CLEVELAND — The biggest revelation we got from LeBron James after what might have been the final game he ever plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers had nothing to do with his pending free agency. It was health-related.
It turns out that the nasty poke in the left eye that James incurred from Draymond Green in Game 1 of the N.B.A. finals was not the most severe injury he suffered that night.
From the postgame podium late Friday, after his Cavaliers were mercilessly broomed out of the finals by the Golden State Warriors, James had an admission to share: He hurt his right hand badly after that crushing Game 1 defeat in a “self-inflicted” fit of pique.
Responding to reports that he punched a whiteboard in frustration with Cleveland’s blown opportunity to steal the series opener on the Warriors’ floor, James said: “I let emotions get the best of me. Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand.”
That should help explain why James, as he left Friday night’s humbling 108-85 defeat with 4 minutes 3 seconds still left on the clock, congratulated every Warrior on the floor for the team’s 4-0 sweep and back-to-back championships by extending his left hand instead of his right for shakes and slaps.
Yet that was the extent of the headline-making answers on a dour evening at Quicken Loans Arena. The locals already appear to be bracing for another James departure, judging by the long stretches of second-half silence in the building, but no good clues were forthcoming on the real curiosity.
Asked if he indeed planned to leave the Cavaliers for a second time when he hits the open market on July 1, James said, “I have no idea at this point.” Asked what he would prioritize when making his third career foray into free agency, James offered a lengthy answer about the need to consult his wife and three children — “My family is a huge part of whatever I’ll decide to do,” he said — but then made it clear he was not at all ready to walk away from the challenge of trying to topple the Warriors at the age of 33.
“I still want to be in championship mode,” James said. “I think I’ve shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.”
Does the family part of the equation mean staying with the talent-shy Cavaliers is still a possibility? Could it actually mean the Los Angeles Lakers are the true favorites to sign James because his family also has a home in Southern California that it is known to love? Or, is James determined to go anywhere he has to go for the best shot at assembling a squad far closer to Golden State’s level than the Cavaliers appear capable of getting?
“We’ll see what happens,” James said more than once at his final news conference of the season.
With eight 40-point games, four triple-doubles and two game-winners at the buzzer, James has never been better in the playoffs. I’ve been saying for weeks that what we’ve seen from him this postseason adds up to the second-finest hour of his career, because this Cavaliers team that finished 29th in the league in defensive efficiency and faced two nervy Game 7s in the Eastern Conference playoffs really didn’t belong here.
But who wants to devote valuable time to legacy talk when free-agency season, just like that, is upon us?
You suddenly don’t hear much around the N.B.A. about the majesty of James’s eight consecutive trips to the finals — or, frankly, his ultra-cerebral nature after the silly manner in which he injured himself. James’s entree into the exclusive eight-in-a-row club, whose only prior members played for the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics in the 1950s and ’60s, did inspire justified awe all over the N.B.A. But that barely lasted two weeks.
That’s because the suitors are lining up, undeterred by James’s unsightly 3-6 career record in the finals or the fact that only Jerry West (eight) and Elgin Baylor (seven) have taken more losses on the game’s biggest stage.
The prominent ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith reported recently that James planned to speak to six teams in addition to the Cavaliers. Philadelphia, Houston, Miami and the Lakers were all mentioned — as were the juggernaut responsible for James’s 1-8 record in his last nine finals games (Golden State) and his longtime Eastern Conference nemesis (Boston). I’ve also been advised that the ever-persuasive San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich is bound to try to force his way into the conversation to sell James on the merits of South Texas.
My best forecast at this juncture? Fixate on Chris Paul.
If Paul stays with the Rockets, Houston becomes a dangerous player, no matter how complicated it would be for the 65-win Rockets and their general manager, Daryl Morey, to orchestrate the requisite salary-cap gymnastics to bring James in. But don’t discount the idea that James could try to bring Paul with him to a team that can afford two superstars, such as the Lakers, because he and Paul really are that close.
James will have three full weeks now to dig into the various options, study the landscape for the most fertile locales for title contention and, perhaps most crucially, make clandestine connections with the starry likes of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and, yes, Paul and James Harden to explore the prospects of teaming up somewhere with stars of that ilk.
But this is as far as I’ll go with guarantees before the LeBron Sweepstakes officially begin: James will not feel as though he owes Cleveland anything after these last four seasons.
Not after the Cavaliers’ owner, Dan Gilbert, responded to the Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant by chasing off their accomplished general manager, David Griffin, and giving in to the All-Star guard Kyrie Irving’s trade demand in August.
Nor after everything James said in his unforgettable “I’m Coming Home” essay he wrote with Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated in July 2014.
“My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question,” James wrote. “But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
One is all he managed, true, and that number will be recorded as an unmitigated disappointment on some scorecards out there.
But one was all he promised.
So James can leave knowing that he combined with Irving to lift the Cleveland Curse in 2016 with the first resurrection from a 3-1 finals deficit in league history. It was Cleveland’s first major sports championship since 1964 — to go with all the other ways James has financially and culturally revitalized this city and his nearby hometown, Akron, after returning from the Heat to rejoin the team that drafted him.
Yet amid all the juicy uncertainty about where he’ll be playing next season, perhaps we should force ourselves to pause in recognition of the way James played in his 15th season — as well as the sort of team Golden State had to assemble to take him down.
“They go 73-9,” James said Thursday in reference to Durant, the eventual finals most valuable player, “and then you add one of the best players that the N.B.A. has ever seen.”
The league doesn’t hand out rings for causing such a reaction, as James’s 2016 Cavaliers did, but maybe it should.