LeBron James is leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018. And he’s coming to the Milwaukee Bucks.
No, I’m not insane, hear me out here. Let’s break that statement down piece by piece.
My unnamed sources from inside the NBA (Look – I can journalism too!) are telling me that LeBron James is definitely leaving the Cavaliers next season. If you don’t believe my reporting, then perhaps a quick google search might change your mind. That should prove to you that my sources are legitimate. I can’t say who they are, but rest assured they totally exist.
Sources or not, it appears that the Cavaliers are falling to pieces. The locker room seems torn apart by the sudden firing of their former general manager David Griffin. Kyrie Irving wants to be traded. Kevin Love has been the subject of trade talks pretty much since the moment they traded for him. The bottom of the roster consists of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson making eight figures a year. The team is, to use a very scientific term, a fucking mess.
Given that, it seems to be the expectation that LeBron will begin the next act of his legendary career in a new jersey. The prevailing logic seems to be that he’s going to end up playing on the Los Angeles Lakers with soon to be free agent Paul George, a host of young players (including Summer League MVP Lonzo Ball), and whatever other free agent Magic Johnson can lure with a max contract. On it’s face, this sort of makes sense. By joining the Lakers, LeBron would give himself the kind of exposure he needs to become something beyond an NBA superstar. In Los Angeles, he could become an icon, rather than an athlete. That’s got to be very appealing for someone who has already done it all on the court.
But, at least to me, that’s about all the sense there is to have. Sure, there’s some level of appeal to playing in a big market . But it seems that we’ve moved past the age where a superstar needs to be in a huge market to be a big star. If you look around the league, the biggest stars typically aren’t in the biggest cities. With big cable deals dying, expanding internet coverage, shrinking geography caused by increasingly efficient travel the need to be in a big city seems to become less important each year. Every offseason since LeBron’s initial decision, we’ve heard about how these stars want to move to New York or LA or Chicago to be in the limelight, and with the exception of Dwyane Wade last year, it rarely happens.
As an aside, Wade may prove to be a cautionary tale for big name free agents changing teams looking to win. His move to the Bulls last year might have looked good on paper then, but with the Bulls trading Jordan Bell for cash and sending Jimmy Butler to Minnesota it looks like a flop right now. Wade is mired with a terrible team with no hopes of contending. I don’t think that’s a huge concern for LeBron as the Lakers seem all in, but it’s worth thinking about. For some of the other possible destinations. But for now, let’s focus on LA. Namely, what they lack. And that’s being in the Eastern Conference.
If James wants to win another title to challenge Michael Jordan for GOAT status, the Lakers have a few big roadblocks ahead of them in the playoffs. It’s not that I don’t think the Lakers could field a good team, maybe even a great team, but I don’t think they can compete with the Rockets or the Spurs… much less the team that’s a knocked the King out of the NBA finals two of the last three years in the Golden State Warriors. In any scenario where the Lakers even make the playoffs, they’re looking at one of those teams in the second round, and another in the Western Conference Finals. That’s brutal.
Let’s consider one last factor, one that’s not getting a lot of press right now, but could become a bigger story as next year starts to roll around: team ownership. See, this is where I think LeBron ultimately has his eyes. If you want to become an icon, someone larger than just a player, this is a very good first step. As much as the Lakers want to bring him in, I doubt there’s any promise of future ownership in play for him there. Even a front office type role, like the one that helped propel Michael Jordan to team ownership, seems farfetched with Magic Johnson acting as President. Speaking of Johnson, he could serve as a role model for James. Magic famously received a four percent share of the Lakers in 1994, a move that would generate a massive amount of value that would help fuel his growth into one of sports biggest personalities once his playing days were over. Though he might be able to act as a mentor of sorts, I don’t see much room for growth developing in his shadow. LeBron seems to want to make his own brand.
So let’s assume LeBron has the sense of a thirty year old blogger and sees this as well. Let’s take the entire Western Conference off the table, since they’re a blood-bath right now. And let’s focus on teams who might be very willing to give up a chunk of their ownership stake to bring one of the greatest players of all time into the fold? Who does that leave?
The Cavaliers are out for obvious reasons. The Pistons, Hawks, Pacers, Nets, Hornets and Magic are out since they’re nowhere close to winning anything, let alone the eastern conference. The Raptors are totally out of cap space. Ditto for the Washington Wizards. Jerry Reinsdorf is to cheap to put any extra money into the Bulls. James Dolan is a giant sack of shit, so the Knicks are out. And the Celtics are all in on their current core, plus ownership is off the table there, so they’re out.
That leaves the Philadelphia 76ers (one of the league’s most exciting young teams with a TON of cap space), the Miami Heat (never, ever count out Pat Riley), and your Milwaukee Bucks (who have a ton of cap space with Greg Monroe coming off the books). It’s starting to sound less insane, right?
Look I might be delving into Bill Simmons levels of homerism here, but the Bucks check off every box in terms of what you’d be looking for if you’re in LeBron’s shoes. On the court, their list of qualifications is pretty attractive:
- Playing in the eastern conference? Check
- A young, future MVP type player with Giannis? Check
- The reigning rookie of the year in Malcolm Brogdon? Check
- A players coach in Jason Kidd? Check
- Weak division that’s pretty much a bye into a top three seed? Check
Now, granted, Milwaukee isn’t necessarily the city you’d imagine when you talk about becoming a global sensation, but the Bucks ownership have a relatively new stake in the team and would probably be willing to cut off a small slice of that to exponentially raise the value of their franchise in the coming years. A new stadium opening with a team headlined by the Greek Freak and LeBron James? That’s a license to print money. From James point of view, you immediately become a legend to an entirely new city. You know if LBJ brings a title to the Bucks, he’s getting a statue downtown Milwaukee. That’s not happening in any of the big cities; he’s just another star in the sky in LA or New York. The move would be an important PR shift as well. It would certainly endear (no pun intended) him to the national public again. In WWE terms, he’s immediately the league’s top babyface.
Look, I don’t know if this is going to happen, I can’t see the future. But I can tell you that it makes a lot of fucking sense.
And when it does happens and Skip Bayless is screaming about how nobody saw this coming, just remember, somebody did.