This week, we will examine LeBron James’ free agency in depth by writing a preview of his July decision in the voice of a writer that believes he will sign with a different potential suitor each day. The Sports Post’s official prediction will be revealed on Thursday, June 21st, with the runner-ups revealed in no particular order. Today’s team is the Philadelphia 76ers.
If there is one universal truth in the NBA, it is this: talent wins championships. There have been 39 NBA champions since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA in 1979. Every single one of them has had at least one All-Star. All but nine have had two, but many of those teams that sent only one player to the All-Star Game did so under unfair circumstances.
Clyde Drexler hadn’t yet joined the 1995 Houston Rockets by the All Star break, for instance, and the same was true for Rasheed Wallace with the 2004 Pistons. Both later made All-Star Games with those teams. Kawhi Leonard won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014, so calling him All-Star-caliber would be safe. Scottie Pippen played on two Bulls’ championship teams that didn’t include All-Star appearances, but he made the team in the prior season in both cases.
Here’s where things get more interesting. There have been 13 champions since the Magic/Bird era with at least three All-Stars. More dauntingly, there is currently a two-time defending champion with four. Four is something of a holy number when it comes to All-Stars. Only nine times in NBA history has a team assembled four All-Stars in a single season. In four of them (the 1962 Boston Celtics, 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, and 2017-18 Golden State Warriors), that team won the championship in that season. In four more, the team in question (the 1975 Boston Celtics, 1998 Los Angeles Lakers, 2006 Detroit Pistons and 2011 Boston Celtics), a championship was won within three years in either direction of that achievement.
The only team ever to send four players to the All-Star Game and not win a championship with that core was the 2015 Atlanta Hawks. If you believe Jeff Teague is a true All-Star, raise your hand.
The overall message is clear. It is extremely difficult to deny a team with four stars. One currently exists in Oakland. And the best way to combat it would be to recreate it.
LeBron James is one of those stars. He is the NBA’s brightest star. But as the NBA Finals proved, he is not enough to beat the Warriors on his own. If he remains with the Cleveland Cavaliers, there is no reason to believe he will ever have another true star teammate on his roster. Kevin Love has made All-Star Games in Cleveland. He is also going to be a 30-year-old defensive liability when next season opens who just shot worse percentages in the Finals than Jordan Clarkson did in the regular season.
James would almost certainly have at least one star teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unlikely that he would join the team without assurance that Paul George was joining him there. Beyond that, though, nothing is assured. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are both No. 2 overall picks who have under-performed their draft slot. Assuming they have to use the stretch provision on Luol Deng to make the money work, the Lakers wouldn’t have the salaries leftover to trade for another star without gutting their depth. Even if they could, that would only get them to three.
The Houston Rockets would have three with James, Chris Paul and James Harden, but it’s unclear how much longer that would last. Paul did just miss the last two games of the Western Conference Finals with a hamstring injury after being held out of 45 regular season games over the past two seasons. He is also 33 years old, and the Rockets have no feasible way to add another star later on. They have no external draft assets that are appealing to other teams, will have virtually everyone on their roster on a market-value or higher contract, and Clint Capela would be the only player in their rotation under 29 barring outside additions. The Rockets might have three stars next season. They wouldn’t for very long.
But Philadelphia would have star power for the rest of James’ career if they managed to sign him. Their two best players are Joel Embiid, a 24-year-old center who just made second-team All-NBA. Ben Simmons is 21 years old and was the fourth-highest vote-getter to miss the cut. By that measure, they are already top-20 players in the NBA.
James obviously is as well, and clearing the cap space for him would be relatively easy. They would only have to move the expiring contract of Jerryd Bayless. At around $8.6 million, that is easily doable. Any team with cap space would gladly take a future first-round pick to eat such a minor amount of salary. That would leave the Sixers with James, Simmons and Embiid.
And last season’s No. 1 overall pick, Markelle Fultz. And this season’s No. 10 overall pick. Plus 2014’s No. 12 overall pick, Dario Šarić. And three-and-D maestro Robert Covington. That is an extremely competitive group of assets, more than enough to acquire a fourth and final star.
Kawhi Leonard will be the name to come to mind. He is essentially the superstar version of Covington — capable of playing the league’s best defense, hitting 40% of his three-pointers, operating within a free-flowing offense and scoring in isolation situations. But if the Sixers are outbid for Leonard, there are more than enough consolation prizes on the market.
Both of Portland’s star guards, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, should be at least somewhat available following a second consecutive first round sweep. After firing Dwayne Casey, Toronto is probably at least somewhat receptive to trading Philadelphia native Kyle Lowry. Kemba Walker and Goran Dragić both made the All-Star Team last season and both play for franchises that desperately need a change of direction.
Which player winds up joining the party is irrelevant. Talent wins out in the NBA. Even when the fit isn’t perfect, which is the primary objection most have to James joining the Sixers. It wouldn’t be the first time a championship was built around questionable chemistry. It wouldn’t even be the first time for James.
He did, after all, join a Miami Heat team that had a shooting guard in Dwyane Wade that was just as averse to three-point shooting as Simmons is now. That didn’t stop James from winning two championships there. Players with the basketball IQ of Wade or Simmons are capable of finding ways to affect the geometry of the court without holding the ball. Wade, for instance, became a master of the baseline. He was perhaps the NBA’s best cutter at his peak with James. Simmons would find similar off-ball uses.
There were fit issues in Golden State as well, though admittedly not as stark. Any team with several star-level talents had to figure out the specifics on the fly. But as the Warriors have proven, the risks are well worth the rewards. James cannot beat the Warriors without creating his own version of them. Philadelphia is the only team that makes that possible.