Long before the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the NBA Finals by the Golden State Warriors, questions were swirling about the future of LeBron James. Would he stay in northeast Ohio? Can he realistically win any more championships in a Cavs uniform? Will his legacy take another hit if he leaves again? If he does leave, where will he go?
Naturally, in the world we live in, everyone has an opinion (and a platform to share it on social media). There has been no shortage of takes on why a particular city is the way to go.
Philadelphia: “He can team with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and help those guys get over the hump, and when LeBron begins to decline, those two guys will be entering their prime and keep him in contention.”
Houston: “If you can find a way to get him on the team that took the Warriors to seven games, he puts them over the top without having to shoulder nearly the same load.”
Los Angeles: “LeBron has a home in LA, his own production company, and business ventures outside of basketball. If he comes, they have enough cap space to acquire another star or two to surround him. They’re an instant contender.”
Cleveland: “It’s home. His relationship with this city is way deeper than basketball. It would be tough for him to leave again, and as long as he’s here, they have a shot.”
While there may be a degree of truth in all those takes, they still lack the depth and acumen necessary for a decision of this magnitude. James is highly unlikely to choose his destination through this simplistic of a thought process. People often disagree about LeBron’s greatness and where he stands after a 3-6 career record in the NBA Finals, but one aspect that he’s universally praised for is his intelligence and his understanding of the game.
And that extends beyond the lines of the basketball court. James understands the media, their narratives, the landscape of the league, and how players and cities are perceived, as well, if not better than his knowledge of the game and ability to recognize talent. With that in mind, he should sign with the New Orleans Pelicans. It makes too much sense.
The Basketball Fit
In terms of the roster, it’s a natural fit; especially if the Pelicans can retain Rajon Rondo via the mid-level exception, or by taking advantage of the CBA, which allows a team to go over the cap to re-sign their players. James would slide in perfectly at small forward, alongside Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, and Anthony Davis (DeMarcus Cousins would need to be moved, potentially in a sign and trade to Cleveland, who would love to get something for LeBron if he does leave).
Already one of the most potent offenses this past season, the Pelicans will upgrade their weakest position by adding the best player in the league. Last year, the Pelicans relied on E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill, and Darius Miller at the small forward position. Moore was the best of the three and should be the most important to keep, as he’s about $3.5M cheaper than Hill and much more productive.
The Pelicans unlocked their fullest potential with a faster tempo once Cousins went down for the year with a ruptured Achilles, and James makes them even more dynamic in that area, as he remains one of the best players in the league in transition. With two of the top five players in the league, this roster would match the star power of the ‘Big 4’ in Golden State.
Davis’ talent speaks for itself: he seems to be the one player who consistently gives Draymond Green fits with his length, strength, athleticism, and overall skill. Additionally, Holiday, while talked about exponentially less, is every bit the player Klay Thompson is, as evidenced by his domination of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in a first-round sweep of the favored Portland Trail Blazers.
While not nearly the shooter Thompson is, Holiday is still a respectable 36 percent from three in his career, and a much more versatile scorer and playmaker. His defense is highly regarded as well, as he was named first-team all defense this season, something Thompson has never accomplished, although he’s a great defender in his own right. Add in Rondo’s experience, toughness, leadership, and ability to transform into “Playoff Rondo” and I think New Orleans would be every bit of Golden State’s equal.
With Davis as the best big in the league in the pick and roll — specifically his catch radius on lob passes, and his smooth jump shot that stretches to the three-point range — he fits more naturally alongside LeBron than any other primary ballhandler such as Chris Paul, James Harden, Ben Simmons, or Paul George.
Beyond the basketball fit, LeBron could make a huge community impact, which we know is essential to him. New Orleans could never establish the same connection he felt in Akron, Cleveland, and northeast Ohio, but it still allows him to do something special off-the-court and make a difference in the lives of the youth and the underprivileged. It’s been widely reported time and time again that New Orleans is a city without hope for many families. It’s a city known for a high rate of murders and violent crime. It’s easier for some to get firearms than healthy food and an education. NFL defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, a New Orleans native, has spoken in great detail about the issues that plague his city, affecting the youth, and even his ability to go visit his hometown because he’s scared for his life.
Of course, James can’t be expected to change all that. But he can provide people hope. He can start programs similar to the ones he has in Ohio. He and Davis can be a respected voice for the younger generation. LeBron is also the rare superstar who can instantly boost an entire economy and open up jobs. It’s the type of thing that many casual fans don’t consider but has a tangible impact on lives. In an age where sports are sometimes overhyped and oversaturated, we are talking about a New Orleans Pelicans team without full-time beat writers. That’s unheard of for a professional team in one of the four major U.S. sports. That would change instantly if James went to New Orleans. The amount of positive impact he could deliver, while still competing for championships, would shape a narrative in stark contrast to the one that was created when he left Cleveland the first time. Which brings us to…
For as much as players say they don’t care about their legacy, and talk about how it’s just fodder for journalists, they do care. Legacies do matter. Players do have egos. A move to New Orleans would be a lot more palatable to fans and media than Philadelphia, Houston, or Los Angeles. As we know, fans and media are the driving force behind narratives and the perception created. That’s why there was a negative backlash when LeBron went to Miami, and still is a negative backlash toward Kevin Durant for joining the team with the best record in NBA history.
By choosing Philadelphia, there is going to be a perception by some that he joined a team that he was scared of having to face while getting two of the game’s youngest stars and staying in the East. By going to the Lakers, there’s going to be a perception that he’s handcrafting another team by linking up with other stars to play in a city that’s great for his brand, a move similar to when he signed with the Heat.
By going to New Orleans, he goes to a team with a natural basketball need at his position, without taking other stars with him, in a city without high-end publicity or business opportunities, which cements the fact that his focus is solely on winning. He would be taking the challenge of needing to beat the likes of San Antonio, Houston, and Golden State just to get to the Finals, and delivering hope and opportunity to a city that desperately needs it. With a legacy that’s nearly secure, but has a couple chapters left, joining the Pelicans gives him the necessary tools to strengthen it.
The Decision, Part II
Ultimately, LeBron James is going to do what LeBron James wants to do. In the first week of July, we’ll know his decision and we’ll be able to hear from him what went into it. For now, rumors and speculation will fly, but if he genuinely understands the media narratives around his legacy, the landscape of the league, and the talent necessary for him to get past Golden State, he will realize the New Orleans Pelicans are the optimal destination for him. He could bring new light to a drastically underappreciated sports city, hope to people who are hopeless from a humanitarian standpoint, and a title to a franchise that desperately wants to keep Anthony Davis. Furthermore, when LeBron does begin to wear down and decline, he’ll have Davis and Holiday in the middle of their prime to carry the load and keep him in contention as his career winds down. It’s really a big, easy decision.