Where Will LeBron Go? The Truth Is Out There

Will it be L.A.? Or Houston? Or staying home in the Land? The King has been laying a subtle trail for years, sprinkling the landscape with bread crumbs, revealing a road map to his future. The world will soon see.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterFebruary 22, 2018

We are desperately searching for clues. Reporters, pundits, fans, team executives, all of us, forever searching, probing, querying, combing.

Where is LeBron James going? Someone must know. Someone always knows.

The scout says he's definitely leaving Cleveland. The executive says he's going to Los Angeles. Unless he goes to Houston, says the next one. (But don't rule out San Antonio.)

Then again, he just might stay.

LeBron's already decided, one insider insists. Except, he almost certainly hasn't decided anything, say those who have been down this road before.

It's dizzying.

But hold on. We know exactly what LeBron wants, and what he thinks. He wants to build a media empire in L.A., and play with his banana boat friends, and stick around long enough to play in the league with his son. He wants to be paid a max salary, even at age 33. He values family above all—and his family hates the Cavaliers' owner. He believes he owes Cleveland nothing. He believes he has nothing left to prove—that his basketball legacy is already secured.

We can assert all of this with supreme confidence, because the information came from a source with unparalleled insight into LeBron James' thinking. The source did not even seek anonymity because of the "sensitivity" of the issue, or to preserve relationships. The source was on the record.

The source's name is LeBron Raymone James, and he was most certainly authorized to speak on behalf of LeBron Raymone James.

All of the above assertions came directly from the King himself, in press conferences and published interviews and even in videos produced by his own media company. It's as if he's been laying a subtle trail for years, sprinkling the landscape with breadcrumbs and tea leaves and various other kitchen-staple cliches, revealing a road map to his future.

Yes, the truth is out there.

   

Take it all at face value, and you could easily deduce that James, a free agent in July, will ditch Cleveland once again. That he will break ties with Dan Gilbert, the owner he seemingly despises, and take his talents to Los Angeles, to restore greatness to the Lakers while building his Hollywood media empire, to prepare for life after basketball.

Moving to L.A., where James already owns a $23 million mansion, would presumably please his family, as well as his friends and business partners, many of whom have homes there, too.

With a home and production studio in Los Angeles, rumors have run rampant all season that LeBron James could make L.A. his next basketball home.
With a home and production studio in Los Angeles, rumors have run rampant all season that LeBron James could make L.A. his next basketball home.Richard Vogel/Associated Press

No, the young Lakers aren't ready to contend. But if James commits, another superstar could follow—Paul George this summer, or Jimmy Butler in 2019. Even as a solo act, James can turn any squad into a playoff team. His mere presence could accelerate the development of young stars Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.

And maybe winning titles isn't the all-consuming goal it once was.

James has three championships. He delivered on his promise to Cleveland. He's the only player in history with at least 30,000 points and 7,000 assists. He's already on the NBA's Mount Rushmore, and he could claim his own mountain range before it's all over—even without another title.

"What else do I have to prove?" James said in an interview with Cleveland.com last May. "Seriously, what else would I have [to do]? I've won championships. I won my first one and I've won for my teammates. I came home and won. There isn't anything I have left to prove."

The declaration left Cavs officials shuddering. After all, a LeBron liberated from ring-chasing is a LeBron who would feel free to play anywhere his heart (or his family) desires.

"No doubt, he let himself off the hook," a longtime team executive said. "And it certainly seems like he's thinking beyond titles."

The quote was great fodder for amateur psychoanalysts around the NBA. As another veteran executive said of James: "He's trying to unwind himself from the notion he needs to win more championships to be happy. … He'll never admit it, but he's preparing for the eventuality that he won't win another one."

   

There's a subtext to this subtext: James has lost to the Golden State Warriors twice in the last three Finals, and the Warriors—armed with two MVPs and two other All-Stars—aren't disbanding anytime soon.

At least one NBA executive believes James understands winning another title while Golden State's core is intact is all but impossible, a realization that may set him free to play without worry of winning another title.
At least one NBA executive believes James understands winning another title while Golden State's core is intact is all but impossible, a realization that may set him free to play without worry of winning another title.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press

What if they can't be beaten?

"I think he knows that ship has sailed, from a Warriors perspective," the second exec said.

If the ring count becomes secondary, it would free James to prioritize other goals, such as preparing for his post-NBA career—or playing with best buddies Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, aka the Banana Boat crew.

"I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together," James told B/R two years ago. "At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, D-Wade, CP—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that."

Worth noting: All four can become free agents this summer.

Also worth noting: Paul is happily co-starring with James Harden in Houston, on a Rockets team that many view as the most legitimate threat to the Warriors.

If James still wants to contend, and play with at least one Banana Boater, he could make his way to Houston. It would require some salary-cap contortions, but Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is as creative and aggressive as they come. He's chased the King before. And the sense is, the King will listen.

"Absolutely Houston," said the first exec, "and San Antonio—even with crazy cap situations."

If it's a superteam James wants, the Spurs can offer a partnership with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge—and a coach he idolizes.

"It would be pretty amazing to be able to actually play for the greatest NBA coach of all time," James told USA Today in 2016, referring to Gregg Popovich.

To be clear, James was alluding to the 2020 Olympics, and Popovich's role with Team USA. But that adoration is hard to dismiss in an NBA context. In fact, James repeated the "greatest coach of all time" remark last year, just before a regular-season game against the Spurs.

James has long expressed how much he respects Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and has said how great it would be to play for him in the 2020 Olympics.
James has long expressed how much he respects Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and has said how great it would be to play for him in the 2020 Olympics.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Wherever James plays next, he'll be demanding a maximum salary—a stance he made clear in an interview with Cleveland.com. He can earn in excess of $200 million over five years if he stays with the Cavs, or $150 million over four years if he signs elsewhere.

As James said in that December interview, he wants to "break the mold" for older players, "so when the next guy comes, he can still get $200 or $300 million and be 33 years old. I'm serious."

After years of short-term deals, this might be the moment that James finally signs a long-term pact somewhere. Whether he stays or goes, James is at the age where it makes sense to put down roots—for both the sake of his team and his young family. It's unlikely he'll want to start over somewhere at age 35 or 36.

That being the case, he's also expected to demand a no-trade clause. And though he's already accomplished plenty, James does have incentive to play into his late 30s—so he can play with (or against) his oldest son, LeBron James Jr., known as "Bronny."

"I don't know if I could play washed, but I damn sure would love to stick around if my oldest son can have an opportunity to play against me," James told GQ in October. "That'd be, that'd be the icing on the cake right there."

Oh yes, the GQ story. If it's tea leaves and breadcrumbs you seek, this interview is your treasure trove, a virtual cupboard of clues. And two passages in particular seemed to bode poorly for Cleveland.

First, James asserted he didn't owe the city anything. "What I will give to the city of Cleveland is passion, commitment and inspiration," James said. "As long as I put that jersey on, that's what I represent. That's why I'm there—to inspire that city. But I don't owe anybody anything."

It stood to reason. After all, the Akron native did return home in 2014, atoning for his abrupt departure in 2010. And he delivered Cleveland its first championship, in any sport, in 52 years. If James does leave again, he'll leave with a clear ledger and a clean conscience.

And if he leaves, it just might be because of his festering feud with Gilbert—another point subtly referenced in the GQ piece. Eight years ago, stung by James' decision to leave for Miami, Gilbert issued a nasty, insulting letter, accusing James of selfishness, disloyalty and a "cowardly betrayal." The GQ reporter asked James if he thought the letter was "racial" in tone.

Though the two agreed to work together for a second time in 2014, Dan Gilbert and LeBron James have not had the warmest of relationships since James first left the Cavaliers in 2010.
Though the two agreed to work together for a second time in 2014, Dan Gilbert and LeBron James have not had the warmest of relationships since James first left the Cavaliers in 2010.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"I did," James said. "It was another conversation I had to have with my kids."

   

The relationship between James and Gilbert is fraught and complicated. They reportedly set aside their differences in 2014, before James committed to returning. But team insiders and former team employees say the enmity between them has never abated. It's about the letter, yes, but also about power and control and trust and a dozen other subplots—including Gilbert's failure to re-sign general manager David Griffin, a trusted James confidant, last summer.

Across the league, it's virtually an article of faith that if James leaves the Cavs again, it will be primarily because of the fractured relationship with Gilbert. "LeBron wants to be in charge of everything, which is what puts him at odds with Dan," one source said. "Dan wants to be in charge of everything."

The belief is that Gilbert, having reasserted control after chasing out Griffin, will rebuff James' request for a no-trade clause, or any other measures that give him leverage. And that will be enough to drive James away.

"Dan Gilbert's not going to do what it takes to keep him," the same source predicted. "Not a chance in hell he's going to give him a no-trade clause, or let him dictate contract terms."

The GQ interview marked the second time in five months that James effectively called out Gilbert. The first came in "The Shop," a 30-minute short documentary set at a barbershop in New Orleans. In the video, James and his business partners Rich Paul and Maverick Carter, the rapper 2 Chainz, Warriors star Draymond Green and former NBA star Charles Oakley banter about basketball, music and various other topics. When Gilbert's letter comes up, James angrily refers to it as "this fucking article ... where he completely bashed me and ... disrespected not only me as an individual but disrespected my name." He says that a number of family members opposed his return to Cleveland. "Some people were on the fence," James says. "My momma and my wife was like, 'Fuck that. I ain't with that.' My mom was definitely like, 'Fuck that. We ain't going back.'"

The timing of the video's release was just as provocative: It was published during the Finals, with the Cavs trailing the Warriors 3-0. And it was produced by Uninterrupted, the multimedia company founded by James and Carter. (Disclosure: Turner Sports, which owns Bleacher Report, is an investor in Uninterrupted.)

Though the timing was described by James' associates as incidental, cynics and longtime LeBronologists saw it as a warning shot—an indication that James was already laying the groundwork for another departure.

While many in the NBA expect James to leave Cleveland after this season, if the Cavaliers can convince him they are still a title contender, he may find remaining in Cleveland to be his best basketball option.
While many in the NBA expect James to leave Cleveland after this season, if the Cavaliers can convince him they are still a title contender, he may find remaining in Cleveland to be his best basketball option.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

"That was not an accident," one team executive told B/R.

"Nothing happens out of their camp by accident," another team executive said.

   

All the tea leaves matter. But those who know James best urge caution in reading them too literally.

What James wants most, now and for the foreseeable future, is to win—at the highest level. Championships still matter, regardless of what he might have said about having nothing left to prove. If Cleveland is a viable contender, there's a good chance James stays. If another team makes a better case, there's a good chance he goes.

"You just can't underestimate his competitive drive," said an NBA source who knows James well. "I just don't think he's going to be OK with kind of riding it out."

If titles are still the primary driver, James will seek out other stars to join the cause. He did so in 2010, when he left a lackluster Cavs team to join Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. He did so again in 2014, when he ditched the suddenly rickety Heat to join two younger co-stars in Cleveland: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

If you ask various sources around the league to rank LeBron's greatest priorities this summer, you'll get a variety of answers: Contending matters. Teammates matter. Organizational stability matters. So does playing for a coach he respects. An owner that he trusts. More than one team executive said James would want control and influence over how the team is run—or, at a minimum, to be consulted on major moves. One source insisted that James' top priority would be "setting up his post-playing career, and his family where they want to be"—meaning Los Angeles.

But others cautioned against that thinking. It's true that James has extensive business interests, and a home, in L.A. (So do business partners Paul and Carter.) He's been steering those businesses from afar for years. He doesn't actually need to live in L.A. to run them.

If we're stringing together breadcrumbs, we should acknowledge too that James has said, repeatedly, that he plans to finish his career in Cleveland—a stance he reiterated as recently as September. "It hasn't changed," he said.

This month, the Cavs strengthened their hand by acquiring four new players at the trade deadline, while jettisoning a half-dozen underperformers. But they still don't have a true co-star—an Irving, a Wade—to help carry the playmaking and scoring load. And James' history indicates that when a team fails to get him the right talent, he goes and finds it himself.

So the Cavaliers have four months to reassure James, or risk losing him forever. The rest of us can spend that time parsing every quote, quip and Instagram post for clues.

"It's all a parlor game," one esteemed LeBronologist said, "until he walks off the floor."

True. But it is a damn entertaining parlor game.

                   

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

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