By Dave B.
…he’s not an idiot, nor an overpaid sports analyst.
If we assume that LeBron James cares about his legacy, we can make two conjectures about his on-court priorities: First and foremost, he wants to win as many championships as possible during the remainder of his career. And second, barring winning more championships, he wants to continue his streak of making it to the NBA Finals. If the NBA maintains its current playoff format, going to a Western Conference teams poses a significant risk to both of those priorities.
At this point, no Western Conference team becomes the prohibitive favorite to make the Finals with the addition of James (except for Golden States, but if he goes there, nobody outside of northern California will ever watch professional basketball again). People will say, “Houston was only a game away from the Finals. Adding James will put them over the top”. My reply to that: Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter if Houston becomes slight favorites to win the Western Conference with the addition of James. They won’t become huge favorites over the Warriors and the playoff caliber teams in the West are better than their counterparts in the East. The scenarios where the Rockets + James don’t make the Finals are plentiful and easy to see.
The Eastern Conference is a different story altogether. Yes, the two teams of the near-future (Boston and Philadelphia) are tough and will pose a challenge to anyone. But barring a significant decrease in his abilities, whichever team James is on will be the favorites to make it to the Finals from the East. Assuming Kyrie remains in Boston, LeBron won’t go there. That leaves Philly. They’re young and talented, and they check all of the boxes for what James should be looking for at this stage in his career (notwithstanding front office turmoil). They’re the logical choice. Except…
This year’s NBA draft class is odd. Outside of the Top 5 picks, there’s no consensus about who will go where in mock drafts, but this isn’t because of a lack of talent outside of the Top 5. Just the opposite. In my opinion, picks 6 through 10 have the talent to be All-Star caliber players on whatever team they end up on. Eventually. Yes, the Cavs need to improve at nearly every position to have a realistic chance of winning an NBA title. But do they have to improve at every position to be nearly certain of winning the East if they have James? Or just one or two? And is there any chance that whoever they draft won’t be an improvement at some position? (No.) What really matters here is LeBron’s assessment of the in-conference competition he’ll face next season and his opinion of whoever the Cavs draft, because no team from the East is likely to beat the West champion, with or without LeBron.
I’m not saying LeBron will definitely stay in Cleveland. More than likely, he won’t. But going to the Western Conference presents huge and obvious risks. I believe LeBron is savvy enough to see that and prudent enough to stay in the East. With Miami not having a Top 10 pick (not to mention Dwayne Wade aging) and Boston off-limits while Kyrie is there, the most plausible Eastern Conference teams to land James are Philadelphia and Cleveland. That means there’s real hope that he remains in Cleveland, despite what the pundits say. And I believe that I can speak for most of my fellow Clevelanders when I say that when it comes to sports, real hope is all we ever really ask for.