Thinking out loud about LeBron James’ fit with the Sixers. . .
I don’t want to be that guy. I really don’t. But the more I think about it, the less I like the idea of LeBron James. I hate writing that sentence, because its a quick trip to the hot take waste bin for a lot of people. And that’s understandable. The burden of proof is squarely on the guy trying to argue against the most physically dominant basketball player since Wilt Chamberlain, and I’m not sure I can find the evidence. In fact, I know that I can’t. It would be difficult to find four guys on this Earth who wouldn’t become a championship contender with James in the fold. The Cavs certainly tried this season. Swap out Kyle Korver for JJ Redick, and Jordan Clarkson for Ben Simmons, and Tristan Thompson for Joel Embiid? Hard to imagine the Eastern Conference finals going seven games.
At the same time, I’m not sure about the validity of the notion that you can just plug LeBron in to any roster and expect to compete with the Warriors or the Rockets or even the Celtics once they have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward in the fold. Keep in mind, the Cavs completely dismantled the team they had built around LeBron at midseason in pursuit of a better set of complementary parts. This, after they had already done so in the offseason, trading away Irving because of his discomfort playing with the King.
That kind of roster maneuvering won’t be an option with the Sixers, and LeBron has never played with a true ball-dominant big man like Embiid. Chris Bosh was the third option on those Heat teams. He averaged 13 shots per game in the four seasons he played with James. Embiid averaged 16.8 last season.
Another significant question is how LeBron and Simmons would work together. All three of James’ titles have seen him playing alongside a guard who can create his own shot outside the paint (Dwyane Wade with the Heat, Irving with the Cavs). A lot of LeBron’s value comes from his ability to draw defenders and then kick out. With Simmons and Embiid on the court with him, who is he kicking out to?
I also wonder about the defensive end of the court. For instance, in a seven-game series, who guards Irving? It’s a question the Warriors couldn’t quite answer two Finals ago. One can argue that the key to unseating a healthy Celtics team as the top contender in the Eastern Conference will lie on the defensive end of the court.
Same goes for the Warriors. The Rockets were able to take them to seven games in large part because they were able to hold them under 100 points in Games 4 and 5. Look back to the 2016-17 Finals, the one title that LeBron won without a hand-picked superteam. The Cavs held Golden State under 102 points in all four of their wins. The Warriors shot just .329 from three-point range in that series.
None of this is a knock on LeBron. There has been no better all-around player in the NBA since he entered the league, and, one can argue, since the league’s inception. For full disclosure, I would argue that the LeBron-Jordan debates often gloss over the sheer dominance that Jordan displayed on the defensive end of the court, but I would also argue that the argument itself is a silly and unnecessary equivalency to begin with. But, then, both are arguments for another day.
As for today, the argument that resonates with me the most is the one that Brett Brown has put forward. It’s a two-parter, the first delivered in early April, when he named LeBron the greatest of all time before a game against the Cavaliers. The second part came at the end of the season, when he emphatically endorsed the notion that a player of such caliber would be a welcome and indisputable wise addition to his team. Brown did not cite LeBron by name, due to those pesky tampering rules that sports leagues insist upon, but the majority of people who listened to him came away with the understanding that he was referring to his personally anointed GOAT.
I was one of those people, but only after hearing the second part of Brown’s answer to a question about the identity of the player who would be at the top of the team’s list in free agency.
“For the first time since I have been here, there is tremendous clarity on what we have,” he said. “There’s no mystery when you look at what is Ben Simmons’ skill package, and there’s no mystery of what is Joel Embiid’s skill package. And so you say simply, what compliments that?”
The name that popped into my mind was Paul George, a great-to-elite defender who knocks down threes at a .390+ clip and plays off the ball. With the offensive upgrade that he offers on the wing, the Sixers could err a little more on the side of defense at the two-guard, and bring a pure three-point shooter off the bench to pair with Robert Covington.
But, then, Brown knows more about basketball than I ever will. And, besides, it’s hard to imagine LeBron resisting the opportunity to build a superteam with the Lakers that could also include George. It’s an interesting thought experiment. But, chances are, that’s all it will be.