All week long, ever since LeBron James said at All-Star weekend that “the door’s not closed” on a possible return to the Cavaliers, Lakers fans have had to deal with reports that the noise that James will leave Los Angeles is as loud as its been since the last time he left Cleveland, and endless speculation about his future.
It turns out, however, that all the projections and guesses about whether or not James would actually go home again — or if there is another motivation for his transparent media manipulation attempts — may all be for naught, and not just because James won’t be a free agent until 2023 at the earliest.
No, it also turns out that the Cavaliers may not exactly be thrilled about the potential of another partnership with the most successful player in the history of their franchise as he gets closer to 40 years old. Veteran NBA insider Marc Stein reported in his latest Spotify Greenroom session that after he wrote that he didn’t think the Cavs were necessarily desperate to bring James back, he heard even more information that made him believe that the team isn’t currently clamoring for a third stint with The King (emphasis mine):
“As far as the Cleveland thing, look, I wrote it in my Monday piece that based on what I was hearing, if we could get the true, unfiltered thoughts of Dan Gilbert and Koby Altman — first of all, they can’t publicly say anything about LeBron publicly, he’s a Laker, a player on another team — but I wrote it Monday, and I believe even more strongly now based on subsequent conversations: The Cavs do not want to do a third LeBron dance. This franchise, this organization, this ownership, this front office, they’ve had to hear, for a zillion years, ‘you’ve never done anything without LeBron, LeBron is your only path to relevance and success, there hasn’t been a playoff berth without LeBron since ‘98.’
“They’ve built something really special in Cleveland. Something with long-term prospects in addition to how well they’re doing in the short term... If we could get their unfiltered thoughts, I really don’t think they want to remarry LeBron James and Klutch Sports, because when LeBron is with the team, he puts a lot of pressure on the front office. He puts a lot of pressure on ownership. He wants to call the shots, and I don’t think they want to live that life again. They lived it in two previous stints, and hey, it got them a championship.
“LeBron is the ultimate Cleveland sports hero, he led the Cavs to a comeback from 3-1, something no one had ever come back from... and it was the first championship of any kind for Cleveland in 32 years, you cannot take any of that away from him... But I think, truth be told, they would prefer not to welcome him back, and they want to see what they can build around this amazing young group that they have right now.
“Now, I will say, if it got to the point that LeBron was openly saying ‘I’m ready to come to Cleveland now,’ let’s just say he played out the last year of his Laker deal and said ‘I only want to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers,’ it would take serious, serious, serious stones for Dan Gilbert and Koby Altman to say ‘no, we are turning away the only guy who has delivered a championship in this city’s modern sports history.’ But do they want it? Do the Cavs want a third marriage with LeBron? Right now, I do not believe they do.”
That may sound insane from Cleveland’s perspective, but on a human level, it’s actually not that hard to understand. As Stein mentions, of course Gilbert and Altman want to stand on their own, to prove they don’t need LeBron James to have success. Everyone in the NBA is a competitor with an ego, and so it’s not difficult to buy that they’d like to prove their competency without LeBron. Plus, it must be noted that this is what the Cavs have to project right now, too. If they start leaking they’re ready to bring LeBron home, how is that going to make the players on their roster that they’d have to trade for him this summer — or have him replace after next season — feel?
That noted... color me skeptical that if James ultimately wanted to return — in a more limited organizational role that his advancing age makes palatable — that the Cavaliers would turn him away. As my colleague Jackson Flickinger wrote over at our Cavs blog, Fear the Sword, as nice as this unexpected run has been for the wine and gold, they ultimately still have a better chance to win the franchise’s second title by adding LeBron than they would without him. If it came down to it, they’re probably not turning that down:
So what does this matter for the Cavs?
Every move the Koby Altman and company make going forward will be viewed through the prism of how this affects the possibility of a LeBron return — at least by some — even if the front office was always prepared for this contingency. As a result, the Collin Sexton and Caris LeVert extension talks this offseason become more complicated than they already were. Trading future draft picks for win now players in the off-season or during the 22-23 season isn’t something you would do lightly knowing that James could be back in the fold.
Even though we’d like to pretend the Cavs don’t need him anymore, the most feasible way for the Cavs to win a championship within the next decade is still by adding LeBron James. The rumors around a possible return should only ramp up the closer James gets to a resolution in Los Angeles. Needless to say, the March 21 game in Cleveland got a whole lot more interesting.
None of this means that James is leaving, obviously. As I said on our most recent podcast, I still think the most likely outcome is everyone in this Lakers brain trust getting back on the same page this summer, and James eventually signing a two-year extension (with a player option on the second year) to time his free agency for his son Bronny’s likely NBA debut in 2024. Not just because of the Cavaliers’ reticence to bring him home and give him as much power as he had before, but also because his warning message has likely been fully delivered to the Lakers at this point, and he probably doesn’t want to uproot himself from his happy life in Los Angeles.
But that said, you don’t deliver a threat like James did this week without a willingness to act on it (and confidence the option would eventually be open). If it came to it, I’m fairly sure the Cavaliers would ultimately not turn James away, even if at this point it’s still more likely that he won’t be trying to go home anytime soon in the first place.