LeBron James can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. (You might have already been aware of this. It’s kind of a big deal.) As such, an awful lot of digital ink has been and will be spilled on the topic of where LeBron might play should he decide to stop playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers; this sort of thing tends to happen when the best player on the planet nears the open market.
After four years wandering the desert, the Philadelphia 76ers are on the path back toward the promised land, entering Monday’s play ranked seventh in the East. They’re led by a pair of remarkable young talents: All-Star center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-10 supersized point guard whose frame and game have long drawn comparisons to James. LeBron’s on the record as a big fan of both guys — who have, naturally, already tested the waters of trying to recruit him — and as he enters his mid-30s, he might like the idea of linking up with a pair of ascendant stars who have still yet to hit their mid-20s and appear poised to stake their claim to Eastern supremacy in the years to come.
Whether James digs that vision remains unclear. But clearly, someone else does:
these appeared this morning in downtown cleveland pic.twitter.com/tfoxHqPTER
— Drew Corrigan (@Dcorrigan50) February 26, 2018
These three billboards went up outside Cleveland on Monday. One features a diagram of a basketball court with five numbers spread around it — 33, 21, 9, 25 and 23. Embiid wears No. 21 for the Sixers. Simmons wears 25. Do-everything forwards Dario Saric and Robert Covington wear Nos. 9 and 33, respectively. You can guess who’s represented by the 23 that’s topped by a jaunty crown.
The other two bear simple, clear phrases: “COMPLETE THE PROCESS” and “#PHILLYWANTSLEBRON.”
So who’s behind the large, unmistakable signs plastered along I-480? A Pennsylvania-based home remodeling company, according to Darren Rovell of ESPN.com:
The billboards, which will be up for three months, were put there by Power Home Remodeling, a company based in Chester, Pennsylvania.
“We’re passionate about Philadelphia,” said Asher Raphael, the company’s co-CEO. “We have an amazing city, it’s the best sports town and it’s an awesome place to live. We think the best athletes should want to play here.” […]
“LeBron is in the conversation of being the best player of all time,” Raphael said. “We think if he comes to Philly, he gets a couple more championships.”
Unlike some other floated destinations, the Sixers wouldn’t have to engage in Olympic-level balance-sheet gymnastics to be able to afford to pay LeBron a full-freight maximum-salaried contract. Philly doesn’t have quite as much financial flexibility as they did at the start of the season, after agreeing to multi-year extensions with Embiid and Covington. But with a projected $70.6 million in salary on the books for next year after shedding the expiring deals of J.J. Redick (who you’d imagine they’d love to bring back on a cheaper contract as a floor spacer), Amir Johnson and Trevor Booker, and a projected salary cap line of $101 million for the 2018-19 season, the Sixers could get into the neighborhood of LeBron’s $35.3 million Year 1 max this summer by renouncing rights to all their free agents and offloading the $8.6 million owed to guard Jerryd Bayless in the final year of his deal.
Getting off that money might not be easy in a league all but devoid of significant cap space. But general manager Bryan Colangelo does have plenty of assets at his disposal — all of the 76ers’ own draft picks moving forward, an additional first-rounder from either the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018 or the Sacramento Kings in 2019, as many as seven extra second-round picks between the 2018 and 2021 drafts, young wings Furkan Korkmaz and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot — to potentially sweeten any deal.
Another potential cap-clearing scenario, albeit a pretty bummerific one: shipping out 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, owed $8.4 million next season in the second year of his rookie contract. I hate even thinking about that; I’d love to see Fultz get a chance to get right in Philly after what’s been an insane rookie season. But importing LeBron presents organizations with difficult decisions with repercussions that can sometimes be felt by otherwise blameless players — just ask Andrew Wiggins — and if Fultz is the cost of doing a bit of business that lets Philly run out a LeBron-Embiid-Simmons core for the next several years, it’s a price Colangelo would have to think very, very seriously about paying.
Maybe that prospect, enticing as it might seem from the outside, isn’t quite enough for James, who’ll surely be looking at which situation best enables him to contend for championships immediately rather than in a couple of years when his running buddies reach their peaks. Maybe the Sixers wouldn’t view it as an ideal fit, preferring to continue to grow organically by letting Simmons remain in control as the team’s top ball-handler while fostering Embiid’s emergence into one of the league’s most dominant players and giving the rest of their young nucleus a chance to develop for a competitive push a few years down the line. Maybe LeBron decides he doesn’t actually want to leave Cleveland, or we find out that his mind’s been made up about a trip to L.A. for years now, and this Philly prospect is just a drawing-dead pipe dream.
Who knows? A lot can change between now and July 1, and LeBron has made it clear that he’s not at all interested in entertaining a dialogue steeped in hypotheticals that he insists he hasn’t yet considered.
“The story needs to be, ‘LeBron is focused on getting his team back to the Finals,’” he said earlier this month. “That’s what the story should be, because I’m telling you guys right now — not, ‘Oh, I’m angry about the Golden State story, or I’m angry about the Lakers and Philly and Houston and San Antonio and Sacramento and Orlando and Miami and Toronto.’ I can name all 30 teams. Like, that’s not the story. The story, for me, personally — my focus right now, and I’m driven right now, to figure out how we can [play] the right basketball, every single night, to get back to the Finals for a fourth straight year.”
It is entirely reasonable that that is LeBron’s focus. For plenty of other people, though, the focus will remain on what happens this summer, and on the journey along the way. For the next three months, anyway, the path to what’s next will feature three gigantic suggestions that LeBron head east to Philly. Such suggestions aren’t always successful, but at least they give us — and maybe their intended targets — something to think about along the way.
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