Here is a very quick Thanksgiving thought: Everyone should be thankful for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and what's happened to the 76ers over the past month. Everyone should be thankful for LeBron James and everything he's done for the NBA over the past 13 years. And finally, everyone should also be thankful that LeBron is a free agent this summer. It's a wild card that makes the rest of the season more interesting. But we cannot let LeBron James go to the 76ers.
Over the past week I've heard from several readers with some variation of the same LeBron free agency idea. The best one came from Matt, who said: "According to an unnamed source that I just made up, LeBron is definitely going to sign with Philadelphia next year ... They immediately become the best team in the East, LeBron gets to spend a few years leveling up this Philly roster and blitzing through the Eastern Conference playoffs on a team that can keep his minutes low and will improve each season. You could even make it a trade and flip Fultz and Okafor to Cleveland in some kind of reverse-Wiggins deal to make it more palatable for Ohio."
And he added:
• 48 minutes each night of either Simmons/LeBron running the offense
• LeBron mentoring Simmons, his best physical/IQ comp in the entire league
• LeBron/Embiid pick and rolls
• The defensive potential of LeBron/Simmons/Covington/Embiid lineups
• The offensive potential of LeBron/Redick/Covington/Simmons/Embiid lineups
• LeBron and Hinkie admitting that this was plan all along
• The Boston/Philly East coast rivalry
• The subsequent Dion Waters homecoming trade to lead the bench units while screaming “This is my city!"
It's a pretty compelling case. The defensive lineup mentioned above would be an obscene, incredible, comic book–level response to everything Golden State's become. And because the Warriors themselves are obscene and incredible and operating at comic–book levels until further notice, maybe LeBron in Philly is exactly what we need.
LeBron pick-and-rolls with Embiid would be incredible, obviously. I'd also really enjoy watching LeBron subtweet his enemies just minutes before Embiid addresses those people by name:
Likewise, I agree: the interplay between LeBron and Training Wheels LeBron (Simmons) would be fascinating. And watching this Sixers team vaporize the overachieving Celtics would be great.
But it won't happen. It shouldn't happen. I hate this idea for the same reason I hated the LeBron/Knicks discussion a few weeks ago.
I lived through Michael Jordan on the Wizards. LeBron is worlds away from Wizards Jordan as a player, but there are a few similarities that make his free agency complicated. He absorbs the attention in any room he ever enters, he plays weird counterproductive mind games with his teammates, and he's a chronically shortsighted shadow GM who's been more Doc Rivers than Pat Riley. The experience is almost always worth it regardless, but for a young team with a bright future, I don't know. Do we really need Joel Embiid getting lectured about Zero Dark Thirty 23?
The best stories of the season thus far have been Kyrie Irving in Boston, Giannis in Milwaukee, everyone in Philadelphia, and Kristaps Porzingis in New York. None of these teams are good enough to push the Warriors without LeBron (although "Nah, the Sixers don't need LeBron" could be its own banner for The Process), but that's not the point.
For the first time in a decade, the Eastern Conference is legitimately interesting. There are real superstars beyond LeBron, and they've injected life into the league that's sort of saved the season. The West is predictable as ever, the Cavs are a mess, but between Porzingis, Kyrie, Embiid, and Giannis, there's something to go crazy about every night. And one thing those teams all have in common: there's no 30-something superstar absorbing attention every night.
Kyrie Irving is the most extreme example of this phenomenon, but it's happening with Porzingis just the same. The league's watching a new generation of superstars come of age and alter the landscape. And imagining the implications of LeBron-to-Philly actually says more about where LeBron is than where the Sixers want to go.
The NBA works best when its biggest personalities and best players have room to breathe. LeBron is the biggest personality the game has, but he's absorbed 98% the oxygen on every team he's ever been on. That makes it harder for everyone else to grow. So yes, just as his superstar replacements come of age and enter the spotlight, LeBron co-opting the talent and star power of Porzingis or Embiid would be evil, and brilliant, and honestly, kind of a bummer. We can't let LeBron go to New York or Philly.
Now, LeBron to San Antonio? That's the discussion we need to be having.