Despite being in the league for 15 years, Lebron James hasn’t been any more relevant in the NBA landscape. Looking past the Cleveland Cavaliers’ middling performance this year, Lebron is having his best passing, second-best rebounding, and third-best three-point shooting season. And while he looks increasingly disengaged from defense (understandably given the course of the regular season), Lebron appears to have still improved despite playing the third-least minutes of his career.
Lebron looks like he is still the NBA’s unstoppable force of pure basketball, and it’s completely natural for fans to speculate where he's taking his blockbuster talent next and which franchise will ultimately be rebuffed and publicly alienated.
What makes 2019 particularly interesting is, despite all the cap space controversies and the crop of free agents, a couple of classic organizations find themselves a stone’s throw away from instant relevancy, while one other has a shot at becoming historically great on paper. And then there’s Cleveland.
Bolting to another squad would likely set up another arms race for the Larry O’Brien trophy, and depending on which franchise he chooses. Lebron will create an instant favorite, then catalyze the growth of the other younger teams and make their identities more established.
If Lebron stays, it means he has finally embraced the status of statesman in his hometown and would likely pursue the development of younger, more dynamic players in preparation for the future. Suddenly, a painfully aging roster has become an incubator for interesting talent that can form a competent core for the coming years.
Jordan Clarkson is scoring less (12.5 ppg) than his time with the Lakers (14.5 ppg), but is shooting better: an eye-popping .471 FG% and .396 3PT% against a mediocre .448 and .324 for LA. He has benefitted from Lebron’s passing, and has relieved the latter of the scoring pressure that the Purple and Gold seem to have had in Lonzo Ball’s absence.
In the past 12 games, Larry Nance, Jr. has been the Robin to Lebron’s Batman, unleashing similar stats in extended minutes due to Tristan Thompson’s absence. Nance is averaging 12.3 PPG and 8.4 RPG in 25 minutes an outing, and will only improve once more minutes are carved for him. Much like Clarkson, he is benefitting from Lebron’s gravity—each pick and roll seems to be another rim-rattling dunk for the Cleveland faithful to see.
But has the team really gotten better? In the last 12 games since the blockbuster trade, the Cavs are .500 overall and a dismal 2-4 at home. They were 34-22 pre-All Star and a respectable 20-7 at home. Their offensive numbers are relatively unchanged, but they seem to be shooting the long ball significantly worse after their hot start—.345 after the break versus .370 before that. Defense hasn’t improved much, and isn’t likely to any time soon even if Kevin Love returns.
Is Lebron patient enough to watch a team develop, or would he rather spend his remaining prime years gunning for another championship? While we can never discount hometown loyalty, we can also never dismiss the lingering effects of The Decision—therefore the prospect of another mass jersey-burning affair across Ohio might be more likely than you’d think.
Chances of keeping Lebron: 20%; cloudy with a chance of tears
If not for anything else, Sixers fans should feel excited by the prospect of starting players above 6’8”—Dario Saric and Robert Covington would flank Ben Simmons and Lebron James as primary playmakers and scorers, while the 7’2” phenom Joel Embiid patrols the paint. Philadelphia would be the ultimate mismatch, and depending on whether they manage to keep J.J. Redick or the oft-maligned Markelle Fultz, could instantly contend for the title while staying in a less rabid Eastern Conference.
There will be spacing issues, though. Simmons and Fultz (still) can’t shoot, and Redick, Saric, and backup guard TJ McConnell are the only players shooting at the .400 mark from three; switching them in would likely lead to the Sixers losing positional advantage over opponents, and leaving them in will take a toll on their made threes, which is already 18th in the league.
But Philadelphia may be on to something new here: the dream of parading the first position-less team ever built for the pros, one that has playmaking forwards equipped to defend all five positions with length and high-IQ playmaking.
Simmons averages almost 8 assists and 8 rebounds per game, and is currently doing his very best LeBron impersonation, minus the shooting. He will no doubt find a way to play with his superior version on the court.
Defense will still be most likely the Sixers’ key to success here. Right now they’re second in opponent FG% and first in rebounds. If Lebron decides to half-ass his defense the way he did in the first half of the season, he may actually hurt Philadelphia more. Also, quick and shifty guards can cause a problem with their ultra-big lineups, and the Sixers should still leverage on their bench presence to keep the momentum.
Fire up your NBA 2K rosters, folks. This one is definitely worth salivating over.
Chances of landing Lebron: 10%; about the same percentage as Markelle Fultz’s long range bombs
The Lakers present the most interesting conundrum in the Lebron Sweepstakes. Since the trade for IT, the Lakeshow have played much better, and are finding gold in their previously patchwork roster.
In the last 12 games, LA is third in the league in pace and points, fourth in FG% and 3 PT%, and fifth in True-Shooting percentage. Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball, Isaiah Thomas, and Brandon Ingram are doing their best impression of the Showtime Lakers, and it’s beginning to show results in the win column.
Lonzo’s play hasn’t particularly changed since his return after the All-Star break, but the percentage differences have been staggering—from the “historically bad” shooting numbers to a very serviceable .420 FG% and .411 3 PT% in the past eight games. His aggressiveness and willingness to share the ball has enabled a young, hungry offense to dive for the hoop on every possession without fear of flubbing the ball.
Julius Randle is also suddenly playing for his life. The oft-criticized fourth-year player has embraced his small-ball persona and is tearing up opponents (21.3 PPG and 9.2 RPG). Once thought to be nothing more than a stop-gap forward for an ambitious Laker team loaded with high picks, Randle is peaking at exactly the right time—when teams have finally embraced the value of a mobile, undersized big man. Resembling a more fleet-footed cross between Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap, Randle is anchoring a bunch of young shooters and adding a dose of nasty to a team that was thought to be scared of shooting.
Mix in tantalizing prospects Ingram, Ball, and everyone’s best friend Kyle Kuzma, and suddenly LA seem one or two key pieces away from being significant players in the NBA market.
The good news for LeBron is that half of the Lakers’ $107 million salary applies to only three people: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez—and, gasp, the ghastly remains of Luol Deng. Should LA send off Channing Frye, they can easily free up $47 million next season, but will likely need to get creative with Deng’s remaining three years to gain any chance of landing another marquee free agent, presumably Paul George.
But the magical, perhaps dynastical pairing of Lebron, George, Kuzma, Ball, Ingram, and Randle seems more dependent on the Lakers pulling the trigger than LeBron doing so. Will LA manage to keep their roster intact with George and James in the fold? And due to the massive cap hold dedicated to the two marquee names, how long can Magic Johnson keep this crew together without at least one young player asking for a larger part of the pie?
Regardless, the Purple and Gold have a lot to look forward to—whether they decide to leverage on the future or rent for the present, the Lakeshow seems destined for a primetime revival.
Chances of landing Lebron: 25%; much higher than the chances of LaMelo and LiAngelo have landing in Laketown
Without gutting this already fearsome Rockets team just to slot in LeBron, they will have to retain some key faces in the roster, obviously James Harden, Chris Paul, and other equally important role players in Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. That would leave a starting five lineup with positional versatility in Gordon moving to the bench. But the scorched earth method would see other key cogs Nene, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and PJ Tucker leave the fold and replaced by minimum salary players, leaving the top extremely heavy.
But what a top five that would be. The greatest passing point guard, the greatest isolation scorer, and the greatest player in the NBA, all in one team. That would make the Miami Heat Big Three look like a pickup team. Paul has proven that he doesn’t have to hog the ball to contribute positively, and LeBron should fare just as well. If the latter commits to defense, Houston may just get an all-time team with no apparent defensive deficiencies, other than the occasional made-for-Shaqtin' Harden blunder.
But having all three in the lineup would require some front-office magic from Daryl Morey’s team. The easier method would require either Gordon or Capela to walk, while the harder one would be convincing Chris Paul to opt in at a lower salary point so that he and LeBron meet halfway on their financial requirements.
The prospect of Mike D’Antoni commandeering three of the league’s best scorers remains tantalizing (and for some, nauseating), but for the Rockets offense to survive they will need to fill the roster with capable shooters—essentially the bread and butter of their offense since Harden came along.
No doubt Ariza (.377 3 PT%), Tucker (.370), and Anderson (.383), and Gerald Green (.371) provided enough firepower from deep to draw defenses away from Harden and Paul for a league-leading 15.4 threes a game. Today’s NBA is a shooter’s market, and finding a consistent, reliable scorer at the cheap will not be easy, even with Morey’s managerial magic.
Historically, Houston has always found diamonds in the rough (Patrick Beverley, Tarik Black, Montrezl Harrell, Chandler Parsons, and Terrence Jones), but again, finding a precise gunner isn’t as easy. Perhaps a reunion with Chandler Parsons in 2019 would help?
A lot will be riding on their success this season—if they do manage to beat Golden State and Cleveland for the title in June, perhaps there will be less pressure to blow up the current roster; but if Paul and Harden suffer the same postseason mishaps they have always had throughout their careers, then perhaps that added sense of desperation would be enough to form the superteam to end all superteams.
Chances of landing Lebron: 30%; same as the chance of you recovering from a Harden crossover