News analysis

James could go west to join West at Clippers

On opposite sides of America on Monday, two seemingly unrelated events could set in motion a massive change for LeBron James and the entire National Basketball Association (NBA).

In Los Angeles, Jerry West sat on a stage smiling as he was introduced as the newest addition to the Clippers.

And in Cleveland, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and general manager David Griffin released separate statements explaining how Griffin's successful three-year tenure in charge of the team's basketball operations - including three straight trips to the NBA Finals and a title last year - had come to an end.

Hanging over both events is the contract of James, which comes to an end a year from now.

If James, still the NBA's best player even as he enters a season in which he'll turn 33, decides to leave Cleveland for a second time, Monday will be the day we look back upon as the tipping point, the moment when his departure began to take shape.

Seven years ago, when James was last considering an exit, the 2010 version of the Cavaliers didn't have the necessary talent around their star to be legitimate championship contenders.

The 2017 version features All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, plus a deep pool of role players. This roster was largely built by Griffin, whom James was hoping would be offered an extension.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (left) using a screen by team-mate DeAndre Jordan to elude Utah Jazz guard George Hill during the NBA play-offs in April. With these two All-Star players in the fold, the Clippers are seen as a potential destination for LeBron James should the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar decide to leave the franchise. PHOTO: REUTERS

"If no one appreciated you Griff, I did, and hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what u did for the team for 3 yrs! We got us 1," James tweeted on Monday.

Meanwhile, in the news conference to announce his hiring as a Clippers consultant, West explained why he had left the new NBA champions Golden State Warriors after six years: Mostly to lend his considerable experience and voice to the organisation.

If James... decides to leave Cleveland for a second time, Monday will be the day we look back upon as the tipping point, the moment when his departure began to take shape.

"I would like to think the people I work with, if they think I'm going to have an ego, I'm not," West said, alongside coach Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank, the executive vice-president of basketball operations. "I'll give my opinion, but somebody's going to make a decision... I just hope I can help make a difference here."

It's no secret that there's a relationship between West and James. Earlier in his career, James reached out to the NBA icon about how he dealt with losing in the NBA Finals, and has read his biography, West on West, multiple times.

During last year's Finals, West spent a significant chunk of a lengthy interview session with reporters extolling James' virtues, even while working for the Cavs' then-opponents.

"With him, the negativity that surrounds him, honestly, to me, I think is so unjust and so unfair," West said. "It frustrates me when I see some of these players who play this game at an enormously high level get criticised because their teams 'can't win the big one.'

"The guy gets his teams there every year. He wins. For people to criticise him, I think that's why he really resonates."

So how does this all relate to James' situation? Well, while the rumours of him leaving Cleveland again have started to pick up steam, the chatter about his desire to go to Los Angeles has been occurring for at least a decade.

He has a home there, as well as myriad business and entertainment interests. While he has been linked with joining the other Los Angeles franchise, the Lakers, it's difficult to see him choosing a team that's spent the past four years posting their four worst regular-season records since coming to LA nearly 60 years ago.

After making the NBA Finals for seven straight years, James isn't going to Los Angeles to start over with a rebuilding team. The Clippers present another path.

With Chris Paul (assuming he re-signs) and DeAndre Jordan in the fold already, Los Angeles have the pieces to put around James and create a contending team, with the future flexibility of adding parts.

West, meanwhile, gives the Clippers the kind of closer that Miami had in Pat Riley when they recruited James seven years ago.

It is, at minimum, an intriguing possibility. And between now and next July, it's a possibility that will only gain traction.

If James turns that possibility into reality, Monday will be looked at as a significant day for the NBA.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'James could go west to join West at Clippers'. Print Edition | Subscribe