There are going to be a lot of stories today about LeBron James bringing Cleveland the championship he so often promised, about what a local hero he is to a city that hadn’t won much of anything for five decades, about how his legacy as a Cavalier is officially cemented and how no one will ever be able to question his commitment to winning or to Ohio for the rest of his career.
It’s easy to feel that way today because LeBron just won the championship. We saw him hug Kevin Love, we saw Dan Gilbert on the podium and Kyrie Irving make that game-winning three. Emotions run high in the heat of the moment. As overjoyed as he must be right now and as much as we all might think this is his happy ending, sooner or later that emotion is going to die down and he’s going to be faced with all of the same problems he had 24 hours ago. After all, he more or less said those exact words to his detractors four years ago.
Several months ago, I imagine sometime in the winter, after a loss in which Irving took too many shots and Love allowed too many to go in, James probably drove home in the snow and brooded in his living room (or lounge, or, dare I say, study) for a few hours. Maybe there was a deer’s head on the wall and a few logs roasting in the fireplace. For a split second he must’ve thought, “man, it’s not fun playing for Cleveland right now.” And then he probably thought, “I wish I could play with players who just get it.” And for just the briefest of moments, I have to imagine he realized something along the lines of “you know, I don’t have to stay in Cleveland once I win them a championship.”
So I’m going to present a very different type of story. What if this isn’t about LeBron coming home to win one for “the land.” What if this was about LeBron winning one so he could get out and never look back?
The social contract LeBron signed with Cleveland was very specific. He promised to revive the city and he did it. He regretted leaving the team in embarrassing fashion and with a bare cupboard and now he can do so with neither. It was never about winning “not five, not six, not seven,” it was, in his own words, about “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
Note the use of the word one.
It might be arbitrary, but by now we should’ve learned to take LeBron at his word. He spent his entire Miami tenure croning about how badly he wanted to come back to Cleveland at some point to win them a title. Nobody bought it until it happened. He didn’t mention Andrew Wiggins in his letter returning to Cleveland, and then Wiggins was traded.
So what has LeBron said? Well, in that same famous letter he stated that his goal was still “to win as many trophies as possible,” and it’s fair to wonder if Cleveland is the best place to do that. Remember, had Draymond Green played in Game 5, it’s possible that the Cavs lose the series then and there and we aren’t having this conversation. Cleveland still has to reconfigure their roster to fit better against Golden State next year, when a suspension is unlikely and the Warriors will likely be healthier.
It’s also fair to wonder if his best shot at grabbing a few more rings might come through something else he said. I’ll present this quote from Howard Beck’s Brotherhood story earlier this season without comment: “‘I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together,’ James said. ‘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.'”
He and Wade are both slated to be free agents next month, and both spent last year—and will likely spend most future years—playing with the flexibility of one-year contracts. Carmelo Anthony is eminently acquirable considering his age and the likely direction of the Knicks’ franchise. And Chris Paul is going to be a free agent one year from now.
We looked it over in April and deemed Houston the likeliest team to unite the super friends. But realistically, LeBron could hop right on his banana boat back down to South Beach this summer along with Wade and get Pat Riley to trade Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic for Anthony. From there it would be a simple matter of waiting for Paul next summer and a few pay cuts to make it all possible. The same could be said of the Lakers, and the Knicks already have Anthony and could easily create the cap space to fit James and Wade in.
These are all cities that athletes would much rather live in than Cleveland. These are all cities that can accommodate James’ other interests—be they film, business or who knows what else—far more than Cleveland can. And most importantly, these scenarios all involve players that LeBron actually seems like he wants to play with. James never subtweeted Dwyane Wade in Miami. He never called out Anthony’s defense during the Olympics.
And frankly, there’s something much more interesting for LeBron to do with his buddies somewhere else anyway. Robert Horry and John Salley are the only players ever to win championships with three different teams. If James feels that he can’t catch Michael Jordan’s total of six, then the next best thing might creating an entirely unique resume of his own to change the conversation.
Who knows, he might even just retire. Maybe he wants to try football for a year, he hasn’t exactly been shy about his interest in doing so in the past. His beloved Dallas Cowboys could use another pass-catcher. There’s an argument to be made that he’s done everything he can do in basketball anyway. Why not try something new? He may be too far away from Jordan to become the greatest basketball player ever (though I don’t subscribe to that theory), but winning a Super Bowl could make him the greatest athlete ever. That’s not a bad distinction.
None of this is to say that LeBron is headed elsewhere right now. But rather, the terms of LeBron’s unspoken deal with the city of Cleveland have been met. He is free to do as he pleases from this point on, and there are more than a few signs that suggest playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers isn’t on top of that list.