LeBron James and the Cavs are in Philly to face Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Sixers tonight. The way the Sixers are playing this season, and the run the Cavs are on, this is a big game in the Eastern Conference, especially for a Monday night in November.
Really, any time LeBron comes to Philly it’s a big game. And with the best player of this generation in town, now’s as good a time as any to have the conversation about LeBron coming here on a more permanent basis next season.
If you trust The Process, you know this is true.
And yet, while I tried my level best to avoid politics this Thanksgiving — we opted for talks of traffic, the Beatles and moondrop grapes instead — I went to a pre-Thanksgiving party primed to talk about The Process. And LeBron. I ended up in an argument.
Protip: While the bulk of this NBA season is still ahead and the Sixers are currently in position to make the playoffs, the notion of whether the Sixers “need” LeBron James to be title contenders next year is almost as polarizing as whether or not America is being made great, again.
There are some Sixers fans who don’t think the team needs LeBron James to win a title, and that bringing LeBron to Philly next year to win would be a cheap way to win.
“What about The Process?”
That’s the thing. LeBron coming to Philly would be the culmination of The Process. That’s the endgame of this half-decade rebuild: To construct a roster that would entice top-flight free agents to town, while making sure the team has the optionality — Sam Hinkie’s word — to sign the deals and make the moves needed to win.
While still the GM of the Sixers Hinkie said the whole reason for this strip-down-and-build up process was that because the only way to win a title in the NBA today, a franchise needs multiple generational talents. The only two ways to do that is to draft stars and/or sign a big free agent. Hinkie knew that big free agents only go to teams with players they want to play with or the cap space to bring along their friends.
This is the first year the Sixers have a roster worthy of big-ticket free agents. As good as they might become this year, it’s still a season of building for the future.
J.J. Redick came to Philly this season for $23 million, but also for the chance to play with a young team that’s on the verge of something special. If the Sixers were to add someone like Paul George next year, they’d be instant contenders in the East. But if they sign LeBron, they’re title favorites, along with the Golden State Warriors.
Before Hinkie’s plan could come to fruition with the Sixers, the Warriors went and broke the mold again. No longer is it good enough to have two stars to win a title. Now teams need three or four. This year, the Sixers couldn’t rest on the idea of just having a healthy Embiid and Simmons. They needed Fultz too.
Think about this realistically: Nobody is beating the Warriors the way the league is currently constructed, if everyone on that team stays healthy throughout the playoffs. The only hope to even compete with the likes of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green is to build another team with as much depth and as many great players as the Warriors.
Oklahoma City and Houston have tried, with varying degrees of success so far this season. San Antonio will always be a tough out in the playoffs and Minnesota has definitely made moves to compete in the West. Boston, when full strength, might have a shot next year. It’s clear that no matter how good people think Toronto or Washington might be, the class of the conference is Cleveland and Boston. Unless LeBron leaves.
Again, if he leaves Cleveland next year — still an if, but also probably a when — the Cavs immediately fall out of the title conversation, while whatever team he goes to instantly becomes a contender. With the backlash Durant got after ditching OKC for a Golden State team that had gone to back-to-back NBA Finals, winning one and losing another in historic fashion to LeBron and the Cavs, it stands to reason James will want to go to a location that’s up and coming; that he can be the piece that makes them champions. In other words, he’s not joining the Warriors. Or the Celtics.
The Sixers are 11-7 and currently in fifth in the East, which says something about where they are in their development, but also about the general lack of elite teams across the rest of the conference. The money will be something Bryan Colangelo will need to figure out, but simply taking Jahlil Okafor off the roster — the former No. 3 pick doesn’t play, won’t play and will be gone the second the Sixers can find a landing spot for him — and replacing him with James turns a good young Sixers team into the best team in the East.
Take LeBron off the Cavs and the rest of Cleveland’s team is not as good as the Sixers are right now. Add James to Brett Brown’s team and they’re as good or better than the Celtics, even with Gordon Hayward back from his broken leg.
Would LeBron come to Philly? For more than a year the rumor in NBA circles has been that LeBron wants to go to Los Angeles, as he has a home there and countless business interests. While he’s certainly not going to the Clippers, making the Lakers into a champion again would confirm his legacy as one of the greatest of all time.
Magic. Kareem. Wilt. West. Kobe. Shaq. LeBron might see going to LA to win a title as a challenge worthy of the best players in the history of the game.
The Lakers’ young core is talented, but they seem at least a year or two behind where the Sixers are right now. Maybe more. And as good as LeBron is, unless he brings George or another top player with him next season, he alone won’t be enough to lift the Lakers to the Finals out of the stacked West. He’s great, but he’s not THAT great.
Coming to Philly would allow LeBron to stay in the East, which will be much easier to navigate back to the NBA Finals than going out West for the first time in his career. He’d be on a coast again, and while he would not be in New York or LA, he’d be in a top-five media market and 90 minutes from NYC.
He spurned the Knicks before, so it’s unlikely at this point in his career he’d make that move, and while Brooklyn might be enticing, the Sixers are a way better option than the Nets. LeBron also has the same agent as Simmons, who sees him as a mentor, and other than adding perhaps another shooter, the roster really only has one hole — a legit stretch four who can handle the ball.
Many of us thought that would be Simmons, but he’s an actual point guard, and already one of the best in the league at the position. Dario Saric might become that player, but imagine the upgrade of having Saric off the bench as an energy guy and replacing Okafor’s roster spot with LeBron.
The Sixers could run out a lineup next season of Embiid, Simmons, James, Redick and Robert Covington, with Fultz (oh yeah, the No. 1 pick this year), Saric, and some combination of Jerryd Bayless, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell off the bench. Amir Johnson is on a one-year deal, and while Redick is as well, chances are higher the Sixers try to keep Redick in town than Johnson if looking to free up enough money for LeBron.
Look, I get it. It’s November and LeBron is in town with his current team that will likely get back to the NBA Finals yet again this season. They’ll figure out this odd Derrick Rose situation soon, Isaiah Thomas is tweeting it’s almost time for him to return and they’ll add another piece to join Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green to do enough to win the East over Boston.
Meanwhile, we should be happy with the progress the Sixers are making and excited for the future of this team growing and building together. We don’t need LeBron to be happy.
But let’s hold off on saying the Sixers don’t need LeBron to win a title.
Watching this team get built through the draft and adding veteran pieces to compliment the young core has been so much fun. But The Process was never about just getting three or four top picks and turning those players into a team that can contend. It was always about building a roster of great young players and getting a top free agent or two to join them so they can bring a title to Philly.
Embiid might call himself “The Process,” but in a way, this has always been about LeBron. Just like everything else in the NBA.