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Like many things in life, decisions are determined by motive. What are you here for? In the case of Lebron James, what he is playing for heading into year sixteen remains to be seen. We enter another summer of free agency with another stock of talent prepared to make their decisions that will reshape the NBA landscape, Lebron being the biggest cog in that plot. We will all speculate until James ultimately makes the decision. Until then, we can do just that.
Most opinions coming out of the NBA Finals fall on the side of him leaving, and for good reason. Lebron came back to a Cleveland organization that existed in obscurity since his 2010 departure to make amends for his departure. He ultimately delivered a title to the city and began to embark on the second half of his career. Now on the other side of his prime, the clock is ticking on the amount of titles that he can grab. James just finished his fifteenth season in which he clocked the most minutes of anyone in the history of the league at that age. As superhuman as Bron is, father time is undefeated. What that means for the rest of the league, the East, there is daylight. The Celtics are coming. Next season with the return of Gordon Heyward and Kyrie Irving, Boston is poised to rule the Eastern Conference for years to come pending a resigned contract by Kyrie Irving next summer.
Lebron shifted the power balance of the association once before and it appears he will do so once again. It all depends on what he is playing for. Certainly, as the greatest in the world his legacy as one of the all-time greats is cemented. First ballot Hall of Famer, greatest small forward of all time, and arguably the greatest of this generation will be attached to his stacked resume. So, what is he playing for at this point. His desire to be more than an athlete has been well documented at this point. We know about his involvement in various projects in entertainment. The recent success seen from Kobe Bryant in his life after basketball gives us all direction in just what an athlete can accomplish after his playing days are over. The question becomes, is Lebron full?
From a basketball perspective, he is still the best player in the sport heading into his sixteenth year with no indication of his prowess declining. This season was, in a lot of ways, his statement season. Playing all 82 games, leading his team in every statistical category, and a playoff run that will be talked about for years to come. To some surpassing Jordan is now a real possibility (which is bogus considering Michael changed the NBA and never lost in the Finals). He is the greatest small forward of all time. Even die-hards of Larry Bird, as great as he was, must admit this at this point. But, Lebron is on the other side of that hill. Miami Lebron is not coming back and the current one proven by the result of this Finals, even he needs help.
So where does he go from here? Again, you must go back to what you are playing for at this point in your career. From a pure basketball point of view, a few franchises make sense. From this perspective, it does not make sense to leave the Eastern Conference given the dynasty that is the Golden State Warriors and the fact that Lebron playing in June has become a staple in the narrative of the NBA. That leaves a few options. Philadelphia, a return to Miami, and a reunification with his old running mate in Kyrie Irving (I considered Toronto as a sleeper but who wants to see the greatest player in the world play in Canada, Drake must hold that L). Or of course he could stay in Cleveland. The latter seems the most likely should he stay in Cleveland. The house that he built with the pieces that he constructed would be the most probable of scenarios.
For speculation sake, let’s say he goes to Philadelphia. On paper, this team would stack up against any team in the league—including the Warriors given they could attack Golden State’s one weakness: a lack of interior talent. Joes Embiid looks like the best big in the NBA not names Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons barring a jump shot will be a dominant for force years to come. Surround that squad with shooters and you may have something. In reality, Lebron is a ball dominant guard who likes the offense to be run through him, which neutralizes Ben Simmons. Not to say he is not adaptable, but going into his sixteenth year, this is not likely.
A return to Miami would be the feel-good story that everyone would love. A return to the place that produced Championship Bron. A reunification with D-Wade and a solid young core to surround him. I would argue that he should have never left in the first place. He had already exhausted all opportunity in Cleveland. He honored his contract and never requested a trade, to public knowledge. He did not owe Cleveland anything. Problem, D-Wade is aging, and you are still not better than the Boston Celtics as currently constructed.
That leaves Boston. This would be the ultimate in the NBA arms race. Picture this, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Heyward, Lebron James, Al Horford. With Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, whichever Morris twin, and Marcus Smart (should the Celtics resign him) coming off the bench. Scary to say the least. Certainly, a team that is built to contend against the Warriors. This move would bring Lebron’s career full circle. The organization that kept Lebron from reaching the pinnacle time and time again and one that he ultimately beat to get over the hump would be his new home. Basketball purist would be rolling over in their pre-analytical graves. Then you have Toronto, but not really.
Despite what has been the ideal landing spot for Lebron given his relationship with Chris Paul and the extent to which the Rockets pushed the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, I do not see the Rockets as a legitimate landing spot for Bron. While he does make any team he joins better, they already have two ball dominant guards. And the elephant in the room, *whispers* Lebron does not shoot well from three. As hard as it is to believe that James does not have a weakness shooting is still very much a weakness for him, especially from the three and the free throw line.
That leaves two destinations. First the obvious, the Lakers. A young core in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma are built for success down the line. Lonzo Ball showed great progress this season and will only get better as he gains more confidence. Brandon Ingram looks to continue to improve as he puts on a lot more weight and Kyle Kuzma the sleeper in last year’s draft will be a solid piece moving forward. The key to this working would be the acquisition of another star to join Lebron out west. If Paul George decides to join, then Lakers may have something. Still not enough to contend with the Warriors but a justification for Lebron to start his early retirement plans. With all of that said they are still too young and have not seen meaningful minutes in winning time. I see this as unlikely.
The most enticing move that no one is talking about is *drumroll* the San Antonio Spurs. A free-flowing offense that would embrace Lebron’s at times (well most of the time) ball dominant nature to play along side Kawhi Leonard. It would also check off a box for Lebron in never having played for a great coach. This team with a healthy Kawhi Leonard had the Warriors down at halftime of game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last year by twenty. A first-class organization that has never seen a true five-star free agent join the ranks could be due for just that. Should he venture south and join Pop and Leonard things could get tricky for the Warriors next season.
The next month could, as in most free agency summers, determine the next five years of the NBA. Two summers ago, it was Kevin Durant who shifted the power balance and the scope of the league. This summer, Lebron James has that power. Where he ultimately decides to go will again be determined by his motives. What is he here for at this point in year sixteen? If he wants to be the GOAT in today’s NBA titles, it must come from this decision. That is the reality of the situation. As we all speculate, the final years of his career will be spent in either chasing titles or building his life after basketball. Where he lands this summer will ultimately answer that question for us.