If you believe in parallel universes then surely there is one where LeBron James remained a Cleveland Cavalier.
Whether it was staying on in 2018 rather than moving to the Los Angeles Lakers, or even in a world where ‘The Decision’ went the other way back in the summer of 2010, the kid from Akron is a hero in Ohio and it is not completely unfeasible that he may have remained with them at either one of those stages, maybe even for his whole career.
Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch, someone of his talent and ambition is always going to naturally seek new challenges. Truth be told, the likelihood is there are also many parallel universes where his career panned out exactly the same – but one thing has definitely changed.
Right now, perhaps for the first time in living memory, LeBron needs the Cavs much more than they need him. Or, to put it another way, for the the first time, the best thing for the Cavs is not to try and put together a package to snare the veteran, still excelling in his 20th year in the league.
The Cavaliers are 7-1, second in the Eastern Conference, while LeBron and the Lakers are 2-6, second bottom of the West. James is playing on a team which is poorly constructed and which is not allowing him a decent chance to add to his four championship rings, one of which of course was won with the Cavs in 2016.
The two teams face each other on Sunday night, live on Sky Sports Arena and Sky Sports YouTube from 8.30pm, and LeBron could be forgiven for having at least part of him yearning to return for a third stint in Cleveland.
For the Cavaliers, though, the window for any yearning on their part has now passed, here’s why…
Ages and timeline
LeBron continues to defy the limits of what should be possible for any human being as he approaches his 38th birthday and is still averaging 24.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game (both in the top 20 in the league) and 7.5 assists (good enough for a place in the top 10) – and that is on an offensively blunt Lakers team.
He is still a colossus, who, when he gets running down the hill in the lane, is still unstoppable. He still operates with an internal radar that gives him a sixth sense of where his team-mates are on court and two decades’ worth of nous to supplement his natural gifts and athletic dedication.
The Cavaliers, though, are on a completely different timeline, and already boast the necessary experience in the squad with one of LeBron’s partners-in-crime in the 2016 title team, Kevin Love, along with the likes of Robin Lopez, Raul Neto and – when he returns – Ricky Rubio.
Their primary cast members are now Evan Mobley (21), Darius Garland (22), Jarrett Allen (24), Donovan Mitchell (26) and Caris LeVert (28). Together with the veterans from the bench, it makes for a nice balance of prodigiously-talented young players (Garland and Allen – along with Mitchell, brought in from the Utah Jazz – are already All-Stars and Mobley should be in future), while the veterans on the bench make for a nice balance.
Bringing in LeBron, even if age does not begin to catch up with him, which surely must happen eventually, would go against what looks to be a smooth timeline for contention for a talented squad.
The Cavaliers’ situation and chemistry
The Cavs have everything they need to consider themselves contenders, their 7-1 start out of the gate is no accident.
So far this season, they have the greatest points differential of teams in the league and are one of the league’s hottest three-point shooting teams.
In some ways, given how well they are shooting from outside, you can see why that would lend itself perfectly to LeBron’s talents. Everyone knows, if you surround him with shooters then you can legitimately contend for a title.
He has to be the primary ball carrier in a team, though, and between Garland and Mitchell, those duties are already covered. It would neuter the key skills of those two to have them as off-ball shooters and is one LeBron better than both of them? Definitely not.
Also, the Cavs are playing with a flow – and even though it is early in Mitchell’s acclimatation process, they are sharing the load. In the win over last season’s Eastern Conference champions Boston, LeVert and the former Jazz guard scored 35 points each. So, even when a flamethrower like Mitchell is on fire, there is always enough ball movement and rhythm to ensure other guys are chipping in.
Mobley, Allen, Garland, as well as Love and Cedi Osman from the bench, are all averaging double figures in points and importantly players are engaged and playing for each other on both ends. They have no need to destabilise a fantastic chemistry which is building since acquiring Mitchell.
LeBron’s salary and cost to get him
James is on a contract which goes from $44.5m this year to $46.6m next year and then $50.4m, through 2024-25.
The Cavs have Mitchell, Allen and Garland committed to big money through next year and beyond with Love and LeVert on big-money expiring deals and only one future first-round draft pick until the end of the decade, their 2024 first-rounder, likely to fall quite low.
Any hypothetical package this year would have to be built around those expiring deals and the draft capital would not interest the Lakers so likely a third team would have to get involved wanting picks and it is hard to see how a deal could happen.
Regardless, what the Cavs would be giving up would not be worth whatever LeBron has left in the tank.
The superstar baggage with LeBron
The word ‘baggage’ is used with a degree of caution – LeBron James is an outstanding professional and dedicated athlete who is brilliant for the culture of any organisation he comes into. He is a winner with an infectious desire to succeed and capable of lifting his team-mates around him to greater heights.
However, with a global superstar such as James, there is always a massive hullabaloo and that comes along with him. The scrutiny on a team is even greater by simple virtue of having him there, he automatically becomes the figurehead of any team he is in.
Then there are all of the business and other interests and considerations, TV shows etc, that he now has as priorities in his life. Anything James says is a story and although he is careful with his words in sporting terms, his other interests mean he will prioritise other elements when it comes to decision-making over what he says on other platforms.
You also have to consider the influence he holds and commands over decision-making at organisational level, some would say deservedly-so given his achievements, and how to strike the correct the respective balancing of his interests and the team’s (ie. ensuring he gets the chance to share an NBA floor with son Bronny, before his career is over).
These last two elements are why LeBron probably has little interest in moving, especially with Bronny starring for the local Sierra Canyon high school team (it was a deliberate decision by James to prioritise his son’s career in his thinking prior to moving to Los Angeles) despite the Lakers’ struggles this season and last.
There is quite simply more to consider for him than just the sporting side of things at this stage of his life and the Cavaliers, in truth, would not want to take all of that on.
So, although in their hearts Cavaliers fans may love the idea of James returning, the truth is now it does not suit the Cavs or the man himself to make that happen.
Cleveland will always have 2016, though, and with their current squad, they have a legitimate hope of believing they can add to their solitary title – and their best chance of doing that, is without LeBron.
Live NBA action returns on Sunday evening as the Cleveland Cavaliers face the Los Angeles Lakers at Crypto.com Arena, watch from 8.30pm on Sky Sports Arena and YouTube channel; Chicago Bulls @ Toronto Raptors follows thereafter at 11pm, also on Sky Sports Arena