The NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals have been a huge letdown. Philadelphia has barely avoid getting swept by a Celtics team missing their two best players. And after a difficult first round, LeBron and his team of nobodies have demolished the Raptors. Neither the Celtics nor the Cavaliers deserve to play in the NBA Finals, but one of them is almost certain to make it.
LeBron knows his team is bad. The Cavs have been a flawed team both before and after the trade deadline. At times during the regular season, LeBron James looked listless and rightfully so when you look at whom he is playing with. The situation has not improved in the playoffs. Kevin Love, JR Smith, and Tristan Thompson have had at most two or three good games apiece during the first two series, and everyone else on the roster has been completely forgettable.
No matter how successful the Cavs are this season, the weakness of their team has almost completely assured LeBron will be leaving in the summer. Rumors have abounded of James going to numerous teams including the Lakers, Rockets, or even Warriors. And of course, the resurgent Sixers have come up as well; Bill Simmons writes:
There’s been some growing “LeBron to Philly” buzz for four reasons: the Sixers have enough cap space and trade assets to accommodate LeBron and the likes of, say, PAUL GEORGE; Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are two of the league’s best under-25 blue-chippers (young legs!); Klutch represents LeBron and Simmons (hmmmmm); and NBA insiders have been gossiping about an increasingly cozy Philly–LeBron’s circle connection since November. You want a quality narrative? What about this one:
In 2018, LeBron James signed with Philadelphia to build one last mini-dynasty with Embiid and Simmons. He vowed to play seven more years, until he turned 40, and vowed to make it his last stop. Just as important, he wanted to be closer to New York City and to his goal of becoming the first active billionaire athlete, with an eye on building his business empire and eventually owning an NBA franchise.
If the chance to sign LeBron shows itself, Philadelphia will almost certainly take it. LeBron is the greatest active player in the league. Signing him would immediately make Philly favorites to win the East. LeBron gives the Sixers the best opportunity to win a title immediately.
Yet I still do not think Philadelphia should sign LeBron. The Sixers have something special with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and those two are only going to get better with time. But adding LeBron to the Sixers would limit their development. Kevin Love has not become a better player since leaving Minnesota. Kyrie has been a more dominant player after departing from Cleveland. Playing under the shadow of LeBron would only take the ball out of Simmons and Embiid’s hands and slow down their growth.
Besides, LeBron’s teams always fall apart. GM’s make roster and contract moves to satisfy LeBron, but those are frequently small mistakes that accumulate into forming bad squads. Take for example Tristan Thompson; that excessively large contract (that LeBron pressured the Cavs into) has destroyed their cap space and ability to sign free agents. By the end of LeBron’s tenure with a team, the rosters just are not good enough, and they flame out of the playoffs in spectacular fashion. It happened in Cleveland the first time against the Celtics. It happened in Miami against the Spurs. And it will probably happen again this year with the Cavs a second time. Having LeBron on your team inevitably leads to a weaker roster around him.
LeBron is getting older. His performance will eventually drop off. Plus, the Warriors still look to be the team to beat for years to come. Adding LeBron James to your team may get you a championship, but the chances are extremely low for multiple ones.
And that is the choice Philadelphia would have to make if they have the option to get LeBron in the summer: a good chance to win a championship spearheaded by LeBron or the possibility to build a dynasty around Simmons and Embiid.
Championships are supposed to be the ultimate goal for sports franchises, but they are just intermediate goals on the path to build history. Legacy is what matters. Nobody remembers that the Washington Bullets won the title in 1978. People will always remember Russell’s Celtics, the Showtime Lakers, or MJ’s Bulls. The most egregious part of Oklahoma City trading away James Harden was not the rings they threw away but the possibility at the title of “greatest team ever”. That level of immortality is the real goal, and Philadelphia has a chance right now to get there with Embiid and Simmons. Reaching those heights is unlikely, but you should take that shot when it comes. Signing LeBron would be rejecting that opportunity and instead be choosing the path of instant gratification.
Of course, making the right decision is not easy. Hell, I never prioritize my long-term satisfaction over short-term happiness; that is why I eat a bunch of junk food every day. And without LeBron, the Sixers would be putting a lot of faith in Embiid’s legs holding up. Being scared of that commitment is understandable. Besides, this Sixers front office no longer prioritizes any long-term options. This is a team that traded up in the last NBA draft for a worse player. We are a long way past Sam Hinkie’s process.
Unfulfilled possibilities drive sports fans insane. What if Jordan, Hakeem, and Drexler played together on the Rockets? What if Gordon Hayward made that shot against Duke? For the longest time, I thought the big question for Philadelphia would be, “What if Joel Embiid stayed healthy?” But Embiid has now actually held up for an entire season. If the Sixers get LeBron, the biggest “what if” may change to, “What if this Sixers team had the chance to develop naturally?” And like Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.'”