On opposite sides of the country Monday afternoon, two seemingly unrelated events could set in motion a massive change for LeBron James and the entire NBA.
In Los Angeles, Jerry West sat on a stage smiling as he was introduced as the newest addition to the Clippers. And in the East, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and general manager David Griffin released separate statements explaining how Griffin’s wildly successful three-year tenure in charge of the team’s basketball operations — including three straight trips to the NBA Finals and a much-needed championship — had come to an end. Hanging over both events — and over the entire NBA, really — is the contract of James, which comes to an end a year from now.
If James, still the NBA’s best player even as he enters a season in which he’ll turn 33, decides to leave Cleveland for a second time, Monday will be the day we look back upon as the tipping point, the moment when his potential departure began to take shape.
Truthfully, this time should’ve been different than when James was last considering an exit, seven years ago. That 2010 version of the Cavaliers didn’t have the talent around their star necessary to be a legitimate championship contender. The 2017 version features all-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, plus a deep pool of role players, who have helped James reach three straight Finals and win the city’s first championship in more than 50 years.
This roster was largely built by Griffin and his colleagues in Cleveland’s front office. Griffin managed to clear the cap space to sign James in 2014, engineer a trade for Love and pick up supporting players including J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver. He also chose to fire David Blatt and replace him with Tyronn Lue.
That résumé should have easily led to a contract extension for Griffin, which is what James publicly lobbied for earlier this year. He reminded the world of that in a tweet Monday night, after Gilbert and Griffin made their announcements:
If no one appreciated you Griff I did, and hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what u did for the team for 3 yrs! We got us 1🏆
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 20, 2017
But Gilbert has shown time and again that he doesn’t value his general managers. In the more than 12 years he’s owned the Cavaliers, Gilbert has never had a general manager sign a second contract. And if Griffin’s run in charge of the team was unable to land him one, it’s hard to see how anyone ever will under Gilbert’s ownership.
So now the NBA will wait to see what Gilbert does. Chauncey Billups is the front-runner — and while the former NBA champion is respected around the league and by James, and is a close friend of Lue, he has no experience in the job. It would be an incredibly risky decision for Gilbert to make, especially when James has said how much residual animosity existed within his circles for the way Gilbert handled James’s initial departure.
Meanwhile, there’s that whole Los Angeles situation.
In the news conference to announce his hiring as a Clippers consultant, West explained why he’d left the Golden State Warriors after six years: mostly to lend his considerable experience and voice to the organization.
“I would like to think the people I work with, if they think I’m going to have an ego, I’m not,” West said, alongside Coach Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank, the executive vice president of basketball operations. “I’ll give my opinion, but somebody’s going to make a decision. But in this case, I’m not making a decision, which I’m fine with. I will not be a shrinking violet when giving my opinion. But at the end of the day, I’m not making that decision. I just hope I can help make a difference here.”
It’s no secret that there’s a relationship between West and James. Earlier in his career, James reached out to the NBA icon — West’s likeness is the basis for the league’s logo — about how he dealt with losing in the NBA Finals and James has read his biography, “West on West,” multiple times. During last year’s Finals, West spent a significant chunk of a lengthy interview session with reporters extolling James’s virtues even while working for the Cavs’ then-opponent.
“With him, the negativity that surrounds him, honestly, to me, I think is so unjust and so unfair,” West said. “Take him off of the team and see how these teams do. That’s all you have to do. Take him off. And it frustrates the heck out of me when I see some of these players who play this game at an enormously high level get criticized because their teams quote, ‘Can’t win the big one.’
“The damn guy gets his teams there every year. He wins. For people to criticize him, I think that’s why he really resonates.”
So how does this all relate to James’s current situation? Well, while the rumors of him leaving Cleveland again have started to pick up steam, the chatter about his desire to go to Los Angeles has been occurring for at least a decade. James has a home there — which became a public story line when a racial slur was spray-painted on the front gate during this year’s Finals — as well as myriad business and entertainment interests.
While James has often been linked with joining the other Los Angeles franchise, the Lakers, it’s difficult to see him choosing a team that’s spent the past four years posting its four worst records since coming to L.A. nearly 60 years ago. After making the NBA Finals for seven straight years — a streak that presumably will hit eight next June — James isn’t going to Los Angeles to start over with a rebuilding team.
The Clippers present another path. With Chris Paul (assuming he re-signs) and DeAndre Jordan in the fold already, Los Angeles has the pieces to put around James and create a contending team, with the future flexibility of adding parts. West, meanwhile, gives the Clippers the kind of closer that Miami had in Pat Riley when it recruited James seven years ago.
It is, at minimum, an intriguing possibility. And between now and next July, it’s a possibility that will only gain traction.
If James turns that possibility into reality, Monday will be looked at as a significant day for the NBA.