CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers are down 2-0 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 Golden State Warriors victory. The defending champions’ advantage in The Finals is clear, like a Stephen Curry green light to shoot. Golden State is bringing four All-Stars in their prime while the Cavs are bringing … exactly what, beyond LeBron James?
At this rate, will LeBron ever have the satisfaction of refusing a trip to Donald Trump’s White House?
We look forward to the challenge, (but) it’s a very tall task. A very tough challenge, going against this team. But we have an opportunity to seize the opportunity so I look forward to that."
Here in his middle-aged years, LeBron is 33 and perhaps never better, as evident by the last few months. During that stretch, LeBron has had more epic games 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. His 51 points in Game 1 of The Finals was proof of Cleveland's struggles.
“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 as the number of players with nine trips to The Finals can fit comfortably in a Fiat. But 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 (James has a player option this summer, in case you forgot). Yet he's not revealing anything about his future before the season is 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 was an All-Star this season, but his stats are starting to flatline.
After that, there’s Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and others. The Cavs will get an infusion of youth with the No. 9 pick in the June draft, yet rookies often need a few years to mature. LeBron’s not getting younger, so how much time can he wait on that?
In addition, 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. That makes it 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 Houston Rockets (assuming they remain intact for next season) are 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.
For James, staying in Cleveland makes sense for family and community reasons. Leaving makes the most sense for championship and legacy reasons.
Almost any team he signs with will instantly move toward the front of the title-contender line. He can stay in the East, where the competition is lighter and the Sixers have Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and cap room. He could go West and work for Lakers boss Magic Johnson and possibly play alongside Paul George (who can also opt out of his deal). 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 might make room. If that happens the basketball world will stop spinning.
Essentially, it must get exhausting for LeBron to do all the heavy lifting ... and stare across the floor at Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green 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. They have been inconsistent so far and, save for a few brief bursts from Love, scoring has been a problem. LeBron is averaging 40 points per game in The Finals -- and No. 2 is Love at 21.5 ppg on 42.9 percent shooting. Smith is at 26.3 percent, while the Warriors have locked up Korver, who is shooting a frigid 16.5 percent and has made just one 3-pointer in The Finals.
“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 2-0 to the Celtics, came home, found a rhythm and shook up the rest of the East finals. The Warriors Game 3s in the 2015 and 2016 Finals before winning last year only because Durant’s late 3-pointer was the biggest shot of his life. The Cavs promise to take a more physical approach in this Game 3. 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 Finals that he hasn’t done already. But this summer, he can do plenty.
If the Cavs get swept, their franchise foundation would have every reason to leave 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?
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