As it turns out, Kevin Durant isn’t the only one who thinks that “LeBron’s open to meeting with the Warriors this summer” story was bulls***.
During the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Friday practice ahead of their Saturday meeting with James Harden, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets, LeBron James spoke with reporters and addressed the elephant in the Internet: the early Thursday morning report by ESPN’s Chris Haynes that he “would listen” if the Golden State Wariors “explored ways to clear the necessary cap space” — namely, a maximum salary slot — to sign him in free agency this summer. The report, undoubtedly well sourced (Haynes is a plugged-in dude who famously broke this summer’s Gordon Hayward-to-the-Celtics story before Hayward could do it himself on The Players Tribune) and steeped heavily in hypotheticals (“could position themselves to secure a meeting,” “most veteran players would consider”), became Thursday’s lead NBA story despite the second paragraph laying out clearly that “There is no indication that Golden State is evaluating such options to acquire [James] at this time.”
Of course it did! The idea of LeBron not only leaving Cleveland again but doing so to join the team that’s vanquished him in two of the past three NBA Finals, in the process creating a super-duper-team that would further decimate the notion of competitive balance in the league, was just too juicy to resist. As Dieter Kurtenbach of the Bay Area News Group beautifully laid out, it’s the kind of story that isn’t really a story as much as it is a conversation-and-content generation system, one that functioned brilliantly throughout Thursday, and put the principals involved in position to Answer the Question. KD cursed. Steve Kerr joked. Warriors general manager Bob Myers demurred.
LeBron, though? He answered.
And, just to show you he was serious, he answered topless.
“The Golden State conversation is a non-story,” James said. “All the other conversations is a non-story. My focus right now is on this team, and trying to figure out how we can get back to a fourth NBA Finals and compete for a championship […] If you want to ask me about this team, I can answer it, good, bad or ugly. But please, for the rest of the season, don’t ask me about nothing else. No other team, unless we’re competing against them the next night, or you want to ask me about a highlight that happened the night before. Don’t ask me about being on a team, on another team, because it’s unfair to my teammates, my 14 teammates that we come to work hard for, the coaching staff and this fan base.”
Having taken the low-percentage shot of trying to get media members not to ask him questions about non-Cavs matters, James then settled in to offer more expanded reactions to ESPN’s report.
“The first thing I did [after hearing about it was] start laughing, actually,” James said. “And then I thought about it. It’s nonsense, and it’s a non-story, and I think it’s a discredit to what I’m trying to do here. […] It’s been so many stories about me in the last few months, in the last few days, about where I’m going and where I’m at and what place I’m in. I’m here. I’m right here. I’m right now. And this is my present, and this is where I’m at.
“If you don’t hear something come from my voice, then it’s not true. I don’t give a damn how close they are — I don’t care if it’s my kids, my wife or whatever. If it’s not from me, it’s not true.”
While nobody doubts Haynes’ note that LeBron harbors plenty of respect for the Warriors’ front office and staff, Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon reports that James “has in fact confided in people close to him that he would never join the Warriors — knowing the impact it would have on his legacy.”
“I never said that I would sit down with Golden State, or sit down with anybody,” James told reporters on Friday. “I never talked about any other team throughout my journey. The only thing that bothers me is that people get to go on talk shows and shows and discredit what I’m doing, and say that if he does this, then this is the worst thing he can do. ‘If he’s engaging in that, then it tarnishes his legacy.’ That stuff bothers me, because I have no control over that.”
What James does have control over — besides the part about figuring out how to get the Cavs, now without Kevin Love for the next two months and sitting in third place in the East, back to being a “championship-caliber team” over the next few months — is what he does come the summer.
He holds a $35.6 million player option for the 2018-19 season, and is widely expected to opt out to re-enter the unrestricted free agent market, as he did in the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016. (After the last one, he signed a three-year deal to stay in Cleveland, with the first two years guaranteed.) Opting out would give James the flexibility to re-sign in Cleveland on a longer, more lucrative multi-year max contract … or, y’know, not.
Given the Cavs’ myriad struggles this year — on-court woes, off-court intrigue, locker-room drama, front-office spectacle, you name it — and the mounting evidence that the Cavs just aren’t in the post-Durant Warriors’ league, you’d understand if LeBron might allow himself to entertain the possibility of finding greener title-contending pastures this summer. And yet, James insisted Friday that he hasn’t, and that he plays to “handle my summer situation when my summer gets here.”
“The story needs to be, ‘LeBron is focused on getting his team back to the Finals,'” he said. “That’s what the story should be, because I’m telling you guys right now — not, ‘Oh, I’m angry about the Golden State story, or I’m angry about the Lakers and Philly and Houston and San Antonio and Sacramento and Orlando and Miami and Toronto.’ I can name all 30 teams. Like, that’s not the story. The story, for me, personally — my focus right now, and I’m driven right now, to figure out how we can [play] the right basketball, every single night, to get back to the Finals for a fourth straight year.”
LeBron’s absolutely correct that the Cavs’ ongoing efforts to get back to the Finals is the primary story, and one that we and others will continue to cover. (Too breathlessly, some fans might say!) Like it or not, though, the free-agent plans of the best and most famous player in the league will remain a subject of interest and a topic of coverage until he either confirms he’s picking up his option for next year or signs his name on a new contract — even, as this week showed, if he might not actually say anything about it himself.
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