After winning his third NBA championship, LeBron James admitted something he had long been reluctant to acknowledge: He is actively aiming to supplant Michael Jordan as the greatest player in league history.
"My motivation is this ghost I'm chasing," James told campers at the Nike Skills Academy in 2016, according to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated. "The ghost played in Chicago."
To accomplish that goal, James must leave the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. Otherwise, he'll be giving up his best opportunity to win more titles and eventually overtake Jordan as the greatest of all time.
While James and the Cavaliers roared back in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday to slice the Boston Celtics' series lead to 2-1, they are only delaying the inevitable. Whether their comeback effort falls short against Boston or they get smashed in the NBA Finals by the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, the fundamental flaws of this Cavaliers team will ultimately be its demise.
During the regular season, Cleveland owned the NBA's second-worst defence, ahead of only the bottom-dwelling Phoenix Suns. Opponents shot 47.4% against the Cavaliers, which was the NBA's third-highest mark. Without a top-tier rim protector to deter shot attempts close to the basket, Cleveland gave up the fourth-highest field-goal percentage on shots within six feet of the hoop.
The Cavaliers papered over those defensive deficiencies with one of the league's most potent offences, not to mention frequent heroics from James. Yet while that powered them through the first two rounds of the playoffs, having such an easily exploitable weakness is fatal at this stage of the NBA season. And barring a miracle Hail Mary, Cleveland has no way to meaningfully fix its glaring holes this summer.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Cavaliers have nearly $102.4 million in guaranteed salaries on their books. If James unexpectedly picks up his $35.6 million player option or re-signs in Cleveland, that would send the team soaring past the league's projected $123 million luxury tax threshold.
Bloated salaries for George Hill ($19 million), Tristan Thompson ($17.5 million), J.R. Smith ($14.7 million) and Jordan Clarkson ($12.5 million) limit the Cavaliers' flexibility this summer, particularly if team owner Dan Gilbert is not willing to shell out exorbitant luxury-tax payments moving forward.
If James stays, the Cavaliers will only have the taxpayer mid-level exception worth around $5.3 million to spend on free agents, which will not be enough to lure a top-tier player. Unless they offload some of their horrendous contracts, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they drastically upgrade their roster.
Entering Tuesday's NBA draft lottery, the Cavaliers' best hope was to jump into the top three courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected first-round pick. Had they done so, they might have had the requisite ammunition to trade for a difference-maker and convince James to stay in Cleveland.
Instead, the Cavs slotted in at No. 8, which is not likely to net to land a premium player via the trade market.
Cleveland could package that eighth overall pick with Kevin Love to find a second star, but that would not help improve James' supporting cast. The Cavaliers also will not know James' free-agent intentions by the time of the draft, so they will be flying blind with regard to whether they should trade that pick or keep it.
Unless Cleveland finds the second coming of Donovan Mitchell or Jayson Tatum at No. 8, whichever prospect it selects will not be poised to help James win a ring as early as next season. And considering the Cavaliers' horrendous salary-cap situation, they would otherwise have to largely rely upon internal improvement to narrow the gap between themselves as the NBA's other top title contenders.
That likely will not be enough.
The Celtics will face some difficult salary cap decisions of their own in the coming years, beginning with whether to re-sign Marcus Smart as a restricted free agent this summer. But regardless of what they decide to do with Smart, they will have two former All-Stars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving rejoining their lineup next season. Coupled with improvement from 24-year-old point guard Terry Rozier, 21-year-old forward Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old wing Jayson Tatum, Boston figures to enter the 2018-19 season as the odds-on favorite in the Eastern Conference.
The Warriors are not going anywhere, either. According to Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic, Klay Thompson has already broached the subject of signing an extension with Golden State, even though he would be eligible to earn far more money if he becomes a free agent in 2019. His willingness to take a significant discount would vastly increase the Warriors' chances of keeping their Big Four together in the coming years, after which they'd have to round out their roster with ring-chasers.
The Rockets should remain in the title picture next year, too. They will have to re-sign both Chris Paul and Clint Capela, which could vault them into luxury-tax territory, but they have James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon signed through the 2019-20 season. Seeing as Houston head coach Mike D'Antoni largely relies on a seven-man rotation in the playoffs, Trevor Ariza's upcoming date with free agency is perhaps all that stands between the Rockets and another 60-win campaign.
Regardless of who the Cavaliers select at No. 8 or who they acquire by trading that pick, they would have a tough time of convincing James that they are well-equipped to defeat Boston, Golden State or Houston in a seven-game series next year. If the San Antonio Spurs hammer out their differences with Kawhi Leonard this summer, they should be right back in the title picture, too. The Philadelphia 76ers, armed with $25-plus million in salary-cap space, could likewise join the mix if they strike gold in free agency. (Paul George, anyone?)
Contrast those situations to the "organizational fatigue" the Cavaliers are currently battling, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, and it is difficult to imagine James winning another ring in Cleveland. Unless James' ties to the region outweigh his desire to continue racking up championships—perhaps he doesn't want to uproot his family yet again?—the Cavaliers cannot make a convincing case that they give him the best chance to win moving forward.
For James to dethrone Jordan as the GOAT, he cannot afford to waste the remaining years of his prime on a faux title contender. He is bound to blow past Jordan in statistical output, which makes their gap in rings the major separating factor between the two at the moment.
James has already moved past Jordan on the NBA's all-time regular-season leaderboard in rebounds and assists. He will enter the 2018-19 season only 1,254 points and five blocks behind Jordan as well, both of which he should surpass with ease. He long ago leapt over Jordan in playoff points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, three-pointers and games played.
James' longevity will make him the greatest statistical player in NBA history, hands down. He is only 7,350 regular-season points behind league scoring leader Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, which he would reach during his age-37 season at his current pace. If James also adds more championships to his collection, the head-to-head comparison between himself and Jordan may begin to tilt more heavily in his favour.
James is carving a far different path than Jordan, who spent all but two years of his career with the Chicago Bulls. Whereas Jordan helped to build a dynasty in the Windy City, James has been franchise Miracle-Gro as he bounced between Cleveland and the Miami Heat over the past decade. He is so singularly dominant in so many facets of the game that wherever he lands, a championship contender springs up seemingly overnight.
If James' primary shortcoming compared to Jordan is championships, then, he will have to scope out the NBA landscape this summer to see where he's best suited to take roots next.
The Rockets, Sixers and Los Angeles Lakers each will jostle for James' services this summer, and all three are reportedly on his short list of preferred destinations, according to Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer. The Rockets, who won 65 games this season and made it to the Western Conference Finals, present a convincing case. The same goes for the Sixers, who won 52 games and have budding All-Stars such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to help alleviate James from having to shoulder such a heavy load. While the Lakers have no recent playoff track record to convince James they would immediately vault into the title picture with him on board, their ability to add him and another big-name player could do the trick.
The Sixers would give James the added benefit of staying East, where he could dodge the Warriors, Rockets and Spurs before the NBA Finals. Then again, with a superteam in place in Golden State and another one on the rise in Boston, perhaps James' best bet would be to form one in Houston with Paul and Harden or on the Lakers with a star of his choosing.
Given the Lakers and Sixers' salary-cap flexibility and the Rockets' star-studded core already in place, all three present James with enticing options with regard to potential championship contention. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, can only hope James does not want to start anew heading into his age-34 season.
If he does, he will soon realise that leaving Cleveland is his only chance to catch Jordan one day.