Future of LeBron James, Cavaliers could hinge on Game 3

NBA.com Global on Jun 06, 2018 02:46 PM
Future of LeBron James, Cavaliers could hinge on Game 3
FILE - CLEVELAND,OH - MAY 19: (EDITORS NOTE: This image has been converted to black and white.) LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Boston Celtics during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 19, 2018 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers are down 0-2 in the NBA Finals except there’s much more at stake at Quicken Loans Arena for the next two games. They’re not just trying to stay in this series. They’re trying to convince LeBron James to stay in Cleveland.

Yes, the elephant in the room gets larger and heavier and more uncomfortable with every Warriors victory. The defending champions’ advantage in the Finals is clear, like a Steph Curry green light to shoot. Golden State is bringing four All-Stars in their prime while the Cavs are bringing … exactly what, beyond LeBron?

At this rate, will LeBron ever have the satisfaction of refusing a trip to Donald Trump’s White House?

Here in his middle-aged years, LeBron is 33 and perhaps never better, as evident by the last few months; LeBron has had more epic games in that span than many players will enjoy in a lifetime. Still, he’s on an island with the Cavs, who are outmatched in this series in every other way. All you need to know: He scored 51 points in the opener and still lost.

“We look forward to the challenge, [but] it’s a very tall task,” he admitted. “A very tough challenge, going against this team. But we have an opportunity to seize the opportunity so I look forward to that.”

His ties to Northern Ohio are understandable: Born and raised and worshipped in Akron; applauded, reviled and then forgiven in Cleveland. On the court and off, LeBron is a civic treasure, the rebuttal whenever the locals endure cruel jokes and put-downs about Cleveland from anyone outside the 216.

Therefore, if he’s too attached to leave a second time, then all is good.

But if he wants to win more championships and make his legacy bullet-proof before he’s done, those chances will be greater in other places. And if his mind isn’t made up by now, this series could nudge him in a direction that Cavs fans would rather not see.

If he loses, he’ll have twice as many championships lost than championships won. In the big picture, no big deal; the number of players with nine trips to the NBA Finals can fit comfortably in a Fiat. Again, though: Why would anyone on his level want to do anything else in their mid-30s but win titles?

Only LeBron knows the priorities that will define his decision when free agency hits July 1, and he’s not revealing anything before the season’s officially over. For clues, you can follow the trail:

* He’s riding with role players in Cleveland, for now and possibly the near future. The next most accomplished player on the Cavs, Kevin Love, has possibly peaked. Solid when healthy, Love is at best on the All-Star bubble and his numbers are starting to flatline, never a good sign when approaching your 30s.

After that, there’s Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, etc. The Cavs will get an infusion of youth with the ninth overall pick in the June draft, yet rookies often need a few years to mature and LeBron’s not getting younger; how much time can he wait on that?

Also, the Cavs are deep in the luxury tax, partly because LeBron campaigned for Thompson and Smith, who are represented by his agency, to receive rich contract extensions. So it’ll be tricky, though not impossible, to add proven help this summer.

* The number of contenders is starting to swell. Yes, the competition only gets tougher from here. There are developing threats in Philadelphia and Boston in the East and perhaps Utah and New Orleans in the West. Meanwhile, the Warriors and Rockets, assuming they remain intact for next season, are still in win-now mode.

* The Michael Jordan factor is real. Jordan went 6-0 in championships. If LeBron cares about barbershop talk and greatest-ever debates, then the only way he can diffuse his Finals record is by improving it before he retires. Assuming he only plays four more years, at which point he’ll be 37, time is precious.

To summarize, staying in Cleveland makes sense for family and community reasons. Leaving makes the most sense for championship and possibly legacy reasons.

Almost any team he signs with will instantly move toward the front of the line. He can stay in the East, where the competition is lighter, where the Sixers have Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and cap room. Or go West and work for Magic Johnson and possibly play alongside Paul George with the Lakers. Of course, the Rockets could move mountains to make it work with James Harden and Chris Paul.

If it’s not about money and all about championships, then the Warriors will make room and if that happens the basketball world will stop spinning.

Essentially, it must get exhausting doing all of the heavy lifting and stare across the floor at Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Keep in mind, as remarkable as LeBron is at 33, Father Time will wax him, too.

Those are examinations that’ll take place in a few weeks. In the meantime, he and the Cavs will lean on the comforts of home, where they’re 8-1 in the postseason and have used their arena to rescue them against the Pacers (Game 7) and Celtics (Game 6), neither of whom are the Warriors.

“This is a completely different team than what we’ve faced in this situation,” cautioned Smith, “so we’ve got to bring it.”

Everything would change for the better for Cleveland if LeBron’s help can cause damage. The entire supporting cast was inconsistent in the first two games and aside from a few brief bursts from Love, scoring’s been a problem. LeBron is averaging 34.6 points; next is Love at 14.7, and he’s only shooting 39 percent. Smith is at 34 percent, while the Warriors have locked up Korver, who has made only one three-pointer this series.

“LeBron’s doing a great job of putting us on his back and leading us,” said George Hill. “So we’ve got to feed off that. We’ve got to knock down shots for him and make easy opportunities so we can give him a rest. I think he’s playing a lot of minutes and got the ball in his hands a lot. We need to take the ball a little bit so he can sit down and catch a break.”

The Cavs were down 0-2 to the Celtics, came home, found a rhythm and shook up the rest of the East finals. In the past the Warriors lost a pair of Game 3s here before winning last year only because Durant’s late three-pointer was the biggest shot of his life. The Cavs promise to take a more physical approach. Plus, LeBron has had three days’ rest. That’s all good and in his favor.

That doesn’t drastically change LeBron’s odds of making a stunning rally against a dominant Warriors team, or reloading in the offseason in Cleveland and getting the upgrades he so obviously needs.

There’s probably not much else LeBron can do here in the NBA Finals that he hasn’t done already. But this summer, he can do plenty.

If the Cavs come up empty these next two games and get swept out the door, their franchise foundation would have every reason to follow before it closes. And so, the goal for the Cavs is to make it hard for the Warriors in this series and easy for LeBron in July.

Is that two much to ask?

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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