Simply making the Finals was an accomplishment, but James clearly needed more help to have any chance against the Golden State Warriors. Even the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics pushed the once-super Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games.
James finished the postseason first among all players in minutes per game (41.9) and scoring (34.0 points per game) and was third in assists (9.0 per game). None of his teammates finished in the top 35 in any of these categories.
Potentially heading into free agency, James has a number of off-court reasons to stay with the Cavaliers. Keeping his kids in the same school district. His house in suburban Akron. The brand-new I PROMISE School his foundation is opening in July.
Despite those reasons, James shouldn't return to this Cavs team as currently constructed if he's indeed still in "championship mode." Not with the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers' ascensions to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Simply put, the Cavaliers need to form a new superteam.
Step 1: Fill the Kyrie Role
The biggest reason for Cleveland's step back this season was a simple one: It lost a 25.2-points-per-game scorer and All-Star point guard in Kyrie Irving and never replaced him.
Since Irving's not coming back anytime soon, the Cavs need someone who can play a similar role.
It's tough to determine who may or may not be available on the trade market before the draft and free agency. At this time last year, Irving was a member of the Cavaliers and had not requested to be dealt.
Cleveland should already be sending out feelers to the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets on the availability of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Kemba Walker. Neither Lillard nor McCollum have been dipped into trade rumors, but their squad was swept in the first round after it grabbed the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and is staring down a potential luxury tax roster, which could lead to some shakeups.
For now, though, the Cavaliers should go hard after Walker.
A two-time All-Star, Walker is 28 and coming off a season in which he averaged 22.1 points and 5.6 assists in 34.2 minutes per game. The Hornets were 10.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
"I'm not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities," Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer in January. The Cavs tried to put a deal together for Walker at the trade deadline, but the Hornets declined, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com.
Walker himself is just over 12 months away from becoming an unrestricted free agent, so his trade value is only decreasing. Charlotte is stuck in salary cap hell with some awful deals and didn't even make the East playoffs.
Despite Jordan's stance that he would want an All-Star in return for Walker, he should settle for a top-10 pick in this year's draft and could attach one of the team's many bloated contracts to the swap.
The Deal: Walker and Marvin Williams to Cleveland for George Hill and No. 8 overall pick.
Step 2: Get Paul George to Cleveland, Part II
Apparently James and Paul George was almost a thing.
Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com reported in December that "James aggressively recruited George behind the scenes last summer, selling him on a future together in Cleveland, but the Cavs deal mysteriously fell apart before George was dealt to Oklahoma City."
"Me and PG have a very close friendship. Actually, it was funny because me and PG was supposed to be in Cleveland on draft night," Anthony said during a SiriusXM interview last year, per Ian Begley of ESPN.com. "We were communicating about that. The deal was actually done, and it got called off on draft night, so me and PG stayed connected throughout the course of the season."
Getting George to Cleveland would be more difficult this time around, given he's likely to opt out of his $20.7 million player option and receive a huge raise as an unrestricted free agent.
But it comes down to the power of James.
With one summer of recruiting already completed, James would have to convince George that staying in the East offers both of them the best chance for a title. Even if James and George were to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, there would be a young, inexperienced supporting cast around them. They would also run the risk of playing both the Warriors and Houston Rockets before the Finals.
James should sell George on the idea of forcing the Thunder into a trade. If George opts out of his deal, Oklahoma City would lose him for nothing. That's tough for a front office to overcome—even one as talented as that of Sam Presti and Co.
Instead, with some recruitment by James, George and the Thunder can agree to a deal in which George opts in (much like Chris Paul did last year) and is traded to the Cavs. Oklahoma City carries little leverage and would have to choose between collecting some role players to spot around Russell Westbrook and getting nothing in return.
Of course, this relies on the communication between James and George. The groundwork was put in place a year ago; now it's time for James to finish the job.
The Deal: George to Cleveland for Kyle Korver and Jordan Clarkson.
Step 3: Take a Gamble on Talent
This is where the Cavaliers need to get creative.
Think JR Smith circa 2015. The Cavs wanted Iman Shumpert from the Knicks, to which the Knicks agreed only if Cleveland took Smith as well. Some teams would have nixed such a deal, afraid to take on Smith because of his on- and off-court behaviors. Consulting with James, and his leadership and locker room presence, convinced the Cavaliers that Smith's talent was worth betting on.
Cleveland should be eyeing similar moves now involving talented players whose values have dropped in bad situations, bad contracts or just those who need a change of scenery.
Enter Hassan Whiteside. The 29-year-old center averaged 17.0 points, an NBA-best 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in 2016-17 but slumped to 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 rejections per contest in 2017-18. He averaged just 15.4 minutes in the Miami Heat's first-round loss to the 76ers and carried an on-off rating of minus-9.2.
Whiteside is owed $25.4 million in 2018-19 and holds a player option for $27.1 million in 2019-2020. Miami would likely be thrilled to get off that money and hand the keys to 2017 first-round pick Bam Adebayo.
A smaller contract plus a young player or draft pick may be enough to get Whiteside from the Heat. The Cavs could roll the dice, hoping James and the rest of a restocked team would draw the best out of the NBA's former rebounding and shot-blocking leader.
It's a strategy that's worked before with James and is worth betting on again.
The Deal: Whiteside to Cleveland for Tristan Thompson and Cedi Osman.
James can end his run with just one All-Star by his side. In this scenario, the Cavaliers get to keep Kevin Love, who would be an excellent fit between James and Whiteside in the frontcourt.
Cleveland wouldn't get Irving back, but Walker is a fine consolation prize who can fill his scoring void and provide the offensive spark that Hill couldn't.
The grand prize is George and would only be available thanks to James' recruiting and the Thunder's lack of leverage. The Cavaliers would also retain Smith, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. while adding Williams to help build the bench.
Their new starting lineup would be as follows:
- PG: Kemba Walker
- SG: Paul George
- SF: LeBron James
- PF: Kevin Love
- C: Hassan Whiteside
The James era in Cleveland doesn't need to end just yet. The Cavaliers are capable of putting a championship-caliber team around him—provided James does his share of maneuvering as well.