The terms of engagement were set.
The Warriors would go to battle with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and an extremely competent cast of role players. The Cavs would counter that with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron’s veteran pals.
It was going to be a fair fight, one that was set to provide enduring drama and dozens of thrilling games. Curry is a generational talent, unlike any player LeBron had ever faced before in his career.
But then Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals changed everything. Though the Cavs won the championship that year, that single game in which Klay Thompson went nuclear may have cost LeBron two other championship rings.
After blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cavs, the Warriors had enough cap room for a max player and they rightly pursued the second-best player in basketball: Kevin Durant.
The Cavs never planned for the future or opened up cap room to attract high-level free agents to complement LeBron and Kyrie.
Instead, they traded first round picks for Channing Frye and Kyle Korver but those players helped right away and made big shots in tense playoff games. Those deals were a product of the one-year deals that Lebron signed, forcing the organization into “win now” mode.
Durant made what Stephen A. Smith likes to call “the weakest move a superstar has ever made.”
He left behind one of the best teams of the decade to join a club that was never not going to win the championship. The firepower, athleticism, and cohesiveness make it virtually impossible to defend the Warriors.
Durant and the Warriors took the easy road to multiple titles, yet they continue to celebrate the outcome like it was somehow unexpected. They gloat, they dance, they prance, and they scream. But when I see them showboat all I can think is: you cheated, the terms of engagement were set.
LeBron typically uses Game 1 as “feel out game.” But, in the first game of the 2018 NBA Finals, he was clearly playing for keeps.
He knew that if they won that game it would change the whole series and reignite the stress that the Warriors felt from the Rockets series. But, that didn’t happen and the Cavs were swept away.
So, what’s next for LeBron? There isn’t a definitive path to a championship — outside of a move to Boston — with any of the teams that are vying for his services. Moving his family to Houston or Philadelphia just doesn’t seem plausible for a 33-year old LeBron who has no ties to either of those cities.
The most logical destination is to work under the tutelage of Magic Johnson.
Though the Lakers haven’t landed a surefire All-Star with their high draft picks in the last few years, they have acquired enough good young talent that they can use in a trade for a premier player.
If the Lakers do have Paul George in their back pocket and they could find a way to trade for Kawhi Leonard or Dame Lillard on draft night (yes, I know they have to move Luol Deng), LeBron would have to find that very enticing.
If he does stay in Cleveland, it means he has made up his mind that he will finish his career in The Land and that he is carefully curating his legacy.
The Cavs are in a tough spot because if they want to trade the 8th pick in the draft for a proven player, they need to do in on draft night. But, the team won’t be informed of Bron’s decision until July 6th or 7th.
If the Cavs, who are capped out and devoid of any real trade assets, run it back next year with the same team plus the 8th pick next year, there is no way LeBron believes that team will come close to a title.
So, the NBA will pause for a week just like it did four years ago and four years before that before LeBron makes the decision on where he’ll go.
But the terms of engagement are no longer set in the NBA, and his choice will once again effect more than half of the franchises in the league.