Another LeBron James decision is looming, and the Cavs are pretty maxed out

A day after the Cleveland Cavaliers lost a Game 3 heartbreaker to go down 3-0 to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, LeBron James remarked that his calling as a player is to battle teams in the midst of a dynasty. Now that the Warriors have secured their second championship in three years at the Cavs' expense, the sentiment rings even truer.

The Warriors are absolutely working on a dynasty. 

And, man, did LeBron James battle them.

In the end, there was just nothing more the Cavs could've done, and certainly nothing more James could've personally done, to truly threaten, let alone beat, the Warriors. The gap between Golden State and the rest of the league, Cleveland included, is bordering on unfair, and the simple truth is that the financially strapped Cavs don't have many options for closing it. Which leaves James, a free agent in 2018, with a decision to make. 


After Cleveland's Game 3 loss, The Ringer reported that James is quietly, even seriously, considering leaving Cleveland for a second time, this time for a Western Conference team. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical doubled down, reporting that Cleveland is not operating with an expectation that James will re-sign, but rather, with the understanding that his leaving for one of the L.A. teams, or even Miami again, is very much in play. 

Really, there is no other way the Cavs can look at it. They can't expect James, who isn't getting any younger, to stick around for the back end of his prime on a team that, barring an injury to Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, appears to have little chance of dethroning the Warriors. He has already delivered on his promise of bringing a title to Cleveland. The emotions of coming home have likely worn off. This is about basketball, first and foremost. The Cavs know they have to get better -- not down the road, but right now, before James' walk year. 

But again, how can they do that? 

What the Cavs are up against

With $125 million in salary commitments next season, and the salary cap projected at $101 million, Cleveland can't afford to bring in a max free agent like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (if the latter would even make sense from a fit standpoint, which it probably wouldn't). Such is life when you've sunk $40 million into Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert next season alone. 

Realistically, the only way the Cavs can improve their current roster is via trade, only they don't have many assets, if any at all, to offer. They gave away all their draft picks this year; in fact, the next time they could offer a draft pick in a deal isn't until 2021. In theory, they could try to put together a package including Kevin Love, but there are only two players believed to be available who would be enough of an upgrade from Love to represent meaningful progress in the chase for Golden State, and both would be a long shot. 

The first is Jimmy Butler, who, alongside Kyrie Irving, would give Cleveland arguably the best back court in basketball, in addition to being a versatile perimeter defender, a huge plus in today's game and particularly against the Warriors. A Love-for-Butler swap probably makes Cleveland better, if only marginally, but then, if the Cavs are better off with Butler, aren't the Bulls, too? Wouldn't they want a couple draft picks, or at least one valuable pick, to sweeten the deal for a franchise player they have control over for the next two years? 

Not only that, but there is a very plausible scenario in which the Celtics also come after Butler, and they have a lot more to offer in the way of, notably, the rights to the No. 1 pick (probably Markelle Fultz, who is considered by some to be a potential generational point guard), not to mention a host of other young assets. A package of Fultz (or whoever that pick ends up being), Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, for instance, would probably be more attractive to Chicago than an older package built around Love, who doesn't make the Bulls any better than they are with Butler. This deal probably has no chance of happening unless Butler starts forcing his way out midseason and they simply can't get anything else. 

LeBron James and the Cavs are headed for another crossroads.  USATSI

The other potential Cavs trade target, as long as we're considering blue-sky possibilities, would be Paul George, who would be a monster get for Cleveland as both a versatile defender and a third high-impact scorer, both of which the Cavs need to add if they intend on closing the gap on the Warriors. There is some urgency for the Pacers to find a deal, as they stand to lose him for nothing in 2018, and Love does make some sense for Indiana. He's still an All-Star level player, he's under contract through 2019 and he wouldn't represent a complete youth movement for a Pacers team that would then have a nice one-two interior punch in Love and Myles Turner. 

Should either of these deals actually end up on the table at any point this summer, or even before next year's trade deadline, the Cavs would likely pull the trigger. They would almost have to, even with the risk that George could walk right alongside James in 2018. The bottom line is they are not good enough to beat the Warriors right now. If the Celtics manage to sign Hayward and go on to maximize their own summer, there would be a real conversation to be had whether the Cavs are even the best team in the East anymore. If that's still the case a year from now, and James is suddenly free to leave, well, you know how that went for Cleveland last time. 

Would LeBron actually leave again?

The short answer to this is, who knows? But it certainly can't be ruled out. The reports are already trickling out, and even if they weren't, the writing is starting to show up on the wall. Again, the Cavs are not in a great position to get better, and James, like all players -- particularly ones whose careers will ultimately be judged by such black-and-white standards of excellence -- wants to win titles. At the same time, there is a human element to decisions like this. 

This is where it gets interesting, because while basketball factors are what most heavily influence these decisions in most cases,  people tend to forget about all the regular, human things that go through players' minds. They are people, too. When Kevin Durant came to play with the Warriors, it wasn't just about basketball. He said so himself. It was about a 27-year-old young man wanting to do something new with his life, live in a new place, meet new people, be excited again by a new opportunity and all the adventure and possibility that comes with it -- the same real-life things any other twenty-something with shiny new job offers would be seduced by. 

So here we have LeBron James, with maybe four or five more years to still be capable of single-handedly transforming a franchise. And that, even more than winning titles or some fictional chase of Michael Jordan's ghost, is what his true legacy might ultimately be -- the fact he could go down as this ultimate wealth spreader, single-handedly changing the fortunes of multiple franchises throughout his career. 

Think about it: Cleveland was nothing before him, and nothing after he left. Miami had become a mid-40s-win team before he arrived, and have missed the playoffs two of the three seasons since he left. LeBron could go to pretty much any team in the league right now and that team would immediately become a contender. To have that kind of power over a franchise, to know he could show up on a team like the Clippers and immediately reinvigorate an entire organization, to be a dreamweaver of sorts would intrigue anyone.  

Plus, we know James likes bringing stars together. Imagine if he goes to the Lakers in 2018. Is there any way George, already rumored to have his eyes set on returning home to L.A., doesn't follow him? And guess who else will be on the market in 2018? Yep, Russell Westbrook. Can you imagine those three together? And if you can, so can James. And it has to be just as exciting to him as it is to anyone else. 

We can talk all we want about the good ol' days when stars didn't want to join forces but rather battle each other to the bitter end, but those days are gone. If James went to the Lakers, stars would almost surely follow. The allure of resurrecting maybe the glitziest franchise in all of sports is not something anyone just shrugs off, particularly when you're weighing it against staying in Cleveland on a not-good-enough team that is probably maxed out.

This isn't to suggest staying in Cleveland would be a bad decision. As it stands, the Cavs are still closer than any other team to competing with the Warriors. If a deal for Butler or George actually happened, that would be even more true. And it is home for James, and if we're going to talk about human elements, there would certainly be real emotions involved in leaving a second time. But it wouldn't be the same this time around. 

The Cavs wouldn't suddenly fall off the map like they did the last time he left. Irving is clearly ready to be the main man. Love remains a legit No. 2 option who can carry an offense for stretches. Tristan Thompson is still a defensive anchor. For James, it would be very easy to rationalize leaving again, if he even felt it necessary to do so, by saying he brought Cleveland a title and also set it up for the future, and now he's going to move on to doing that for another franchise while he's still at the height of his powers. 

All of this, of course, is still a year away. But you can bet Cleveland, James and everyone else is preparing for this scenario as we speak. After the Cavs lost the Finals to the Warriors, James was asked, basically, how in the world anyone was going to beat this Golden State team for the foreseeable future. 

"I don't know," James said. "I need to sit down and figure this thing out."

Which is another way of saying a decision, one way or another, is coming. 

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