I feel like I’m writing these types of articles at least once a week. Not that I’m complaining. There was once a time when the Oklahoma City Thunder weren’t even mentioned in the same breath when discussing names like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But the Golden State Warriors have gone all Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on the NBA and flipped things upside down. In order to combat that, the big names of the game are figuring out, in order to compete against the Dubs, they will likely have to join forces together.
Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated is the premier basketball writer of his time. If there is a big story to tell, Jenkins is probably the one telling it. His stories are bits and pieces of not only the player, but also the people around said player. His articles are about as insider as they come; like a literal reality show. Don’t get him confused with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Jenkins isn’t in the business to break news, he’s in it to the tell the story behind the breaking news.
When Jenkins speaks, it’s certainly not off the cuff. There is a lot of contexture behind his statements, especially when he says something that may be considered “breaking news”. He gets an insider’s view into a lot of the players’ lives, and with that, probably a lot of one on one time when the cameras aren’t on. Players tend to relax a little bit when the cameras aren’t focused on them. To say that Jenkins may “know” a player is probably understating it.
Yesterday, Jenkins appeared on ESPN’s The Jump, along with ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne. With James’ future becoming more cloudy by the day, Shelburne broached the James topic with Jenkins. And within the scope of the conversation, Jenkins dropped the following (as paraphrased by Ben Golliver):
Another week, another connection between Oklahoma City and a superstar. Except this time, it is The Superstar. Again, the Warriors are causing upper echelon players to rethink where they want to go. While there are some teams willing to ride out the Golden State wave, other teams are trying to stop that wave altogether. Accomplishing that requires the acquiring of top level talent. And not just top level talent, but the right top level talent.
Players like Kevin Love, Nene, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, etc are good in their own respect. They are elite at something, whether it’s interior scoring, spacing the floor, or offensive rebounding. But in this new NBA, they need to be good at other aspects of the game. If they aren’t, a team like Golden State will expose those weaknesses and cause those players to be almost unplayable. With that said, if a team is amassing players to combat the likes of Golden State or someone like Houston, they need to have multidimensional players that can play on both ends of the floor.
LeBron James has a no-trade clause in his current deal. He has already said that he won’t exercise that clause this season. But……what if this season doesn’t go as expected? The Cavaliers have been to the Finals three straight seasons, but last season, a lot of their warts were on display in the regular season. To combat those weaknesses, Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue had to play James 37.8 minutes per game. That is the most James has had to play per game since the 2012-13 season. Depending on what the Cavs get for Kyrie Irving, that trend may have to continue for the Cavs to put themselves in position to succeed in the playoffs. That may be a tall task, even in the East. Is LeBron actually willing to lose a year of his prime just to stay in Cleveland this season?
Those prime years for James are running out. He has to realize that. More than most superstar athletes, James seems to be very pragmatic. He has a sense of making the right decision when it comes to his playing career. Eight years ago, the team around him in Cleveland hit a stone ceiling, so he decided to take his talents to Miami and surround himself with other superstar players. When that union grew sour after four years, he decided to go back to Cleveland. But don’t kid yourself. He didn’t go back to Cleveland just out of civic loyalty. Instead he went to a Cleveland team that had accumulated a cache of assets that could be flipped into other star players to put around him.
Four years later, this current tour of duty in Cleveland seems to have run its course. Now the ball is once again in James’ court. Next off-season is likely the time for him to make his next decision. But if he chooses to make that decision a little earlier, say…..around the trade deadline, there may be no better situation than Oklahoma City. If James’ prime objective in these next few seasons is to try and win as many championship as possible, there is no team better set-up currently than Oklahoma City.
Let’s not forget why Kevin Durant is now a member of the Golden State Warriors and currently has one championship and counting. There was a series of events that had to occur to create the perfect scenario for Durant to sign with Golden State. In any other year, the Warriors wouldn’t have had enough cap space to sign a player the caliber of Durant to a deserving contract. But when the players’ union decided to reap the benefits of the new TV money in one off-season instead of smoothing it out over a 3-5 year period, every team in the league became flushed with an extra $20+ million in cap space. With Durant tired of losing and seeing an opportunity to join a 73-win title contender, the perfect storm became a reality and here we are today.
It could be a fork in the road moment for James. While Durant got to make his decision in the off-season, James may have to make his decision in February of 2018. That is, if he wants to join a title contender this season. The issue with teams like Oklahoma City, Houston, and/or San Antonio is they will likely not be able to sign James in the off-season without completely gutting their roster. But if James chooses to join any of those teams during the season, that team would own James’ Bird rights. And hold the ability to continue a potential dynasty past this season. It’s all up to James, though.
The parameters of any trade for James are easily set up without having to get rid of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams. Oklahoma City still has a good cache of tradeable assets that includes veterans on reasonable contracts, young talent that is rapidly developing, and a valuable 2nd round pick. I don’t mean to get all Games of Thrones on you, but if James forces the Cavs’ hand this season, OKC may have enough of a package to get the King of the East together with the King of the Prairie. And that should definitely be enough to battle the 4-headed dragon in Westeros.