CLEVELAND (AP) — Maybe it was poetic LeBron James had a supporting cast on his injured right hand.
He was missing one in the NBA Finals.
For the second time in a career still ascending after 15 years, James was on the wrong side of a sweep as the Golden State Warriors, a team with no apparent weaknesses and as many as four of the league’s 10 best players on its roster, transformed into a dynasty in Cleveland late Friday.
After what may have been his final game with the Cavaliers, James revealed he hurt himself in a fit of frustration following a Game 1 overtime loss.
He displayed a soft cast on his hand during his postgame news conference and then rounded up his children and some of their friends, and along with his wife, and the usual support group of handlers and security personnel, drove home to Akron.
His next stop is unknown.
Another suspenseful summer of “Where will LeBron go next?” is off and running.
In the next few weeks, James is expected to decline his $35.6 million contract option for next season with the Cavaliers and become an unrestricted free agent like he was in 2010 and 2014. Then the fun starts — well, officially and legally under NBA rules — and teams can begin courting King James to join them.
At the moment the list of suitors is limited, but it could grow before July as teams position themselves to acquire one of the game’s most transcendent forces.
There are obvious potential landing spots, but James, who averaged 34 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds against the Warriors, made it clear that any team coveting him better be prepared to win — everything.
He’s still into hanging banners.
“I still want to be in championship mode,” the 33-year-old said following his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance. “I think I’ve shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.”
Although James may have dropped to 3-6 in the finals, it hasn’t diminished his pursuit of winning a fourth title or slaying this Golden State goliath, a monster of a team he never imagined getting in his way when he made his Ohio homecoming after playing four years in Miami.
So, who has a legitimate shot at getting him?
The Philadelphia 76ers can entice James with young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, salary-cap space to accommodate him and other pieces, and the luxury to stay in the Eastern Conference to avoid meeting up with the Warriors until the Larry O’Brien Trophy is up for grabs.
The Lakers’ sales pitch will include their current flexibility to sign another maximum contract player — maybe Paul George or Kawhi Leonard — and Hollywood’s celebrity-filled hills. James already owns two homes and a film production company in Los Angeles, where the star could become a supernova.
Don’t rule out the Houston Rockets, who pushed Golden State to a Game 7 in the postseason. In presumed MVP James Harden; Chris Paul, one of James’ closest friends; and bent-on-overthrowing-the-Warriors general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets have the building blocks to assemble an uber-team.
In the end, James may decide home is still the sweetest spot.
The Cavaliers, though, have a lot of work to do to convince him he should hang around. The team’s decision to trade All-Star guard Kyrie Irving last summer to Boston sparked a sequence of events that led to a mid-season overhaul, soured James and sent him into the playoffs with a group he carried as far as humanly possible.
Cleveland can offer James more money — a five-year, $209 million contract — than anyone else, but the larger issue is what it can do to improve a roster that’s currently short on title-winning performance. The Cavs have the No. 8 overall pick in this month’s draft as an asset to perhaps package with All-Star forward Kevin Love, who could finally be moved after being the subject of trade rumors for years.
And there’s also the delicate matter of James’ rocky relationship with team owner Dan Gilbert. The two have co-existed purely on business terms since patching things up after Gilbert eviscerated James when he bolted for Miami. It’s unclear if they can move forward together.
On a podcast during the Finals, Gilbert said he views James as much more than a player.
“Legally, he may be working for our organization, but that’s not really the case,” Gilbert said. “He’s more of your partner, really.”
The comment was a concession of sorts from Gilbert, who understands what James means to his franchise and what he represents to Northeast Ohio — hope.
James came home four years ago promising to win a championship and delivered within two seasons, ending a 52-year title drought in a city he has personally helped to revitalize. The summer of 2016 was unforgettable, with a downtown parade that James has said overwhelmed him with emotion.
It may go down as his crowning achievement, or something he wants to feel again.
If so, there’s only one place where that can happen.
The last time James left Cleveland it was because he needed a team to help him achieve greatness. He found it with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and he came back a different man, ready to build his legacy. A father of three, his priorities have changed again, and this time the decision is more complicated.
There’s a tug-of-war going on between James’ brain and heart.
“When I decide what I’m going to do with my future, my family and the folks that have been with me for the last 20 years will have a say-so,” he said. “Then it ultimately will come down to me.”
It always does.
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