There are telltale signs when LeBron James is playing his final game with a team. No, he isn’t immature enough to quit on his team, as many prognosticators would have you believe. He’s not stupid enough to tear off his jersey as he did in 2010, either. The circumstances that lead to LeBron James ending his tenure with a team have far more to do with that team than him.
It almost always starts with a losing streak. They say death always comes in threes. When the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, they opened the series with a 2-1 lead and then lost three straight. The 2014 NBA Finals opened with a split in San Antonio before the Spurs swept the Miami Heat in the final three games of that series. Right now, James’ Cavaliers are on a three-game losing streak against the Golden State Warriors in what will be the precursor to his third free agent departure.
His teammates play a vital role in that departure. James isn’t interested in playing for bad teams, but he isn’t interested in playing for declining ones either. The average age of Cleveland’s starting lineup in Game 6 of that 2010 series, besides James, was 32.75. Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anthony Parker and Antawn Jamison were too old to be expected to compete for a championship in 2011 when they couldn’t win one in 2010. The starting lineup that the Miami Heat trotted out in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals was even older — 34.75 years old. Two players in it — Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis — never played another NBA game. It is entirely possible that James is the only player from that lineup still in the NBA next season.
It could be argued that James’ lack of foresight and desire to win immediately is partially responsible for that. But it isn’t necessarily that his teams acquire older players. It’s that they acquire, or let go of, the wrong ones. Each of the teams that James has left was coming off of a very notable personnel misfire. The Cavaliers decided against trading J.J. Hickson for Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010, a move that may have won them the championship by giving James his first true star teammate in his prime. When he reached free agency, he chose a team that had two of those. The 2014 Heat waived Mike Miller to save money, and James’ two free agent demands that next summer were that he be paid his max salary, and that his team had to be willing to pay the luxury tax.
James leaves a trail of tea leaves in his wake. They just have to be read. And this year’s Cavaliers fit the bill. The average age of Cleveland’s starting lineup in Game 3 of the NBA Finals was 29.5, a number that is deflated by the fact that four-year college players have mostly cycled out of the NBA in favor of one-and-done players. Thompson, in his seventh NBA season, is the shortest-tenured player on that group. The Cavaliers were so old at the trade deadline that they made moves specifically to add youth.
They just failed in that regard. Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood have been largely unplayable. James preferred DeAndre Jordan at the deadline, according to Jason Lloyd of The Athletic. Instead he is playing with a group of has-beens and never-will-bes.
And those are exactly the sort of teams that James leaves. He left Cleveland the first team seeking teammates who could play at his level after the Cavaliers failed to give him one. He left Miami because those teammates were declining, ownership didn’t want to pay for them anyway and he saw a chance to recreate their success with younger pieces. And now that the biggest young piece in that equation — Kyrie Irving — plays for the Boston Celtics. He just doesn’t have any reason left to stay.
Loyal has never been among the many descriptors used for James. That is not an insult. It’s a compliment. James is a ruthless pragmatist. He is the sort of player who avoids signing his own contract until his teammates have signed theirs because he knows teams are cheap enough to give up talent when their hands aren’t forced. Perhaps no player in NBA history has ever been more aware of his exact circumstances, the limitations that they present, and the potential paths around them than James.
But there is no path around the obstacle in James’ way now. He is, in the plainest terms, playing for a bad team. He has never shown a willingness to do that. Until he does, it has to be assumed that he won’t. James’ history leaves too many clues to his future. And with the Cavaliers 48 minutes away from an NBA Finals sweep that could have been avoided if J.R. Smith had only known the score, James’ future has never been clearer. He won’t be a Cavalier next season. He won’t be a Cavalier tomorrow.