The Cleveland Cavaliers are slowly collapsing under the weight of their own championship expectations, losing nine of their last 12 games, including the team’s ongoing four-game losing slide. LeBron James continues to produce remarkable numbers at his age, but it would not be a mistake to believe that the Cavs’ current roster is ill-fit to even dent the mighty Golden State Warriors’ armor in another head-to-head clash in the Finals.
Cleveland’s 118-108 loss to the Warriors at the Quicken Loans Arena on Monday night just proved how far the Cavaliers are from their goal of winning a second title, especially against Golden State. The team is evidently missing Kyrie Irving, particularly on the defensive end where the diminutive Isaiah Thomas, Irving’s supposed-to-be replacement, seems to be non-existent at times.
It was a rare opportunity for the small Warriors squad to face an even smaller team, and Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and company all showed what they can do when that happens.
In the game’s aftermath, Bleacher Report indicated that “multiple Cleveland Cavaliers players” are “doubtful they will be able to work out their issues and win an NBA championship this season.” The report did not mention the names of the players, but this should be the biggest indication that things are not going well in the Land.
In an interview with ESPN’s First Take, former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Jalen Rose said that the Warriors would sweep the Cavaliers if they face again in the Finals this year. Rose mentioned several reasons why, including the Cavs being the oldest team in the league as well as having the most expensive roster.
The Cavs’ defense is also a glaring issue. The team could not “contain ball handlers from dribble-penetration” and could not “rim-protect,” Rose said, making them the second-worst defensive squad in the NBA only by a hairline at the moment.
With all of these in mind, one might think that LeBron’s chances of leaving Cleveland for the second time in his career have been increasing. James turned 33 last month and his championship-window is noticeably shrinking, which had led to rumors that the four-time NBA MVP would join the Houston Rockets in the summer to form a new three-headed monster with James Harden and his buddy, Chris Paul.
While it is correct that James going to Houston makes the most sense as he is all about winning championships right now (he is still three short of Michael Jordan’s collection), a move to the Rockets is quite difficult to pull off. SB Nation’s Tim Cato suggested four ways on how LeBron can join the Rockets, and all of them are said to be “complicated.”
One particular issue about it is Houston’s salary cap dynamics. Harden’s cap hit next season would be $30.4 million while Paul’s would be a little over $39 million, which is quite massive because of his Bird rights. The team is currently $40 million over the cap with their present roster.
With a projected salary cap of $101 million in 2018-2019, the Rockets would not be able to sign decent role players if they acquire James, who would command a first-year max salary of $35.4 million, Cato said. Obviously, basketball is a game consisting of five players, not three. At this time, it would be hard to believe if any of the three would agree to a salary cut.
Which means a LeBron James move to the Los Angeles Lakers could be more likely to happen.
The Lakers are a young squad, conspicuously led by two rookies (Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma) and a sophomore (Brandon Ingram), but their financial situation to accommodate James’ contract demand looks simpler than that of the Rockets. Even if the Lakers were able to sign Paul George, getting James would still be achievable.
Magic Johnson’s pronouncement of the team’s goal to sign two max free agents in July makes the Lakers, as a club, more focused to actually achieve it. L.A.’s path is much simpler: trade the contracts of Luol Deng, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson before the summer, then offer two superstar free agents of their choice maximum salaries.
Unlike the Rockets that have to go the “scorched earth” route, where the team would need to trade everyone valuable in their roster to have room for James, as Cato pointed out, the Lakers do not have to go through such a thing.
The Lakers have a bigger chance of giving LeBron a more competitive roster (with Paul George) and more younger pieces around him to mentor. Not to mention the widespread opportunities playing in Los Angeles would give his brand the probability of James choosing the Lakers over the Rockets is definitely not impossible.
However, all of this is assuming he would indeed decide to ditch Cleveland all over again in the summer.