Published On: Fri, Jun 15th, 2018

Luring LeBron James: The contenders

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Regardless of their current roster makeup, cap sheet, or franchise timeline, all 30 NBA teams will enter this summer with the same free agent at the top of the big board: LeBron James.

Not every team has a realistic chance of landing the King, but each is likely at least preparing its elevator pitch, just in case. We’ll make our best guesses at what those 30 pitches might sound like, dividing the teams into three categories: the long shots (featured Wednesday), the dark horses (featured Thursday), and finally, the contenders.

Boston Celtics


What they need to do first: Work out an opt-in-and-trade that swaps Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris (or spare parts), and picks for LeBron.

Who’s in the meeting: Owner Wyc Grousbeck, GM Danny Ainge, coach Brad Stevens, Celtics All-Star Al Horford (and Kyrie Irving if he’s not feeling pouty), Boston baseball icon David Ortiz (assuming Tom Brady is uninterested in doing this a second time)

The Pitch: Wow, that was a close one in May. If you were anything less than the greatest basketball player of all time, it’d have been us playing the Warriors in The Finals. Not that we necessarily would’ve fared much better – but then again, we were missing two of our three All-Stars, and three of our four best active players were still on their rookie contracts. We missed The Finals last year, but it might be a while before we do so again.

Do we really need to sell you on what a bright future this team has? Terry Rozier was one of the deadliest guards in the entire postseason. Jaylen Brown is gonna be a two-way star. Jayson Tatum … I mean, you saw what that guy can do on the brightest stage – maybe a little more closely than you even care to remember. And that’s basically our JV squad! Terry doesn’t even start for us! It’s an embarrassment of riches, and with four first-rounders in next year’s draft, it will only get more embarrassing. And oh yeah, we also have the NBA’s next Gregg Popovich putting it all together on the sidelines, and the smartest GM in the league pulling the strings in the front office.

Beyond all that … I mean, it’s Boston. The Celtics. Bill Russell. Larry Bird. Paul Pierce. The damn leprechaun. Tell the story of the NBA and you start with us. And it’s not just fond memories of bygone eras. We won the championship a decade ago and have been at least competitive in nearly every season since. Not like we need to tell you about that. Before the East went through you, it went through us, and you understood what it meant when you were finally able to triumph over the mighty Boston Celtics. You know what our history is. You know what our fans are like. You know what basketball means here.

And if you’re honest with yourself, you know we’re on the cusp of being that team again in the NBA, for a long, long time to come. We’ve been your rival for about as long as you can probably remember, but don’t let your history dictate your future. Kyrie won’t. He’s proven what he needs to prove outside of your shadow, and now he just wants to be part of a dynasty for a franchise that knows what true basketball dynasties look like. Come be at the center of that, and become immortal as a Celtic.

Cleveland Cavaliers


What they have to do first: Pray.

Who’s in the meeting: Owner Dan Gilbert, GM Koby Altman, coach Tyronn Lue

The Pitch: Look, at some point, it has to be about more than basketball. You can jump from team to team, chase championships, rack up awards, and pile up stats, but it’s never going to satisfy what you’re really chasing. NBA greatness is ephemeral. You achieve whatever you can, but eventually, someone else comes along and achieves more. And when you retire, it’s over. No matter who you are or what you did, eventually, basketball ends for you and the next generation picks up the slack. People move on. People forget. The job will not save you.

If you want to chase a championship in Boston, go ahead. If you want to find glory for your golden years and beyond in Los Angeles, fair enough. But in the end, your NBA experience will be defined by what you meant to the people who rooted for you, and what you carry with you when you go. And ultimately, it only really makes sense that you continue to play here, with the organization that drafted you, in the region you grew up in, on the team you took to its first-ever championship not that long ago.

We both know this year didn’t exactly go as planned. The Kyrie trade robbed you of a proper sidekick and our midseason deals left you with a supporting cast who weren’t playoff-ready. But those moves were always about the future, and we’ll be better off next year as a result. We’re adding a top-10 pick to our roster for the first time since you’ve come back, which means we can either develop a long-term running mate for you, or we can go out and get one on the open market – it’s the best trade asset we’ve had since we shipped Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. And those guys we picked up at midseason: Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood … if we can work out a new contract, they’ll be better for their tough experience in the playoffs, and they’ll be better after a full training camp and regular season playing alongside you. Every player is.

We’ll contend with you again next year, and the year after that. If you don’t believe us, that’s fine, you don’t have to re-up with us for another four years just now if you’re not comfortable yet. Just opt in to that final year of your deal and let us show you how things can be different next season with a younger supporting cast who can grow to shoulder the load around you. If you’re not content with how competitive we are after that, you can leave next summer, and no one could possibly blame you. But we’re confident we can do what it takes to rebuild a perennial winner around you, a team worthy of your singular talents.

But of course, you’re LeBron James. You could go to Sacramento and turn that team into a championship contender. And after the chip you delivered in ’16 and the season you had with us last year, you could leave without becoming a villain, unlike eight years ago. But that’s what would make it such a powerful statement if you did stay: To have every excuse to leave and still to choose to hang around Northern Ohio anyway. It would mean everything to the people, to the community. To your people. Your community. It’d elevate us in a way no one and nothing else ever possibly could. That’s more powerful than just basketball and bigger than however many rings or MVPs or statistical records you rack up. That’s the legacy you want people to remember about you 50 years from now. And the only place you can build it is right here.

Houston Rockets


What they have to do first: Hope to work out a Chris Paul-like opt-in-and-trade with Cleveland that sees the Cavs take Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon – or Gordon plus all the cap-filler contracts Houston can muster, as well as a Brooklyn-like haul of draft picks to make it worthwhile.

Who’s in the meeting: GM Daryl Morey, coach Mike D’Antoni, franchise player James Harden, Rockets icon Hakeem Olajuwon, local rap great Bun B

The Pitch: This is how it ends for the Warriors dynasty. After four years of facing them in The Finals, losing three times, and needing the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history to beat them once, we know it’s not just about winning for you at this point. It’s about beating Golden State, specifically, about shutting Draymond up, about putting further historical distance between you and KD, about getting that Roaracle Arena crowd as quiet as an embarrassed, frightened mouse. Someone needs to do it. The league and its fans are practically begging for it after last year, and it’s gotta be you. It’s gotta be us.

I mean, you saw how close we were last year. Years of maneuvering had finally led us to the best Rockets team since Hakeem’s days, a regular-season juggernaut that was also built for the playoffs. Nobody believed we actually had the stuff to take down Golden State, but there we were with a 3-2 advantage in the Western Conference finals, with home court in Game 7. And then Chris got hurt. And then the greatest volume-three-shooting squad of guys in NBA history couldn’t hit a friggin’ bomb to save their lives. It happens. But we were right there, and it wasn’t a fluke. And we didn’t even have you yet.

That’s why you need to make Houston your next, and final, career stop. With you and James … Chris, once we figure out a deal that makes sense with him, and hopefully Clint Capela shortly after that, we’ll be even more unstoppable than we were last year when our offense was already historically good. And this isn’t one of Mike’s Phoenix teams or your Cavs squads the past few years. We play both sides of the ball here now, and we can win by amping up the pace to run-and-gun or slowing it down to an iso-heavy crawl. Regardless, we win. We did it 65 times last year in the regular season alone.

Meanwhile, you can basically call your own shot with whatever kind of role you want to play here. You can be our orchestrator, or you can hang back and just catch-and-shoot wide-open threes. You’re coming from life with Jordan Clarkson as your team’s second-best offensive initiator. Wait until you experience life with Chris and James. The NBA’s never heard of a squad with three creators so gifted. You guys are gonna produce some of the most beautiful offensive basketball the league has seen, for a long time to come. And you won’t have to burn yourself out in the regular season or play 48 minutes per games in the playoffs. For once, you can sit, knowing the team is in good hands even without you on the floor.

Of course, living in Houston has its advantages, too. There are reasons why your buddy Drake calls it his second home, and Bun here can fill you in on the gory details once we’re done. But first and foremost, this is about hoops. It’s about you being not only the most gifted athlete of your generation but the greatest basketball mind, as well. You deserve to play for an organization as forward-thinking as you, one that’s always ahead of the curve, always ready for what’s coming next. We have the smarts, we have the culture, and now we have the players, too. Once we have you, the Warriors don’t stand a chance.

Los Angeles Lakers


What they have to do first: Nothing, except for maybe finding a way to rid themselves of LaVar Ball.

Who’s in the meeting: Team president Jeannie Bus, basketball operations president Magic Johnson, GM Rob Pelinka, coach Luke Walton

The Pitch: LeBron James, Los Angeles Laker. It just feels right, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m sure Miami was fun, and we know Cleveland will always hold a special place for you for personal reasons. But you were born to be a Laker. Hell, most of the truly great ones are. Make a list of the ten greatest basketball players of all time, and no matter how you slice it, at least half of ’em are gonna be Lakers: Shaq, Kobe, Wilt, Kareem, the Logo, and of course, Magic. And not only did all of them play here, all of them won here. Sixteen titles in all, five in this century alone. Of course, you’re one of those top ten players – why not join the others on that list of Laker champions, too?

You’re a student of the game, so you know that every basketball generation is marked by a league-great going west, for a long, leisurely cruise in the Cadillac of NBA franchises. First, it was Wilt, then Kareem, then Shaq. We hoped it would be Dwight, but he wasn’t up for it. And we tried with some free agents in the meantime, but the timing and circumstances were never right. But now, it’s finally all coming together. This isn’t the Lakers of five years ago, with an aging and declining squad looking to force open their championship window another year or two. This is the league’s next great powerhouse, a team as stocked with explosive young talent as any in the West, the cap space to add a couple veteran centerpieces around them, the front office to construct it all, and the coach to lead the way.

Let’s start with that young talent. We know how much respect you had for Jason Kidd during his playing career. Well, Lonzo Ball is the next version of him; a floor general with preternatural court vision, the best passer you’ll have ever played with, and an absolute hawk on defense. Meanwhile, Brandon Ingram is everything they hoped Andrew Wiggins would be; a scarily versatile offensive threat with Durant-like potential and an improving defender. And Kyle Kuzma … man, the dude just gets buckets. Any franchise looking to build for the future would consider themselves lucky to have these three.

Most importantly, though, they’re all still on their rookie contracts. And that means not only can we give you a max deal this summer, but we have room to hand out another one as well. You tell us who you want us to bring in to be your running mate. Paul George? A wing combo of him, you, and Brandon would be something no other squad in the league could compete with – not even Boston. DeMarcus Cousins? Good luck to any team in NBA history trying to stop a LeBron-DMC pick-and-roll. DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela? Both far superior versions of Tristan Thompson, the rim-protecting, offensive-rebounding, dunking machine you can spoonfeed six easy-like-Sunday-morning baskets a night. Say the word, and we’ll go get ’em.

And they’ll come, too – because of you, and because of Los Angeles. Everyone wants to end up here eventually. It’s beautiful every day. It’s the only place where stars can almost live like normal people. And it’s where you want to be, not only for the end of your basketball career, but for the beginning of your post-basketball career. Magic here has paved the way, and you’ll be able to take it even further, into whatever business ventures you want to explore, whatever opportunities you could possibly hope to take advantage of. Kobe’s been out of basketball for two years, and he’s already an Oscar winner. That’s what L.A. offers.

But most importantly, it offers the opportunity to be a Laker, and there’s no substitute for that. Come, take your place in the proudest lineage in the NBA.

Philadelphia 76ers


What they have to do first: Renounce outgoing free agents, trade or stretch Jerryd Bayless‘ expiring deal, make another cut or two around the margins.

Who’s in the meeting: Owner Josh Harris, coach Brett Brown, franchise stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Sixers great Julius Erving, minority owner Will Smith, comedian Kevin Hart (briefly)

The Pitch: As a father and family man, you know there’s no greater gift in life than to be able to pass your blessings on to the next generation. We all can acknowledge that the model organization for the last decade has been the San Antonio Spurs, and that’s because they were able to do what no other franchise has managed. They worked out a plan of succession. The team was David Robinson’s before he gave way to Tim Duncan, who handed it over to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, with them eventually making way for Kawhi Leonard – all under the brilliant eye of Gregg Popovich. It was natural, it was logical, it was beautiful, and it resulted in winning season after winning season after winning season, from 1998 until now.

But the Spurs aren’t going to be the Spurs for much longer: Their relationship with Kawhi is strained, the rest of the team is finally showing its age, and Pop might not be around long enough to see the squad to its next era. We want to build the NBA’s next version of that. We’ve got a Pop disciple to lead the way in Brett Brown, we have our Timmy in Embiid, we have our Manu in Dario Saric, and then we have Simmons, who’s kind of both our Tony and our Kawhi. All that’s missing is you to lead the way as our David Robinson.

You know how special these young guys are. Obviously, you’re particularly tight with Ben, and it’s understandable. He’s the closest thing to you since you entered the league. Watching the two of you go at it in that intense game at the end of the regular season was like watching Looper, the similarities were so eerie. Of course he’s not anywhere near your level yet, and maybe never will be. But don’t you want to be the guy who helps get him there? That’s what makes you different than so many other NBA greats. You take true joy in your teammates. MJ and Kobe would never build up anyone who might be considered a potential rival of theirs, but you’re secure enough with your singular place in NBA history to actually want to help the league’s future icons reach their true ceiling. Anyway, you’d rather do it with him than against him, right?

And that’s how loaded this team is: Simmons might be the next you, but he’s still not even the best prospect on this squad. Joel’s potential two-way dominance as a big man is something we haven’t seen since at least Duncan’s prime – basically since you came into the NBA. You’ve never had a teammate like him because there haven’t been any to have. And man, are you gonna love playing with Dario. Dude is the consummate gamer and as smart a running mate as you could ask for. You guys are gonna develop pet plays together that’ll drive the rest of the league insane. And don’t forget about Markelle Fultz, who’s getting his head and his body right this summer. He’s gonna spend his sophomore season reminding the rest of the league why he was drafted No. 1 overall.

Come to Philly and it’ll be the most talented team you’ve ever played with – one that’ll only get better, more mature, and more playoff-ready with you at the helm – with the most insanely devoted fans you’ve ever heard of. You can lead the way for the next two, three, four seasons, and then when you’re ready, you hand the ball over to Ben and JoJo, take a complementary role, and keep winning season after season without killing yourself to do so. Then finally, you ride off into the sunset, knowing you played the most important role in kick-starting the next NBA dynasty, and leaving the situation better than when you found it. And eating a whole lot of cheesesteaks and listening to a whole lot of Meek Mill while doing it. Trust the process.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)



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