By Don Wanlass
It’s been almost eight years since we had The Decision, the ESPN show hosted by Jim Gray at which time LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat.
It took a few years for James to live down that public relations fiasco so don’t expect a repeat performance this year.
But the LeBron Watch 2018 will begin June 30 at 9 p.m. Pacific Time (that’s midnight on the East Coast) when the NBA free agent period begins and James can begin listening to offers from NBA teams.
You can bet the Cleveland Cavaliers will be involved. Both the Lakers and Clippers are expected to make offers. So will the Houston Rockets, the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers and probably the San Antonio Spurs, too.
Who knows, maybe even the Golden State Warriors will offer James a chance to win another championship.
There may be a few signings announced within hours of the start of free agency, but where James lands will be the biggest news of the NBA offseason.
Money will not be the overriding factor. If it was, James would be resigning with Cleveland, which can offer James more money than any other team under the rules of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the NBA Players Association.
But James has all the money he can spend right now. What he wants are more championships and he will probably go where he has the best chance of winning more, in which case the Houston Rockets might be the favorite.
James won’t have to carry the same load in Houston that he does in Cleveland. The Rockets have James Harden and Chris Paul to handle and distribute the ball. The Rockets battled Golden State to the wire in a hard-fought playoff series in the Western Conference finals this year. James could be the difference-maker next year if the same teams make it to the conference finals again.
If James is picking his next team by where he and his family would most like to live and where he has the best opportunity for post-career business opportunities, he might choose Los Angeles, but as good as James is, he won’t make either the Lakers or the Clippers an automatic contender for a championship by himself.
Some see James staying in the Eastern Conference, where he wouldn’t have to go through Golden State or Houston to get to the finals again.
That would mean staying with Cleveland or signing with Boston or Philadelphia, two teams with young players who James could push to the brink of greatness. But even if he gets to the NBA Finals next year with the one of those three East teams, he will still have to climb past the Warriors or the Rockets.
For that reason, I think James will sign with the Rockets.
That doesn’t mean the Lakers will strike out completely in their attempt to get better. They still could land Paul George or Kawhi Leonard in free agency or through trade.
The Lakers already improved themselves this offseason by drafting Moe Wagner with their first-round pick in last week’s draft. A native of Germany, Wagner is a big man (7-0) who can score from outside. He could be another foundation piece for the Lakers, who already have Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball to build around. They also need Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac to continue to develop.
Also, the sooner the Lakers act on George, Leonard or (dare we hope) James, the sooner they can decide if they want to resign Julius Randle or let him leave as a restricted free agent. Personally, I would like to see the Lakers add either George or Leonard (essentially, they are the same player; George may be better offensively and Leonard is better defensively) and add them to the nucleus they already have. Kuzma, Ingram and Randle all can play in the NBA. If Wagner and Zubac develop, the Lakers are set in the front court.
George or Leonard can play at shooting guard leaving Ball and Hart to battle over the point guard position. Ball must step away from the large shadow his father casts and prove he wants to be an NBA star rather than part of his family’s reality series.
Then there are the Clippers. On June 26 they traded one of their best players, Austin Rivers, to the Washington Wizards for Marcin Gortat. Gortat may serve as a replacement for DeAndre Jordan, who can opt out of his contract or ask to be traded.
So the Clippers. who entered last offseason with three bond fide NBA stars, may be down to zero, unless you want to rank sixth man of the year Lou Williams as a star. The Clippers acquired two big guards in the draft last week, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from Kentucky and Jerome Robinson from Boston College, so Rivers was expendable and his teammates no longer wonder if he was earning his minutes or daddy was giving him minutes.
It’s always difficult for a father and son to coexist in a team sport setting and the Clippers struggled at times with Doc Rivers running the team and Austin playing. But Austin put up real numbers last season, averaging more than 15 points a game and shooting 37 percent from three-point range.
But unless the Clippers make a major splash in free agency, the Lakers are likely to surpass them as the best team in Los Angeles next year. That will be another offseason story to follow.
SOUTH L.A. MVP: For the second year in a row, the NBA’s most valuable player grew up playing basketball in Southern California. Last year it was Leuzinger High’s Russell Westbrook. This year it was Artesia High’s James Harden.
Harden received the MVP Award June 25 at the NBA Awards Show. The night before he was at Audubon Middle School in South Los Angeles where his shoe company, Adidas, threw a block party for his old neighborhood. During the party, Harden announced Audubon would get new outdoor basketball courts and the school gymnasium will be renovated as well.
Harden played high school ball at Artesia High before spending two years at Arizona State. He was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder and teamed with Westbrook and Kevin Durant for his first three seasons before being traded to the Houston Rockets prior to the start of the 2012 season.
He became only the second player in NBA history to be selected the MVP after winning the sixth man of the year earlier in his career.
Bill Walton is the only other player to win both honors.