The Summer of James: How LeBron Can Once Again Change the NBA As We Know It
A solid piece from Grantland's Zach Lowe, with the kind of thesis that makes my title above almost plagiarism-ific if it wasn't a point many already knew or felt.
"The trajectory of an entire sports league can turn on random things," Lowe begins, before tidily recapping this season's NBA Finals, where the Miami Heat were slapped back to silver by the San Antonio Spurs in five games.
"... the Spurs broke Miami. They demoralized the Heat, and Dwyane Wade's second straight depressing Finals performance hammered home the notion that Miami must prepare as if he will end every season that way. This Heat team is in decline. If all three stars opt in for next season, or just return at similar salaries, Miami will have limited means to improve the supporting cast."
What Lowe is getting at – although, surprisingly, he never directly says it – is that LeBron James' next decision could re-shape the National Basketball Association. At least, its balance of power.
His last decision did. In 2010, when LBJ chose Miami and the Axis of Evil – with Dwyane Wade and fellow import Chris Bosh – over the Cleveland Cavaliers, he destroyed the short-term future of Ohio's only basketball franchise, and at times calling them a 'basketball franchise' has been a compliment.
He also ensured Miami's future. Well, for four years or so, it turns out.
And somehow, in his brief stop south of the Mason Dixon Line, James also saved the NBA – without him and his Heat in four straight Finals, the West would have easily won every one of those championships, and the motivation for anyone two time zones away from Kobe Bryant to even try to win would be zilch right now.
James's only Finals defeats came in his first year in Miami, against a solidly prepared Dallas Mavericks team, and in what could be his final year in Miami, against a vastly superior and impressively cohesive San Antonio Spurs team. In between, James and his anchors did what they could with the powers they still had, running over Oklahoma City in five (in 2012) and then using their individual skill to bounce San Antonio in seven, last year.
But now, the league's landscape has changed around James.
If he goes to Chicago, he'll turn the Bulls into the East's new beasts. And that could be his only option.
Out West, he's got Houston and Phoenix – by Lowe's estimation – as playable suitors, and you can never write the L.A. Lakers out of a challenge like this... imagine, the chance for Showtime city to sign LeBron James. THE KING.
But again, the East could be his only option. Should be his only option.
"And not to restate the obvious, but the East-West split is huge," writes Lowe. "If your no. 1 goal is to win a title, you should absolutely get yourself into the NBA's minor league. Critics want to discredit the Heat's "runner-up" status by pointing out they merely had to prance through the East, and there's some validity to that.
"But the Big Three didn't choose Miami by accident."
If James picks any of the West's top eight, then he's only done exactly that – he's picked any of the West's top eight.
With Chicago, even the New York Knicks (far-fetched maybe, but it is MSG) and most certainly the Miami Heat again, James is buying himself an almost-ticket to the Finals every year. He'll have to earn his way there, sure, but why would you dare go up against San Antonio (now into the 16th year of their never-ending dynasty) or L.A. or L.A. or Oklahoma City or Golden State or Phoenix or Portland or Houston – or even Memphis – when you could go up against, what, Chicago, Indiana, or Toronto?
And what if Kyle Lowry really does want to play in Miami, and why wouldn't he?
Wouldn't LeBron be crazy to leave if the Heat can get anyone – literally anyone – else in to help him?
If today's report is correct, LeBron James will opt out of the final two years of his contract with Miami, and will become a free agent.
But if today's report is correct, it doesn't mean much, other than it means a lot for the people paid to follow this sort of the thing – the soap opera that every summer in the NBA has become, with high-profile athletes changing lanes at the last minute, where the stuff off the court is the closest thing North American athletics has to European soccer, where the players and their agents – not the clubs that employ them – have all the power and all the say.
Don't get me wrong... I'm not upset about that.
It's exciting and it's fun. And the NBA is fun. It has to be. If the NBA isn't fun, it would be still be that weird half-a-sport it was a century ago, where dudes in high shorts lobbed bouncy balls toward broken peach baskets. The NBA's counter-cultural appeal changed this sport for the better a long time ago, and its casual approach to nearly everything – from Kevin Durant's backpack to the fact that travelling hasn't been a real rule for at least a decade – is the reason it's loved by so many.
And I'd love to see LeBron break Miami's heart. He doesn't owe them anything anyway. He didn't have to go there in 2010, but he did and they've received two championships and 14 series victories in the past 48 months.
I'd love to see the King setup shop somewhere else. In fact, I'd like to see him do it every year.
But I also have this crazy feeling that LeBron isn't as crazy as I am.
And I'm depressed as I continue writing, because I just know he's going to pick Miami.