There comes a point when all great things must come to an end. Even though LeBron James probably has two or three more elite level seasons left, it might be best if he retires at the end of this season.
LeBron is likely looking at a sweep against the Golden State Warriors who will win their third title in four years. The Cavaliers have an average roster at best with no chance of winning a title with the way they are currently constructed. LeBron will be an unrestricted free agent this summer with realistic landing spots being the Los Angeles Lakers, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Houston Rockets. As great as LeBron has been and will continue to be, these teams don't need LeBron.
The Lakers are a young and developing team that will still struggle to win in a viciously competitive Western Conference. They do have emerging talent in PG Lonzo Ball and PF Kyle Kuzma. But LeBron will not want to deal with Lavar Ball's antics nor should anyone else for that matter.
It's also possible the presence of LeBron on the Lakers may stunt the growth of these developing talents. LeBron is an alpha male who wants control of whatever franchise his joins, based on what we've seen so far in his career. While this controlling attitude seems harsh, it's warranted based on the skillset he brings to a team. So the idea of LeBron joining Los Angeles will truly be at the expense of Lonzo Ball and Kuzma who will need to take a step back to let LeBron lead the Lakers. The Lakers are also probably wanting to add a player younger than LeBron, like a Paul George or Kawhi Leonard. A team doesn't get everything LeBron supplies with these two, but they get a lot of him with more years left to play at a high level. If LeBron signs a five year deal with a team this off-season, by the end of it he will be 38 to 39 years old. Even though LeBron is a physical specimen, he will not be nearly as athletic or capable of playing as many minutes in the latter portion of that deal.
The 76ers are also in play for Paul George or Kawhi Leonard who could join forces with an emerging superstar in Ben Simmons and star in Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons is on track to be the player that supersedes LeBron as the utility superstar in the NBA. If Simmons can develop an outside jumper and continue to mature physically, he has all of the tools to be close to LeBron's level. LeBron would also need to worry about Embiid staying healthy knowing he didn't even play until his third year because of nagging injuries. With Embiid's minutes being closely monitored, LeBron would not want to play on a team without a guy like Embiid on the floor consistently.
The Houston Rockets are also a team that has circulated the rumor mill when it comes to adding the services of King James. The move would make sense since LeBron has a great relationship with Chris Paul and since Houston was one game away from advancing to the Finals to face LeBron this year. It's doubtful that fellow alpha males in Paul and the highly touted league MVP candidate James Harden will be as willing to take a step back for LeBron to lead their team.
But if LeBron were to join Houston and be the missing piece to an otherwise completed puzzle, it would further prove just how valuable he can be to a team. But leaving Cleveland is of even greater importance to his legacy. If LeBron wins a championship somewhere else other than Cleveland next season, he will become the third player in NBA history to win a championship for three different cities. LeBron would join Robert Horry and John Salley as the only other players to accomplish this feat. What differentiates LeBron from Horry and Salley however, is that as of today, he will be remembered as the best player on each of those championships teams. This factor will be what ultimately sways LeBron out of Cleveland to let him try and add this achievement to an already stellar resume. If LeBron can win a title for a third team, it will separate him from Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, or any other all-time great player.
The other option that not many people want to consider, but cannot rule out entirely, is LeBron walking away from the NBA after this season. It may seem outrageous to some, but LeBron would not be the first player to walk away at the top of his game in sports. Another Cleveland legend, Browns RB Jim Brown retired after only nine seasons. Brown did this having led the NFL in rushing eight of those nine years.
Detroit Lions All-Pro players RB Barry Sanders and WR Calvin Johnson also called it quits much earlier than most expected. While the idea of LeBron retiring seems far fetched, it's not too far outside the realm of possibility.
By making it to the NBA Finals this season, LeBron has made it to this stage of the playoffs eight straight years now. Putting that into perspective, there have been two US Presidents in office during this streak and the number one song the last time LeBron wasn't in the Finals was Tik Tok by Ke$ha in 2010.
LeBron has made enough money from product endorsements alone to live lavishly for years and will continue to earn money this way even after retirement. LeBron also has three children who are growing up fast. While LeBron handles media attention marvelously by being an attentive and proud father, he's missed a lot of his children's childhoods. As much as he loves the game of basketball, he loves his family even more. He may not want to waste anymore time away from them.
There is also no shame in retiring to simply take a break either. Michael Jordan, who some claim to be the greatest basketball player ever, retired twice before truly calling it quits the third time. By making it to the Finals eight straight years, LeBron plays the longest season of any player and also has the shortest off-season to recover. It may be wise for LeBron to step away and simply let his body recover from the years of punishment it has taken during this stretch. He can retire for a year, and comeback to Cleveland knowing that the contracts for those subpar pieces he has now are moveable. LeBron would then be able to start over fresh with a new roster leaving his legacy and sentimental commitment to Cleveland still intact. As great as LeBron has been for the NBA and it's fans, the last thing people want to see is a King James who slowly declines.
The saddest thing in sports is when great athletes stick around for too long, becoming shells of their former selves. Michael Jordan was broken down and an overweight jump shooter in his final seasons with the Washington Wizards. While there were brief glimpses of his former self, it was a severely watered down version of the Jordan people marvel about today with the Wizards. Jordan's reluctance to walk away from the NBA tarnished the image some fans had of him from his days in Chicago. Adding insult to injury, Jordan failed to qualify for the playoffs in his two season comeback with Washington.
Allen Iverson was one of the NBA's most dynamic playmakers for the Philadelphia 76ers winning the 2001 league MVP Award and compiled over 24,000 points during his career. Iverson stuck around for too long though, bouncing around the league, playing for four teams in three seasons including one overseas. While Iverson's need to play was mostly financial due to poor money management, it was just a sad end to a once promising career.
Kobe Bryant is one more example of a player who's career should have ended sooner than it did for the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite winning five championships in his career, the lasting image most fans have of Bryant is the mountain of injuries he compiled in his final years. A torn achilles tendon in 2013 and torn rotator cuff in 2015 made playing game to game a deep challenge for the once vibrant Bryant. Fortunate for him and his fans, his last game was one out of a storybook. Bryant scored a season high for any player that season with 60 points. Bryant would also outscore his opponent's entire team, the Utah Jazz, 23 to 21 in the 4th quarter of that contest. Bryant's phenomenal last act ended up giving Los Angeles the win 101-96 and let Laker fans have one more memory of Kobe before his retirement.
No one wants to see LeBron get to that point. Sure, LeBron could easily play two to three more years of peak level basketball, but there really isn't too much more for him to prove when it comes to his own legacy in the NBA.
LeBron James has easily been the NBA's best player for over a decade. This is true even in years he wasn't given the league's Most Valuable Player Award. Other players have had better individual regular seasons such as Derrick Rose in 2010-2011 or Russell Westbrook in 2016-2017 where he averaged a triple double. Making Westbrook the first player to accomplish that feat since Oscar Robertson in 1962. But neither Rose or Westbrook has had the impact James has had on his teams. For instance, LeBron's last MVP season in Cleveland during the 2009-2010 season let the Cavaliers have the NBA's best record at 61-21. The Cavs imploded though after LeBron's "decision" to leave Cleveland that off-season to join forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Cleveland then compiled a dreadful league worst 19-63 record and was forced to rebuild with the first overall pick in the ensuing draft.
LeBron would go on to lead the Heat to the Finals in his first year there but would eventually fall to the Dallas Mavericks in a disappointing 6 game series. But since this devastating loss in the Finals, LeBron has put together the best eight year stretch of any player in league history.
LeBron has now made it to the Finals an unbelievable 8 straight times. James has also been the best player in the Finals every year during this stretch. James has so far earned two titles in Miami and one in Cleveland, earning a Finals MVP for each performance he was victorious. But even in years he has lost in the Finals, the player who limited him to a dominant triple double average stat line earns the Finals MVP for their team. Spurs SF Kawhi Leonard earned the Finals MVP in 2014, with SF Andre Iguodala and SF Kevin Durant winning it for the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and 2017 respectively. So essentially the guy that contains LeBron to a triple double for the Finals is considered the most valuable player for his team when King James loses.
LeBron was even able to win the Finals in 2016, overcoming the odds against arguably the best team ever, a 73-9 Golden State Warriors team. With the victory, LeBron was able to deliver the championship he promised Cleveland. The defeat of the Warriors also broke a 52 year championship drought in the city of Cleveland for any major sports team. But in response to this upset win, the Warriors added the next best player in the world behind LeBron in Kevin Durant to their roster. This move of desperation by Golden State just proves how dominant LeBron has been for more than a decade. It took four NBA All-Stars, two league MVP's, 3 Olympic gold medalists, and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate all to stop a then 32-year-old LeBron James that next year in the Finals.
This year's run to the Finals has been LeBron's most impressive yet. LeBron has taken an average Cavs team at best to the Finals by merely outplaying his opposition by himself. The Cavaliers at the beginning of the season traded their best ball handler and closer in Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics after he demanded a trade.
The move to trade Kyrie away brought in Isiah Thomas who was an All-Star level performer the year before, but injuries and lack of effective play made him an inadequate replacement.
The Cavs also added Dwayne Wade to be a closer and vital piece come playoff time. Despite Wade's close relationship with LeBron, he was not satisfied with limited playing time in favor of the inconsistent JR Smith. Dwayne Wade was eventually moved to Miami, the place he played a majority of his career prior to signing with Cleveland. The Cavs then overhauled their roster about half way through the season to provide LeBron with younger complimentary talent.
Through trades with several teams throughout the NBA, the Cavs were able to add two guard George Hill, PF Larry Nance Jr., PG Jordan Clarkson, and SF Rodney Hood. On paper, the Cavs looked like they added pieces who were younger and more athletic than the group they had before. But they have been bitter disappointments based on their performances in the playoffs.
Jordan Clarkson has gone a combined 3 for 14 from the field in the Finals so far and did not even play in Game 3. Larry Nance Jr. has supplied some energy for LeBron crashing the glass effectively but is barely averaging more than five points per game.
Other than a standout Game 3 with 15 points, Rodney Hood has been pitiful too in helping LeBron. In fact, Hood was so ineffective that head coach Ty Lue took him out of the rotation to start the Finals and only let him play four minutes in Game 2.
Knowing that the contracts for George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Rodney Hood are still on the books for next season, LeBron will definitely leave Cleveland. There is no reason to stay with an average roster at best knowing that these players can't be moved through trade and there is no hope for championships.
Ultimately, it's the Cavaliers front office who should be blamed when LeBron leaves Cleveland after this season. They could have done more to keep Kyrie instead of letting him go for peanuts to the Celtics. Irving would end up missing the end of the regular season and all of the playoffs with yet another knee injury. But despite this setback, the future looks very bright for Boston.
The Celtics are a budding threat with a full roster of young talent and a promising coach in Brad Stevens leading the way. Boston ultimately took Cleveland to Game 7 at home, but lost due to LeBron's greatness in elimination games.
As disappointing as it is to lose that way, with LeBron getting older, Boston is setup to compete for championships in the East for at least the next five years.
LeBron does deserve a little bit of the blame for this roster, having some influence over the moves that are made within the organization. But he can only sway opinions so much before a decision is made. It's amazing that Cleveland will some how manage to lose the best player of this generation not once, but twice within a span of eight years. Cleveland is fortunate LeBron even considered coming back to Cleveland in the first place. Ownership has treated LeBron horribly in both stints by not providing adequate surrounding talent, by forcing out former GM David Griffin and for the harsh criticism LeBron received from owner Dan Gilbert himself in a rage filled letter after rightfully leaving Cleveland the first time.
Ultimately, if LeBron decides to come back and play next season, it most certainly will not be with the Cavaliers. But in the event he retires, LeBron will easily go down as a top five player all-time in the history of the NBA right now. His undeniable skillset, physical attributes, and mental toughness has not been seen before and will likely not be seen again in this league. So if this is in fact the last act for LeBron, let's hope fans appreciate what this man has achieved in his career. By not only meeting the extremely high expectations that were placed on him, but exceeding them in the face of intense adversity and criticism.
Jimmy Kennedy, who thinks LeBron James should retire after this season, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org