The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 3 of the NBA Finals in heartbreaking fashion and now find themselves one game away from being swept and one step away from being reminded that, while they are still the class of the East, they are just not on the same level as these new-look Golden State Warriors.
What makes this lopsided NBA Finals even worse for Cleveland is that the Warriors are still going to be dominant for the foreseeable future and there is little reason to think the Cavs can do anything to improve enough to realistically contend for a title without key Warriors players getting hurt or suspended.
Now comes word from Kevin O’Conor of The Ringer that “rumblings across the league” suggest that LeBron James’ days in Cleveland are numbered and that when he can opt out of his contract after next season, he will take his talents to Los Angeles.
The feeling is that LeBron would either team up with Paul George and join the young core on the Lakers or form a Super Friends team with Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony on the Clippers.
While there is little substance to these rumblings now, and a lot can change in a year, there are actually several reasons to think that LeBron will leave the Cavs again, and it starts with his famous free agency letter.
When James announced his return to the Cavaliers in a letter published by Sports Illustrated during the summer of 2014, he had one telling line that in hindsight should be a bit worrisome (emphasis added):
“When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
It took only two seasons, but James has already fulfilled his mission for the city he affectionately refers to as “The Land.” This time there were no promises of “not two, not three, not four, not five…”
Mission already accomplished.
So, what’s next for King James? A simple ranking of what is important to LeBron and where his loyalties lie should make it fairly obvious that James’ future could easily reside in a different city with a different team.
Here is a look at how LeBron James might rank his priorities and his loyalties:
1. His legacy
This one is simple. He helped the Heat win a couple of titles. It wasn’t seven or eight, but it was two more than they had. He also helped the Cavaliers win their first title, and the city of Cleveland win its first major sports championship of any kind in over 50 years.
The only thing left for LeBron is to add to his own résumé. He is 32 and has three rings, the same number Michael Jordan had at the same age. It is easy to imagine that James has two or three more peak seasons left and maybe another three to four where he may need a little more help.
If he can add two or three more championships and another MVP — which would tie him with Jordan for the second-most MVPs all time — then James will solidify his spot as one of the two greatest players ever. And if James decides that there is a better chance of that happening elsewhere, then he will leave.
After himself, LeBron’s next biggest loyalty is clearly to Nike. Just before he won the 2016 championship, LeBron signed a lifetime deal with the shoe giant that is worth north of $1 billion. Depending on how much longer LeBron plays, he might make one-fourth of that in basketball salaries over the remainder of his career.
Also consider that when James signed with Nike, it was less about endorsing products and more about the merger of two businesses: Nike and LeBron Inc. Rather than use his agent to make this deal with Nike, James brought in his business adviser, Paul Wachter, whose background is in mergers and acquisitions, a source familiar with the negotiations told Business Insider.
In some ways, LeBron ceased being just a basketball player. That side still exists, but it is now just one department in a much bigger corporation. While LeBron still has his basketball legacy to worry about for the time being, his broader legacy, that which will continue long after he stops playing basketball, is directly tied to this relationship with Nike.
And if leaving the Cavs and going to the Lakers is better for that relationship, then James will leave.
Also, if there is any doubt about how important that side of LeBron is, then just watch the personal video he made in his shoe closet shortly after the deal was reached:
3. The city of Akron
You can probably make an argument that his family is the only thing that ranks ahead of Akron in terms of his loyalty. The city is also very high on his list in terms of priorities. That is clear in the way he talks about Akron and in his actions, such as setting up scholarships to help more than 1,000 Akron kids go to college.
But what is important here, in terms of basketball, is that James can remain loyal to Akron even if he leaves the Cavaliers to play elsewhere.
Akron and Cleveland are in northeast Ohio, but the distance between the two cities feels a lot farther than the 40 miles on the map. James may someday leave Cleveland again, but he will never leave Akron.
4. Other business interests
This is like a lighter version of LeBron’s relationship with Nike. He has reached the point in his career where his legacy off the court is starting to be as important as the legacy on it.
But again, like Akron, James can remain loyal to his business partners no matter what uniform he decides to wear. It also may be easier to manage those relationships in a city like Los Angeles, where LeBron already owns a home.
5. The city of Cleveland and Cavs fans
LeBron often affectionately refers to “The Land,” and there is a sense of loyalty there. But it has been clear for most of his career that James is more loyal to his hometown of Akron and northeast Ohio in general.
This is not to say that Cavs fans aren’t important to LeBron, but it is to say that he gave them a championship and now his priorities may reside elsewhere.
Remember: When LeBron signed with Nike, he made a spontaneous personal video in a shoe closet expressing how excited he was. When he decided to return to the Cavs, he published a carefully crafted letter in Sports Illustrated and made a commercial for, yep, Nike. Signing with Nike was personal. Returning to Cleveland felt more like business and branding.
6. NBA friends
Earlier this year, LeBron James told Bleacher Report that he hopes to some day form a super team with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul.
“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 … It would be pretty cool. I’ve definitely had thoughts about it.”
At this point, there is nothing to say that his dream of forming a Super Friends team with his NBA buddies is more of a priority than winning one or two more championships in Cleveland. But it is something that he has thought about and, if the situation presented itself, then he would probably at least think about doing it now.
7. The Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron certainly feels a sense of loyalty to his teammates. He probably also feels some loyalty to fans in Cleveland and to try to win at least one more championship for the city. But it is hard to imagine that James feels any loyalty to the Cavaliers, and that starts with owner, Dan Gilbert.
James said all the right things when he announced his return to the Cavaliers. But it was clear that the infamous letter from Gilbert and the burning of his jerseys by fans were still fresh in LeBron’s mind:
“The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for [my mom and my wife]. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.’ But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
James was willing to toss aside any grudges. But it is important to note that he set them aside for the sake of kids who look up to him, not for the Cavs or Gilbert. And even if there is no grudge, that doesn’t mean he has forgotten what happened when he took his talents to South Beach.
James went back to the Cavaliers to accomplish a mission. That goal has been fulfilled and, thanks to the way he was treated on the first time he walked out the door, all it means is that he is going to feel less guilty the next time he leaves.
Even LeBron may not know when it will happen, but it does feel inevitable, and getting blown out by the Warriors isn’t going to help.
After losing Game 3, LeBron made it clear that he expects the Warriors to be dominant for a while.
“There have been times throughout my career where I just played teams that were just in the midst of something can last for a long time,” LeBron told the media after Game 3. “And obviously [the Warriors are] built to be able to do that with the talent they have. So we’ll see what happens. Obviously you never know what’s going to happen, but as it stands now, they look pretty good, as far as the future.”