CLEVELAND – Just moments after losing his third Finals in four years to the Golden State Warriors, and watching his overall Finals record fall to 3-6, LeBron James was answering questions about his future.
All season, his impending free agency has hovered over the Cavs – not that they didn’t have enough drama to deal with, starting with the trading of Kyrie Irving to Boston and ending with James walking to his final press conference of the season with a cast on his hand.
James is one of the smartest basketball minds in league history. He’s also well aware of how his words are parsed, and what he has said throughout these Finals could give us an inkling as to not just where he might go this summer, but what will go into his decision. Here are some takeaways from The Finals that might tell us about his next decision.
James is eager to play with high-basketball-IQ teammates
When the series was effectively over at 3-0, James spent the rest of his media sessions dropping hints about his team’s lack of basketball smarts.
“Not only do you have to have the talent,” James explained on an off day before Game 4, “you have to have the minds as well. I played with (Chris) Bosh at the Olympics. I knew (Dwyane) Wade for years. I knew how they thought the game, more than just playing the game … I linked up with them. We went to Miami, got some other great minds in Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, (who) is a great mind but also a competitor.”
“Listen, we’re all NBA players,” he continued. “Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?”
It wasn’t a direct shot at his teammates, or even J.R. Smith’s Game 1 gaffe, but James is well aware the Cavaliers’ roster was lacking in both talent and basketball IQ.
James was so great he carried his team all the way to The Finals, but against the Warriors, this roster will always come up short, and the Cavaliers might not have much wiggle room to upgrade over the summer.
If James’ hints at finding smarter basketball players are an indication of where he’ll go, you would think that playing in Houston with Chris Paul, a close friend and one of the most cerebral minds in the game, would make sense.
The Cavs might’ve lost their opportunity to keep LeBron the moment Dan Gilbert decided not to retain GM David Griffin
While all of the focus is on where James goes, it’s important to also remember the lengths to which he went in order to return to Cleveland back in 2014. From a basketball perspective, it was a smart move. James was leaving an aging Heat roster for a chance to compete for a championship with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But it also required him to set aside his differences with owner Dan Gilbert, with whom he had some icy public exchanges during The Finals.
If you want to trace the beginning of the end for James in Cleveland, it starts with Gilbert’s decision to not bring back general manager David Griffin last offseason. Griffin built a championship team in Cleveland. He learned how to manage both Irving and James, and his departure created instability in the organization at a time when they were dealing with Irving’s trade request and the handling of the final year of James’ contract.
Instead, Gilbert handed the keys to Koby Altman, who engineered the Irving trade and then had to make a midseason swerve and retool half of the roster.
A healthy Irving would’ve made a difference against the Warriors, and, more importantly, would’ve created a path for the Cavaliers to convince James that Cleveland is still his best option of competing for a championship.
James says his decision this summer won’t be the hardest of his career
“I feel like 2010 was the toughest,” James said after Game 4. In 2010, he left Cleveland for Miami, and didn’t particularly enjoy playing the villain with the Heat. This time around, it sounds like he feels no obligation to any franchise, including the Cavaliers, and is more focused on what will benefit his family.
“The one thing that I’ve always done is considered, obviously, my family,” he said. “Understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age. They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this four years ago. I’ve got a teenage boy, a pre-teen, and a little girl that wasn’t around as well.”
James has already delivered on his promise of a championship in his return, too. The scenario plays out much differently if the Cavs had lost all four of their Finals matchups with the Warriors. The 2016 championship makes it easier for him to exit Cleveland again.
Winning more championships is still his main focus
This might seem obvious, but for any other player at this stage in their career, it might be time to consider whether staying home and leaving a legacy in Cleveland is more important in the long term.
James will enter his 16th season next year. He’ll turn 34 in December. But he’s also coming off his best overall postseason ever, and perhaps the best in the history of the NBA. Despite the family considerations, he made clear Friday that winning championships is still very much the goal.
“When you have a goal and you’re able to accomplish that goal, it actually – for me, personally, it made me even more hungry to continue to try to win championships,” James said. “I still want to be in championship mode. I think I’ve shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.”
Being in championship mode in today’s NBA means figuring out a way to defeat the Warriors, who – assuming they re-sign Kevin Durant – will once again be favorites to win it all next season, and for the foreseeable future.
If James is obsessed with figuring out how to get past this Warriors team, and if he believes, rightfully, that his addition to any team would make it a viable threat to do so, then it opens up the possibilities of where his next NBA destination might be.
If James sounded more resigned to just finding a comfortable spot for himself and his family to finish out his basketball career, Cleveland would make perfect sense. But if James is in championship mode, it increases the chances of him being elsewhere next season exponentially.
Even if James says this isn’t the most difficult decision of his career, it will be
For someone who studies the game and is well aware of how legacies are made, James certainly knows his decision this summer will define the final stretch of his career.
If he goes to Houston, the onus will be on him to get the Rockets over the hump immediately, considering this year’s Houston team already pushed Golden State to the absolute brink. Anything short of winning the championship would be considered a step back for Houston if James joins them.
If he remains in Cleveland, he’ll be betting on Gilbert and the front office to make the necessary moves to upgrade the roster so it can maintain its perch atop the East, which isn’t a given considering the talent base in Boston and the potential in Philadelphia. He’ll also be taking the risk of making the wrong decision, and ending up not competing for a championship for the remainder of his career.
Leaving Cleveland for the first time in 2010 was his toughest decision to date in his basketball career. This one won’t be any easier.
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)