The case for the Philadelphia 76ers pursuing LeBron James in free agency is really simple. He is LeBron James. He is one of the five or six best players in NBA history. He has taken his team to the NBA Finals seven years in a row, occasionally by sheer force of will.
Even in his 30s, he is still putting up numbers that are insane, which pair nicely with the consistently insane numbers from the rest of his career. Sometimes I go look at his Basketball Reference page and just laugh and laugh at how big the numbers are. It doesn’t even look real. He has a very real chance to finish in the top 10 all-time for career points, rebounds, and assists. That’s just crazy.
Point being: LeBron James is pretty good.
And if the Sixers can woo him, well, that would be a pretty big deal too, especially considering where the franchise was just a few seasons ago. I don’t know how many of you actually watched the team play in the full-on Process era, but it was … something. It was fun in its own little way, because every game was David vs. Goliath and you could get stupid excited about the team winning a home game against, like, the Nets, but it was not good basketball.
I don’t know why I’m being so delicate here. It was bad. It was very bad. Charming, sure, but bad.
Going from that to a team with a charismatic unicorn in Joel Embiid and a jet-propelled 6’10 point guard in Ben Simmons has been fun enough. Adding LeBron would make the team an immediate title contender and would serve as a kind of validation that all of this is actually real, which would be nice, because I still worry that I’m going to jolt awake in bed in 2015 and see Embiid in street clothes and realize this has all been a decongestant-fueled dream. As long as the Sixers can sign him to a two or maybe three-year contract and avoid the freefall part of a potential end of career downslide, this would all be pretty neat.
The case against, on the other hand, is a little trickier. Let’s start with the easy part of it: LeBron, for all the reasons listed above, tends to suck up all the oxygen in the room, both on and off the court. For a LeBron team to truly work, the other players need to step back a little. He’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot — and in a way that doesn’t leave much room for other guys to shine.
This has happened to great players in two different cities. Look at Chris Bosh and Kevin Love. Both were 20-10 perennial All-Stars who were the top dogs on their respective pre-LeBron teams, but because LeBron needs a clear lane to drive and shooters to kick it out to, both of them became spot-up perimeter players on offense.
It makes me worry how LeBron’s game will mesh with Embiid (a dominant inside force who shoots threes to stretch a defense) and Simmons (a big ball-handler with a game that is maybe too similar to LeBron’s for them to co-exist on the court together). And even if it does mesh, it makes me worry that LeBron justifiably being LeBron will stunt the growth of the young guys that have made the team so much fun to watch this year.
This brings us to the part that’s harder to explain, which is also the main reason a part of me — again, an admittedly irrational part — cringes at the idea of the Sixers signing LeBron. I kind of just want to see what the guys on the team now can do.
I want to see if Embiid can grow into the role of team leader. I want to see if Ben Simmons can become the team’s own homegrown version of LeBron. I want to see if Dario Saric — please do not forget about Dario, who is arguably the most fun player to watch on the whole team — can continue doing a whole pile of Dario Saric things, which are becoming an absolute delight to watch. I even want to see if Markelle Fultz can learn to shoot again and plug himself into that lineup of versatile young giants. I want to see Sam Hinkie vindicated and revered in Philadelphia as a martyr for the cause. I want all of it.
Perhaps I’m being a little too romantic about all of this. It’s not like me, to be honest. I try to be as rational and logical a sports fan as I can. And yeah, I can go back and read that last paragraph and admit there’s an element of Stockholm Syndrome to it all. It just feels like … I don’t want to say “cheating” to bring in a traveling mercenary like LeBron to try to speed up the process (and The Process), but it does feel less fun.
I don’t know. It’s tough and it tears at me a little. Nothing in sports or life is a given. I mean, the Thunder had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden on the same team a few years ago and they have bupkis to show for it, banner-wise. That could happen to the Sixers, too. Embiid’s body could break down and Simmons and Fultz might never be able to shoot and a few years from now payroll issues might split up the core empty-handed. If you can make a move that increases your odds to win a title tomorrow, the smart play is to make that move today, every time. I know that. I really do. Doing anything else is a big gamble.
But I think I’d rather roll the dice anyway.