With speculation building around what team LeBron James will ultimately decide to sign with, it appears safe to say that the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers seem to be firmly in the lead.
No matter where James decides is the best situation for him, he’ll be playing for a contender regardless. His decision largely impacts the Eastern Conference, and should be treated as something of interest by all teams that in the NBA. From top to bottom, James remaining in the East would certainly put any attempts at rising up to a halt from many contenders. Though the Sixers do not fit that description at the moment, they are one of the teams that could be hurt the most.
It’s no secret that the Sixers are beginning the second year of what is expected to be a multi-year rebuild plan. While the time-table Sam Hinkie has laid forth has the team finding its way within five years or so (of the plan starting), this is still the world of professional sports. The demand for results will come much sooner than later, and by year three, patience will certainly be running thin. That’s why looking at the choices of Miami and Cleveland for LeBron are very interesting, because one could easily carry his reign on the dominance for the next half decade. The best case scenario for the 76ers to properly compete in the near future would be for James to keep his talents firmly in South Beach.
Looking at the two teams, it’s clear that they offer two significantly different paths. If James returns to Miami, the Heat won’t be the NBA Finals favorite (to win it at least), but they should be back in the mix to win the Eastern Conference. But, “The Big Three” are all four years older than when they first joined up, and Dwyane Wade has drastically regressed due to health problems. The workload that James has had to carry, even with another star in Chris Bosh, is only going to get heavier if he remains there. While Miami will still be effective team for the next season or two, other teams in the east are only improving. Signing a squad filled with players on the veterans minimum isn’t going to get the job done.
While the conference may run through Miami now, a team like the 76ers wouldn’t have to worry about this version of the Heat when they’re ready to assert themselves. By that time Wade would be out of league and Bosh and LeBron will both be approaching their mid-30s.
Cleveland on the other hand, would be a completely different scenario. If LeBron is able to maintain his own health and continue to adapt his play as needed, he could extend his elite years well into his mid 30s. Pair that with a 22 year-old Kyrie Irving, who hasn’t even reached his prime, and a solid core of young players, and suddenly the conference shifts dramatically. Andrew Wiggins was touted as the next big thing going into the draft, and playing with two other superstars would only take the pressure off him, and allow him to reach his potential. LeBron has been on a team that’s played in four straight Finals already. On paper, him with the Cleveland roster (assuming they reach even half their potential) could find themselves competing in the next four to five Finals.
Going to four straight finals after being a lottery team sounds outrageous, but so did the idea of James ever returning back to Cleveland. The whole point of the 76ers’ rebuild effort is to create a culture that would allow the franchise to dominate for the next half of the decade. The ultimate goal of that is to eventually win championships. Sam Hinkie isn’t just building a team that can compete for a five or six seed in the playoffs, his vision is to create the best team period. A Miami team whose time at the top is fading is one thing, but a Cleveland team that will only just be starting an Eastern Conference reign (a very real possibility if LeBron returns) will effectively be a challenge no GM will look forward to.
As said before, the Sixers aren’t necessarily impacted by LeBron’s choice (I purposely didn’t say decision) right away, because they aren’t ready to compete. It might be three or four more seasons until they are ready, in which time the Heat reign would be likely be over. Obviously the Heat could re-tool, but it’s hard to imagine them building a better cast around LeBron than Tristan Thompson, Wiggins, and Irving in their primes. In the meantime, one can only hope that for the sake of Hinkie’s rebuilding project, that Miami somehow win the LeBron sweepstakes, and keeps LeBron’s reign from extending for the next six or seven years, when the Sixers hope to be title contenders.