Opinion: Regardless of decision, Cleveland is forever in LeBron’s debt

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Henry Palattella

LeBron James doesn’t owe the city of Cleveland anything.

Now, I realize this statement may seem raw, as it’s coming only a few days after the Golden State Warriors drove a stake into the hearts of Cavs’ fans everywhere for the second straight June, but it’s the truth.

The thought dawned on me as I sat on the patio at Zephyr Pub on Thursday, watching the Cavs Game 4 deficit against Golden State slowly creep toward an NC-17 rating. As my friends from high school began to text me their theories on where LeBron was headed this offseason, I realized LeBron had fulfilled his promise to Cleveland. He brought a championship to a city that hadn’t tasted victory in 52 years. He went from prodigal son to untouchable icon. And in two months, he might be gone. And that’s OK .

For the third time in eight years, the best basketball player in the world is (legitimately) on the market. For many, LeBron leaving Cleveland is already a done deal. LeBron’s potential destinations zig and zag across the map more than Charlie Kelly trying to find out who Pepe Silvia is. Whether it be out west to Los Angeles, south to Houston, east to Philadelphia or anywhere in between, it seems as if almost everyone is predicting LeBron to be donning another jersey come October.

The first time LeBron left, it was because of a lack of talent. LeBron’s supporting cast in 2009-10 was a 37-year-old Shaq who already had one foot on the “Inside the NBA” set, a 27-year-old unproven Mo Williams and a combination of Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao and Antawn Jamison. No Cavs player outside of James scored 100 points in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Cavs bowed out to the Celtics in six games. (For reference, LeBron was the only Cavs player to score more than 100 points in the Finals this year, and the Cavs became the first Finals team to have a negative point differential in the playoffs since the 2001-02 New Jersey Nets.) ((The legend of Jason Kidd will never die.))

LeBron left Cleveland, and for all intents and purposes, it was necessary. While he may regret the way he made his decision to leave — the aptly titled TV special where he “woke up and decided to take his talents to “South Beach” and declared  the team would win seven titles before he had seen game action are some examples —  Lebron needed to see life outside of Northeast Ohio.  He needed to go somewhere and grow up, needed somewhere to find himself. And in Miami, he did. He won two titles in four years in South Beach, and then —with some help from Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins — decided to head home to deal with some “unfinished business.”

In 2016, he finished that business. He got kicked by Draymond, blocked Iguodala, hugged Kevin Love and brought Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. It’s a moment that every Cleveland fan (and most basketball fans in general) will remember for the rest of their lives .

But that was it. The best regular season team of all-time added an all-world MVP and promptly went 8-1 against the Cavs in the next two Finals.

While LeBron can get the most money from Cleveland — a five-year, $207 million contract, $50 million more than he could make with any other team — that doesn’t necessarily mean Cleveland is the best opportunity for him. I’d imagine money is pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to making his decision. While the NBA is ostensibly his employer, he makes most of his money off the court. Whether it be from Nike, Blaze Pizza, Liverpool F.C. or any of his other investments, LeBron is making money hand over fist. Not saying he will (or should) play for free, but $50 million is a small drop in the bucket for him. If he truly does value winning championships over everything, then it’s hard to think he’ll be back in Cleveland.

The Cavs have the highest payroll in the league and little to no flexibility. Outside of free agents Rodney Hood and Kendrick Perkins, every other Cavs player will be under contract, with $51.1 million owed to J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and George Hill alone next season. Maybe the Cavs can create a package around Kevin Love, the No. 8 pick in the upcoming draft and Cedi Osman to trade for another superstar. Or maybe LeBron decides to come to Cleveland regardless, choosing to play around whoever the Cavs choose with the eighth pick (sup, Collin Sexton) and tries to make the most of the Cavs flawed roster, spending the rest of his career in his hometown, a statement he had echoed at previous points throughout his career.

LeBron’s interesting relationship with the front office could also impact his decision. Chances are LeBron hasn’t forgot about the 427-word, Comic Sans burn book that Dan Gilbert wrote the night LeBron left the first time. LeBron and Gilbert have had a rocky relationship during his second stint in Cleveland, but Gilbert’s willingness to pay the luxury tax  for players despite never having a long-term commitment from James has to mean something, right?

Or he leaves, heading off into the sunset to chase “the ghost in Chicago” somewhere else. Maybe he heads to the bright lights of Los Angeles and joins forces with Paul George and the Lakers young core. Maybe he goes to Houston, immediately creating a superteam with James Harden and Banana Boat buddy Chris Paul. Maybe he goes to San Antonio, giving a once-in-a-lifetime coach his once-in-a-lifetime player. Or maybe it’s somewhere else. Boston. Philadelphia. Miami. Hell, maybe he switches sports and goes to the Springfield Isotopes. Everything’s on the table for The King.

Regardless of where it is, Cleveland fans should support it. LeBron’s last decision had fans burning polyester like it was going out of style. (Not justifying the jersey burning, but did I mention how tone-deaf “The Decision” was? It was bad TV, and I watched the fourth season of “Arrested Development.”) This shouldn’t invoke those emotions.

In all seriousness, wherever LeBron goes, he’s made peace with Cleveland. One of the few knocks I hear from Jordan stans — Kobe stans too, but they’re irrelevant — is the ring debate. Jordan has six rings, Kobe has five, LeBron has three. (Jim Loscutoff has six rings, but I never hear anyone bring him up in the GOAT discussion.)

If LeBron wants to beat Jordan in the ring debate, he’ll need three more rings before his time is done. He probably has two more years left as an otherworldly talent, and five or six left as a top-10 player in the NBA. Can he win three championships in six years in Cleveland? Maybe. Would it be easier for him to win three championships somewhere else? Probably.

Now, don’t take this as me advocating for LeBron to leave Cleveland. Maybe he decides to stay, and this just turns into another bad opinion on the internet, like we don’t already have enough of those. But if LeBron does leave, the city should respond with respect instead of animosity. LeBron made Cleveland a city of champions, which meant so much to so many. He turned the Cavs into a billion-dollar franchise, and much of the city’s resurgence can be pinpointed to the return of the city’s 6 foot, 8 inch King.

Me personally? I think LeBron’s headed to either L.A. or Houston. I think if he values winning he’ll head to the Rockets, or, if he decides to put his family and business empire first, he’ll head off to L.A. to try to tame the Ball Brothers Traveling Circus. That being said, I saw a tweet a few nights ago that laid out a perfect plan for him to go to OKC that I’m 100 percent on board for. Anywhere but Golden State.

LeBron, if you’re reading this, I have an idea for how you can reveal your decision. It’s already been announced that you’ll be on the cover of NBA 2K19, so why not do it that way? All the promotional material for the game has been from the neck-up, so why not generate the most buzz possible? Have the cover reveal be the reveal for where you’re going. Make the game a collector’s item. Plus, you’d be doing the people at 2K Games a favor since 2K18 was shipped with Kyrie in the wrong uniform.

As I was leaving Zephyr after the Cavs game, I finally went on my phone and inserted my opinion into the heated debate my friends were having about LeBron. As I walked out into the cool summer air, I got a text from my friend Ben that summed up LeBron leaving better than I ever could.

“It’s like a breakup,” he said of the possibility of LeBron leaving. “Where u know it’s for the best, but still love each other.”

Henry Palattella is the editor-in-chief. Contact him at [email protected]