still be at the peak of his powers, playing like an MVP. A lesser LeBron could perhaps accept diminished expectations. Not this LeBron, though. Not now. This LeBron is still crushing rivals with his unique blend of force and skill—"He's terrifying," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Friday—and still capable of winning titles with the right help.

"I still have so much to give to the game," James said. "I still want to be in championship mode."

The locals seemed to sense it was all over Fridaynot just this run but the era. The cheers were a little muted. The occasional MVP chants fell flat. The chorus of "O-H-I-O" during "Hang on Sloopy" was sung with little enthusiasm.

Fans gave a standing ovation when James checked out for the last time, with 4:03 left to play. But the volume was moderate. Dozens of seats were already empty. The moment felt bittersweet, like they knew this was goodbye.

        

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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