LeBron James’ pending free agency has one purpose: stopping the Golden State Warriors.
The Los Angeles Clippers kicked off the 2018 Trade Deadline frenzy by trading forward Blake Griffin, a fan favorite and one of the best players in franchise history. After news of the trade broke, there were rumblings that this move was only the beginning, as the Clippers are reportedly looking to trade DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams.
To the casual observer, these moves represent a team acknowledging the end of Lob City and preparing for a rebuild. The sexier conspiracy theory is that by dealing Griffin, the Clippers are entering the LeBron James sweepstakes this summer.
James’ pending free agency is an evergreen topic in NBA circles. Insiders and fans alike are constantly looking for clues that would tip James’ hand as to his next destination. Everywhere from Philadelphia to Houston and, of course, Los Angeles have been named.
It’s the James Free Agent Frenzy, like it was in 2010 and 2014. But unlike previous summers, the focus is not James. It’s the Warriors.
In 2010, basketball fans were captivated as they waited for James to decide his basketball future. In an already deep free agent class, the most prized free agent in league history was set to shift the balance of power with one decision; The Decision.
In choosing to play with his friends in South Beach, James ushered in the modern era of the Super Team in a move that reverberates through the league to this day.
Owners, led by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, responded to Miami’s talented team by imposing a set of measures that would discourage other teams from doing the same. (Ironically, one of the results of these measures was the effective break-up of a talented Oklahoma City Thunder team, which as a homegrown roster, was in many ways the antithesis of the “Heatles”).
In 2014, it was all about The Homecoming. James left the comforts of Miami to win a title with his hometown Cavaliers, a team that had been in shambles since his departure, save for the lone bright spot in guard Kyrie Irving.
The narrative wrote itself. There was James, casting aside the animosity towards Gilbert to be the bigger person and bring Cleveland its first professional championship in two generations. The plan worked in James’ second season back in Ohio.
James’ return to the Cavs was also an exercise in player empowerment as Gilbert went further into the luxury tax to construct a roster that would remain competitive during James’ second tenure in Cleveland. James held management to its word by signing several two-year deals with opt-outs after year one, essentially executing a series of one-year contracts.
But while James was charting his course towards basketball immortality in The Land, something was happening in The Town.
The Golden State Warriors emerged as a basketball juggernaut with a revolutionary style of play. Last season they added former MVP Kevin Durant and have gone from great to virtually unstoppable. Unlike other sports, the NBA arguably crowns the truest champion in sports.
There are no Kirk Gibson home runs or David Tyree catches in the NBA Finals. To borrow a phrase, in the NBA, to be the man (woo!) you gotta beat the man (woo!). The Warriors are the man and there is no team that can beat them four times in a series.
The only player who can pull it off is James. For starters, we have seen him do it before. Say what you will about Draymond Green’s suspension in the 2016 NBA Finals and its ramifications, but James was masterful in that series.
It is why analysts don’t really believe in other contenders. Because as great as teams like the Raptors, Celtics and Rockets have been, they don’t have James, who is still the best basketball player in the world. It is why those same analysts will not write-off the Cavaliers when every objective measure says they should. Because as bad and dysfunctional as Cleveland has been, they have James, who is still the best basketball player in the world.
And that is why this free agent summer is different for James. There are no old school versus new school debates about teaming up with friends. There are no legacy questions that need to be answered about James’ place in basketball history.
The only question that remains, (and matters quite frankly) is can James join a team that can defeat the Warriors?