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Would LeBron be more likely to join the Sixers if they lose to Celtics?

 

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor 

LeBron James, rather infamously, took his No. 23 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey off in the tunnel of TD Garden after the Boston Celtics upset James's Cavaliers in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Game 6 of that series turned out to be the final game James would play for the Cavaliers in his first stint with the team, as he "took his talents to South Beach" just under two months later. Eight years later, could it be that a frustrated Ben Simmons walking off the court at TD Garden, eliminated by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, could actually increase the chances that James brings his talents to South Philly this offseason? 

Let's start with this: this article isn't about how LeBron would potentially coexist with Ben Simmons. It's also, regardless of your opinion on the question that the article poses, not one where Sixers fans are being asked to actively root against the team. The Sixers are 12 wins away from their first NBA title since the Reagan administration. If the cost of winning a title this year is that LeBron ultimately elects to go somewhere else in free-agency, so be it. 

The goal of this article is to put all of that aside. Pretend, even if just for a moment, that the No. 1 goal of the Sixers organization currently is to lure LeBron to Philadelphia this offseason, even if it means putting a potentially historic playoff run on hold for a year. 

For this debate to even become a serious one, it would require LeBron declining his $35.6 million option for the 2018-19 season. During Sunday's Game 7 between the Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers, I stopped to wonder if it's possible that James opts into one more year with the Cavaliers. There doesn't seem to be an obvious favorite to land his services this offseason, and perhaps with one more season, the Cavaliers could retool a team around James that allows him to win a few more championships and do so while playing for his hometown team. 

In theory, that idea sounds great. But LeBron is 33. He's reminded on an almost daily basis that he has half the amount of championships as Michael Jordan. He did lead the Cavaliers to an NBA Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors in 2015-16, though even that almost didn't happen. The Cavaliers, behind incredible performances from James and Kyrie Irving, came back from a 3-1 deficit and held on to win one of the most closely contested Game 7's in sports history. That Cavaliers team, even beyond Irving, was significantly better than the current one. That Warriors team didn't include Kevin Durant. 

It took seven games - and a dominant Game 7 performance from LeBron - to defeat the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. They stole Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Raptors, but it's still unclear if they'll be able to do that three more times, let alone make a run to the NBA Finals. This Cavaliers team is better than the one LeBron left after 2010, though probably not by a ton. It's not better than the Miami Heat team that he left after falling to the San Antonio Spurs in five games in the 2013-14 NBA Finals. The common denominator on both teams that LeBron left was that not only did he not feel they were good enough to win the NBA Finals the next year, but for a few years to come. The 2017-18 Cavaliers have that feel, leading you to think that while LeBron may be more graceful in his second exit from Cleveland, there will be a second exit from Cleveland this offseason. 

The Sixers check off a lot of the boxes that the Cavaliers don't. Though this may have sounded foolish at the beginning of the season, the 2017-18 Sixers are a better team than the 2017-18 Cavaliers. The 2018-19 Sixers will be a better team than the 2018-19 Cavaliers. The 2019-20 Sixers will be a better team than the 2019-20 Cavaliers. That's not to say that the individual greatness of LeBron won't will the Cavaliers to a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. It's not even to say that the individual greatness of LeBron couldn't lead them to maybe one more title over the course of the next few seasons, should he remain in Cleveland. But do the Cavaliers give him a realistic chance to get to six titles? Nope. 

As much (or more) than any possible suitor - short of the Warriors getting involved - the Sixers would give LeBron that chance. It would be a process (no pun intended) for him and Simmons to gel, but the idea of those two on the same team is scary. Add that to Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz, and it isn't hard to see why some think that the best destination for LeBron this offseason would be Philadelphia. 

Bill Simmons of The Ringer wrote one of the best pieces on the internet in February. In it, he touched on how LeBron could finish the last chapter of his career so well that it causes observers to say that while peak Michael Jordan may have been better than any player in NBA history, LeBron had a more sustained period of historic greatness. Whether you think that narrative is plausible or not isn't really the point. Simmons (Bill, not Ben) made the point that LeBron loves narratives, and the Sixers would give him the best chance to make this imagined narrative a reality. 

That piece was written in February, when the Sixers seemed likely to make the playoffs, but, at best, win one series. Since then, we've come to the conclusion that without LeBron, this Cavaliers team would be hard-pressed to win 30 games. The Celtics lost Irving for the season. And the Sixers have come of age quicker than anyone anticipated, as they've gone 25-7 since Simmons published that piece. 

 

Since LeBron seems to be a fan of narratives this much, Simmons opined that he's unlikely to take a lesser deal to join the Warriors or Houston Rockets, because he would be accused of taking the easy way out in his attempt to accumulate championships. (Fair or not, Kevin Durant's legacy may have been better off with him winning one title with the Oklahoma City Thunder than three or four with the Warriors). 

At that time, the Sixers seemed to fit the narrative, though. They were a team with blue-chip pieces that probably wasn't going to make a serious playoff run. LeBron could join that team, and to the casual observer it would look as though he taught Simmons and Embiid "how to win," even if that narrative only worked to win over casual viewers. Now, the Sixers have the fourth best odds in the entire league to win the NBA Finals. There's a very real chance that LeBron will meet up with them in the Eastern Conference Finals. Whether he defeats them in the Eastern Conference Finals or falls to them - should the series take place - he may be accused of taking the easy way out if he joins the Sixers. Heck, even if the Cavaliers lose in this round, if the Sixers make it to the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals, the "he taught them how to win" narrative would kind of go out the window. 

So it brings us to this: would the Sixers be more likely to lure James if they are eliminated by the Celtics - perhaps in a fashion that looks as though they are a few years away - than if they make it passed them? It probably wouldn't hurt. 

There's two schools of thought here. The first is that by joining the Warriors, Durant opened a can of worms that would make it more acceptable for LeBron to join the best possible team, even if that team was good enough to make it the the conference finals or even NBA Finals without him. Heck, there's probably not a team that LeBron could join where his team would be the favorite to win the 2018-19 NBA Finals over the Warriors.

There's also not a team - short of joining the Warriors - where it would look like LeBron was taking the easy way out to the same extent as some felt Durant did. Even before Durant got to Golden State, they had won the Western Conference in consecutive years. They were a historic collapse away from winning back-to-back NBA titles. Steph Curry had won the MVP in consecutive years. And despite not being able to hold onto a 3-1 NBA Finals lead, the 2015-16 Warriors had set a regular season record with 73 wins. 

If LeBron were to join the Rockets, in time, people would probably chalk it up to it being a product of the era he played in. If he joined a team in the Eastern Conference that he could potentially see in the next few weeks - like the Sixers - the same thing. The Warriors are such a historically dominant team, that for LeBron to win a few more titles, he may have to try to build an all-time great team himself. 

Still, it's hard to shake Simmons's point about how much LeBron loves narratives. Certainly, LeBron felt like he had unfinished business in Cleveland, which played a part in his return there. Perhaps a major part. But it was evident the core around him in Miami needed retooling, and while he was gone from Cleveland, they had drafted both Irving and Andrew Wiggins (who turned into Kevin Love). If LeBron didn't think he had a chance to win multiple titles in his return to Cleveland, he wouldn't have returned. Still, the Sports Illustrated cover announcing his return didn't say "I'm returning to Cleveland because Kyrie has all-time great handles and we can flip Wiggins for another star." It said "I'm Coming Home." It harped on a narrative. 

So if we assume that LeBron wants to create one last narrative, it would appear that it would be best for the Sixers chances of landing him to be eliminated by the Celtics. Is this current Sixers core capable of winning a title? Most of Philadelphia thinks so, but that may not be the perception around the country. If the Sixers lose in this series, the narrative could be painted that LeBron teamed up with his protege, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid, and saved them from being Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Would that be a silly narrative? Probably, but most are. Perhaps a better one would be that Simmons and Embiid are capable of winning a title together, but with LeBron, they are capable of being a dynasty. 

In any event, losing in this round would allow the narrative to stay intact, especially when you consider the Sixers would be losing to a team set to get Irving and Gordon Hayward back next season. It would enhance one of the greatest rivalries in NBA history - Sixers vs. Celtics - as the two teams would battle for Eastern Conference supremacy for the foreseeable future. LeBron would be joining the biggest competitor of Irving's Celtics, setting him up with a chance to block his former No. 2 in charge from being the face of the East's best team, which was what he hoped to attain by stepping out from behind LeBron's shadow in Cleveland. There would be narratives on narratives on narratives if the Sixers lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, only for LeBron to join them this offseason. 

Again, this isn't asking Sixers fans not to root for the team. Even after Monday's loss in Game 1 to the Celtics, the team is still only 12 wins away from Philadelphia's second parade in six months. But, if the Sixers lose to the Celtics this round, it probably wouldn't hurt their chances of landing a player on the NBA's Mount Rushmore this offseason. It's a win/win. 

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