CLEVELAND – LeBron James reminds that he is “living in the moment” – which means staring at a 3-0 NBA Finals hole to the Golden State Warriors for the second consecutive season. Since signing Kevin Durant, the Warriors are 7-1 in Finals games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with no end in sight.
LeBron was trying to say he hasn’t moved on to his pending free agency, although after practice here in advance of Friday’s Game 4, he waxed philosophically about the state of the two franchises, the arms race of NBA superteams and what it might actually take to beat these Warriors.
A couple things were clear in his most expansive and introspective comments about the future yet.
First, LeBron will enter the summer believing he is still in his prime and wanting to compete for a championship, above all else. “I feel like I am in a great groove right now,” he said. At 33, he isn’t ready to be some elder statesman. He wants to win.
Second, while he may not exactly know how to put the puzzle together to get past Golden State, he isn’t taking the decision lightly.
If you’re a Cleveland fan, none of it sounded promising for his return. If the Cavs want him, they need a plan, ASAP. If not, maybe it’s Houston or maybe it’s Philadelphia or maybe it’s the Los Angeles Lakers on a multiyear build.
“That’s the challenge in this league,” LeBron said. “I think every GM and every president and every coaching staff is trying to figure out how they can make up the right matchups to compete for a championship and win a championship.”
He’s done this twice before. Once when he left Cleveland with no titles in 2010, where he was drafted as an 18-year-old high schooler seven years before. Then he did it again when he left Miami after winning two championships and returned to Cleveland, where he won one more, in 2016 against the Warriors.
Consider the past his prologue.
“I felt like my first stint here, I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” LeBron said of the pre-2010 season. “When you looked at [Rajon] Rondo and [Kevin Garnett] and Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen], you knew they were great basketball players. But not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them. Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down. It was like, ‘OK, this is bigger than basketball.’
“So not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well,” LeBron said.
Paging J.R. Smith.
“I knew that my talent level here in Cleveland couldn’t succeed getting past a Boston, getting past the San Antonios of the league or whatever the case may be,” LeBron continued. “I played with [Dwyane Wade], I played with [Chris] Bosh in the Olympics. I knew their minds. I knew how they thought the game, more than just playing the game. Obviously, we all knew their talent, but I knew their minds as well. So, I linked up with them. We went to Miami. Got some other great minds. And guys that were talents. You build that talent. That’s what you want to try to do.
“Then you come here,” LeBron said. “I knew Kyrie [Irving], having the talent, I wanted to try to build his mind up to fast-track his mind because I felt like in order to win, you’ve got to have talent, but you’ve got to be very cerebral, too.
“So, we come back here and we get the minds and we build a championship team. And then Golden State, because of Steph’s injuries early on in his career and his contract situation [which was low for a superstar], and then them drafting Draymond [Green] and drafting Klay [Thompson], and them being under the contracts they were in, allowed their franchise to go out to get K.D.
“They go 73-9, and then you add one of the best players that the NBA has ever seen. … How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds, to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?”
The implication here, of course, is that Cleveland can’t do it as presently constructed. This is obvious to any onlooker. It is obvious to LeBron, too, although he vowed (and assuredly will deliver) the same full effort as ever in Game 4. He also tried to tread lightly on reality, noting Cleveland had chances to win two of the three games thus far.
They didn’t win them, though.
“Obviously, from a talent perspective, if you’re looking at Golden State from their top five best players to our top five players, you would say they’re stacked better than us,” LeBron said. “Let’s just speak truth.”
That is the truth. So, what is LeBron looking for? Well, there were other messages in there, too, subtle and less subtle.
He kept repeating that presidents and general managers are focused on this, all but daring some of the most creative to roll the dice and try to come to him with a plan.
He also made a true and matter-of-fact statement about great talents who may not be committed winners.
“Every player does not want to — sad to say — but every player doesn’t want to compete for a championship and be in a position where every possession is pressure,” LeBron said.
None of these comments was off the cuff. LeBron knew what he was saying and who he was saying it to. He is very smart and very experienced. This was a press session with a purpose.
His “sad-to-say” line could have been his way of calling out a current teammate, or could have been him saying he wouldn’t play with such people in the future, or perhaps it was a challenge to some possible future teammates to come play with him and prove they aren’t like that.
If nothing else, LeBron sounded envious of the Warriors. “The best thing about their team is that if one of their stars goes down, they have two or three other stars that are still able to hold the ship,” James said.
Cleveland doesn’t have that. It doesn’t have the talent. It doesn’t, in LeBron parlance, have the minds.
Soon enough, it probably won’t have LeBron James, either. He is going to go find whatever situation he thinks can help him topple the juggernaut that was constructed to topple him. He just laid out the blueprint. Now some franchise needs to follow it.
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