“You look at the player who he is today,” Hammond said. “How much longer can he play at this level, and when he’s not at that level, can we take advantage of that? You want to be in position to take advantage of that when it does occur.”
Hammond would not concede anything to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “You’re not giving into that, or saying you can’t beat them,” he said. But James has left no doubt among his pursuers in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Determining when he’ll fade is a difficult problem, but it might be easier — and more realistic — than figuring out how to beat him.
On Wednesday night, James will lead Cleveland into Boston to face the top-seeded Celtics as a heavy favorite to reach the Finals for his seventh consecutive season. The last LeBron-less team to represent the East in the Finals was the 2009-2010 Boston Celtics of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Every year since James joined the Miami Heat, since he infamously took his talents to South Beach and then returned home four years later, the Eastern Conference has been governed by one immutable rule: If you don’t have LeBron James, you don’t have a chance.
“His presence is almost unsurmountable,” Hammond said. “You can talk about the MVP-type candidates and others. At the end of the day, the most dominant player in the game today is LeBron James. As a team in the Eastern Conference, that’s something you look at, and that’s a reality. The timeline is, he’s still at the top of his game today, and how long he stays there is something we all deal with. But I don’t know we have the answer to how to deal with it.”
During his reign, James has both dominated and shaped the conference, influencing decisions and impacting the arcs of opposing franchises. Recent NBA history is littered with franchises that made a run at James, only to fall short and tumble back into mediocrity or worse. Teams have endured full cycles of ascent and decline, never to seriously challenge a James-led team for supremacy in the East.
The Chicago Bulls of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah twice earned the East’s top seed and fell to James’s Heat squads in the playoffs; they have retooled and appear headed for a full rebuild. The Atlanta Hawks nabbed the top seed in 2015, James’s first season back in Cleveland, but they fell to James in a conference finals sweep. This year, with Paul Millsap potentially headed into free agency, Atlanta dealt Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers and suffered a first-round ouster. They managed to form a 60-win unit without a superstar. In the end, they built a team just good enough to be run over by a James-shaped bulldozer and start over.
“If you’re a team that thinks he’s vulnerable, for either this year or even for the next two years, I think you’re going to be mistaken, and I think you’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble,” former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the cost of being good?’ There’s a difference between great and good. Are you willing to be a luxury tax team to lose in the second round every year? That’s what a lot of teams will ask themselves, when you go into this upcoming summer here. You look at that roster — that roster is not going anywhere.”
Marks knows better than anyone. Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Nets had a directive from new owner Mikhail Prokhorov to build a contender. The front office believed it could be done. James had only one season left on his contract with the Heat. Miami had played in three consecutive Finals, and the mileage, the Nets hoped, would catch up to them. Specifically, Pierce and Garnett had been the last tandem to oust James.
“The mind-set of the Boston trade, amongst other things, was, that was the window that if you put a team together with Garnett and Pierce and that group, that would be your window to kind of overtake that team,” Marks said.
The Nets dealt a massive haul — first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the right to swap first-round picks in 2017 — for Pierce and Garnett. The Nets lost to Miami in the conference semifinals in five games and lost in the first round as an eight seed before the team broke up. The Celtics, meanwhile, have amassed a war chest, including the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, thanks to that 2017 pick swap.
The Nets have to rebuild, but have few assets to do so.
“There’s no safety net there to pick up the pieces,” Marks said.
The lesson helped contribute to the NBA’s tanking trend. Unable to beat James, many teams chose instead to bide time and accrue draft picks rather than expending resources to build a team good enough to be an also-ran.
This year’s trade deadline displayed the risk, and folly, of chasing James. The Toronto Raptors traded a first-round pick for Serge Ibaka and dealt two second-rounders for P.J. Tucker. An injury to all-star guard Kyle Lowry torpedoed them, but as Cleveland swept them out of the second round, it never appeared a healthy Lowry could have changed the outcome. The Raptors are left with a deficit of picks, and they will have to pay a heavy luxury tax if they want to keep their team together.
“I’m not trying to hear all this, ‘super team’ or ‘super person’ or whatever,” Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri said at a season-ending news conference. “Yeah, they are great. But if it was that, then they would be in a league of two teams or something. We need to figure out how to beat these guys. That’s our job.”
The Celtics, James’s next opponent, took a different approach. Rather than using Brooklyn’s first-round pick in a possible trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, Boston continued its methodical rebuild and stood pat. They not only continue to horde assets, but also made it more likely their team will be maturing into a true championship threat as James is starting his decline.
“I think Boston is more chipping away at it, and hopefully two years from now or three years, he gets older or maybe some injuries creep in,” Marks said. “Or he in fact maybe leaves altogether and signs with another team. If you’re going to build it, maybe have some length to it instead of a short-term window.”
For Eastern Conference franchises, James’s presence has forced them to answer a big-picture question. What is the value of being good and losing to a great player? Hammond, whose Bucks lost in the first round, sees equity in young players gaining playoff experience, which couldn’t happen if they tanked for a draft pick. He also pointed out that injuries happen, and if James ever suffered an injury — not that he’d want it to happen — he would want his team to be in position to take advantage. Ultimately, though, merely moving up the pecking order isn’t a goal.
“Everyone that does this — front office, coaches, in particular players that play this game — are doing it for one reason,” Hammond said. “That’s to win a championship. I don’t think there is a second place.
“Sometimes you have to go through this process to become great. The LeBrons, the Kobes, the MJs on down, they weren’t champions immediately. It took them time somewhere. The fan base, the media, can see the hope and the promise.”
For the foreseeable future, though, James will remain an obstacle better to wait out than try to conquer. The problem is determining how long the wait might be. James led the NBA in minutes per game this season, his 14th in the NBA. He has never a suffered a debilitating injury. He is a physical outlier, a superhuman in terms of size, strength, speed and durability.
Marks said front office analytics departments use historical data — minutes per player, age curves, etc. — to figure out a likely career path for James. “He would probably make them all look like fools,” Marks said. “So now you’re really relying on the eye test and a gut instinct.”
“I think it’s impossible to predict,” Hammond said. “He looks better today than he did yesterday. You can hear players, you could read players talking about that, saying that he looks bigger, better, stronger today than he did yesterday. I would have no idea when [his decline] is going to occur. It sure doesn’t seem like it’s right around the corner.”
And so the conversations will continue, for everybody in the Eastern Conference. The questions of how to chase LeBron James will keep coming, even if the answers never do.