LeBron James Philly

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Spike Eskin: Keep LeBron away from the Sixers

Spike Eskin
April 30, 2018 - 9:12 am
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I want you to think about how amazing the day would be if the Sixers signed LeBron James.

It would be the culmination of everything the Sixers have been building for the last half-decade. That the team is already so good, and shows so much promise, and the organization so attractive, that the greatest player of a generation just chose to play basketball here.

The celebration would be incredible. The told-ya-so’s would be none stop. We’d be as smug as Boston fans.

It would be really important to soak that moment in, because if LeBron James signed to play basketball in Philadelphia, it would only get worse from that moment.

LeBron James is either the greatest or second greatest player I’ve ever seen, and I understand that the pull of bringing that to the Sixers might be too strong to fight. But if it were up to me, I’d keep LeBron James the hell away from the Philadelphia 76ers.

If you follow me on Twitter, or listen to The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, you’ve heard this from me before. I thought it was time to lay this all down in one place.

The reasoning to sign LeBron is as simple as it is short-sighted. “If you have a chance to sign the best player alive, you do it.” I get it. It’s a compelling reason. It’s just not as simple as it seems. There are plenty of reasons, basketball and otherwise, to find that third superstar in another place.

LeBron James The General Manager

Since the NBA puts a maximum on the money that you can spend on a player, and for players like James that money is below what their market value should be, flexibility is one of the things James values most. If he comes to Philadelphia, it will likely be on essentially a one year deal (officially a 1+1, but the second year being a mutual option).

This creates a scenario in which the organization is always in such a panic to keep James, that they make any move that they believe will make him happy. Even if it’s not James himself pulling the strings, it’s someone pulling the strings they think he’d pull.

This cause a few things that are sub-optimal.

First, enjoy finding a way to overpay players that either LeBron thinks are more important and better than they are (hello JR Smith!), or that Klutch Sports represents (hello Tristan Thompson!). When James leaves the Cavaliers this offseason, they’ll have a great memorial of James when they notice they’re paying those two gentlemen $32 million next season, and $34 million the season after that.

Next, enjoy trading away players that LeBron does not think helps him right this second. James has shown a remarkable ability to stay at the top of his game as he’s aged, but he knows this isn’t going to last forever. The moves that James will be wanting you to make will be for the present. First round pick for Kyle Korver? Get it done. Trade up for Shabazz Napier? Whatever you say LeBron. Trade to take on two more years and $60 million for George Hill and Jordan Clarkson in a year that LeBron will walk anyway? Do it.

We all live in a fantasy world in which we’re sure LeBron will love playing with Simmons, Embiid, Saric. etc., but this is not something I think we should be so sure of (we’ll get to that later). As crazy as it sounds, all of those guys will be on the table if the team thinks James will want them to be.

And if you cross GM LeBron, good luck! Miami did it when they got rid of Mike Miller, which is often times cited as one of the major reasons that LeBron decided to leave Miami. Mike Miller! The Heat had a guy who wasn’t prepared to back down to James in Pat Riley. If you think the Sixers have the same thing in Bryan Colangelo, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Believe It Or Not, Basketball Reasons

A common refrain when you point out that the Sixers two best players, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, don’t fit all that well with the way that James has historically played is that “LeBron will figure it out, he always has.”

Has he though?

The history is that everyone else has had to adjust their game around primary ball-handler LeBron. The offense tends to go through LeBron, with LeBron has the defacto point-forward, while everyone else waits for an open shot. At his best, James is surrounded by shooters that give him space to drive and create.

Chris Bosh went from a dominant post-player to a stretch five who sat outside on and shot threes. The same thing has happened to Kevin Love. Is that the best use of Joel Embiid? Try and think in the decade and a half of basketball that LeBron James has played, when he’s had a dominant offensive big-man in his life. It doesn’t really exist.

The point guards who have excelled with James are the ones who can hit outside shots when given the opportunity like Mo Williams, Boobie Gibson, Mario Chalmers, and then Kyrie Irving. It’s clear that Simmons doesn’t fit this mold.

In fact, the only time that James has stepped out of his comfort zone on offense was in Miami, where he operated as a power forward more than he has in any other situation. At that point, James was desperate to win his first championship. As I mentioned in the previous section, Miami, the one place that did not let him fully run the organization, watched him walk away as a free agent because of it.

Ben Simmons is a 21 year-old elite playmaker, who is only going to get better. Joel Embiid is one of the two or three best centers in the NBA at 23 years old, and is only going to get better. Bringing James in to take the ball out of Simmons’ hands and plant Embiid out at the three point arc for most of the game is basketball insanity.

The Fan Experience

Imagine being a Cleveland Cavaliers fan this season, as we watched James openly flirt with the Lakers and the Sixers, as you wait to see he’ll grace the team with his presence next year.

Imagine the gut-wrenching feeling after every loss during the playoffs, knowing that with each one, James has his second foot out the door (as the first one has been there since last summer). It’s tough enough to watch your favorite team lose a game, or a series, but the idea of losing everything along with it must take a good bit of the joy away.

Imagine watching your favorite team have to trade Kyrie Irving while James stood idly by and did nothing to prevent it. Yes, this year’s Cavs is the worst supporting cast that he’s had in a decade. But it’s impossible to talk about that without talking about the fact that James is a large chunk of the reason why it’s the case. Kyrie Irving did not want to play with LeBron James anymore, and James didn’t flinch.

Yes, watching your team be great and compete for a championship every season is great. Watching a great player on your favorite team is a lot of fun. Here’s the thing; we’re going to do that anyway. LeBron James is not our only avenue to watching a team compete for a title.

There Are Better Options

As crazy as it sounds, there are better options than LeBron James for the Sixers to acquire this offseason. There are player who are younger, better fits on the court, and willing to commit to the team for longer than one season.

Paul George is an unrestricted free agent. George has proven that he is capable of being an effective offensive player without being the number one option on the team. George is an elite defender, something that LeBron James once was but has left in the rear view mirror and only brings out for special occasions.

Kawhi Leonard is not an unrestricted free agent, but is clearly unhappy in San Antonio and seems at least somewhat likely to be traded this offseason. For the rest of the reasons you’d want Leonard, read the previous paragraph about Paul George and then just imagine a guy who is better than Paul George.

Klay Thompson is heading into the final year of his contract and questions linger whether the Warriors will look for a trade before having to pay Thompson money that would put them deep into the luxury tax, or ask Thompson to offer the Warriors a significant discount as a free agent. Thompson is one of the best shooters of all time, a very effective defender and would fit beautifully with Simmons and Embiid.

These are just the players we know about. If the Sixers strike out on those three, let’s see Bryan Colangelo get creative and make moves that surround Simmons and Embiid with players who can help them blossom, and provide some continuity over the next few seasons.

LeBron James will be 34 next season, having played almost 1400 NBA games. Time catches up with everyone, even LeBron James.

Keep LeBron Away From The Sixers

Like many relationships, the chase is the most fun part of it. The idea of being the place that LeBron James selects is exciting.

But there’s a difference between longing for someone from afar and imagining what it would be like to be in a relationship, and the reality of that relationship.

Let’s take the relationship metaphor a step further.

There’s that person you’ve been pining for, for years. She (or he) seems out of your league in every way. Too hot for you, too successful for you, too smart for you. But you don’t give up, you spend years trying to convince her (or him) that you’re the one to be with. And finally, it happens. You’re together. You did it.

But within a few months, it’s not quite what you’d imagined. She doesn’t like how you dress, so you change. Doesn’t like how your apartment looks, so you redecorate. Her friends suck, and leave you with the bill at dinner. All the while you tell yourself you’re happy, while deep down you’re panicking. Worst of all, every time a good looking guy walks by, you see her steal a glance. More and more it seems like the best moment of the relationship was the moment she agreed to that first date.

It would be easy to dismiss this as “Hinkie acolyte too bitter and obsessed with the draft to acknowledge that signing James would be the right move, and will refuse to give Colangelo credit,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’m still pretty bitter about the Hinkie thing, but my best educated guess is that Hinkie would sign LeBron James in a heartbeat. I’m not in lockstep with his thinking here. As well, signing James would be quite a feather in the cap of Bryan Colangelo, though the reality that the real reason James signed here is Embiid and Simmons isn’t something I’d forget to mention.

LeBron James to the Sixers isn’t right, and I can feel it in my bones. It feels crazy to say it out loud, but somebody needs to. He needs the Sixers more than the Sixers need him.

People like to say that with James, you’re the favorite to go to the Finals every year. That’s a misnomer. The Sixers are the favorite to go to the Finals this year, with LeBron James in the same conference, on a different team.

It would take a lot of guts for the Sixers to tell LeBron James “thanks, but no thanks.” Sometimes the hardest decision is the right one, and building this team without LeBron James is the right way for the Sixers, Simmons and Embiid, and the fans.