CLEVELAND — LeBron James checked out of Game 4 of the NBA Finals at 11:20 p.m. on Friday, his phenomenal season officially over.
His Cleveland tenure may be as well.
This ending was inevitable: For as good as James was this season, his Cleveland Cavaliers were not good enough. No one gave them a chance to beat the Golden State Warriors, for obvious reasons. And the ending was a sweep, the second of James’ career in the NBA Finals and perhaps a most unceremonious end to his time in Cleveland.
And now the watch begins: What will LeBron James do next?
The final on Friday night was Golden State 108, Cleveland 85. The Cavaliers probably should have won Game 1 and had a great chance to win Game 3, but there’s no doubting who the better team is.
The Warriors are better. James knows that.
The Warriors are smarter. James knows that, too.
He scored 23 points in Game 4, by far his lowest-output game of the series. The Cavs led briefly in the first half, but it was over shortly after halftime. James was subbed out for Cedi Osman with 4:03 remaining, shook hands with a few of the Warriors players on his way to the bench, and walked off the court shortly after time expired.
It’s entirely possible that James left the floor Friday night knowing he was wearing a Cavaliers uniform for the last time.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where James knows where he’s going — if anywhere.
Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers are oft-mentioned as possible James destinations — but since they’re in the Western Conference, that would mean potentially dealing with the Warriors earlier in the playoffs. He could go to Philadelphia and join a up-and-coming team, albeit one now dealing with front-office questions after the resignation of Bryan Colangelo in a Twitter-use scandal. He could return to Miami, a place he still loves.
Thing is, there’s no obvious choice.
He will likely decide based on what his family wants and where he can win.
Even if the Lakers landed James and another top-flight player like a Paul George this summer, it’s still hard to see them being ready to overtake the Rockets and Warriors out West. Philadelphia might be on the cusp of contending in the East, but doesn’t seem like a championship club yet. Houston may seem like the move, though it’s anyone’s guess how a James-Chris Paul-James Harden trio would work.
All that’s clear is this: Cleveland isn’t winning another NBA title anytime soon with a roster that looks like the one it had in this series.
And James wants more rings. That’s why he spends well over $1 million a year to tweak and hone his body. That’s why, in his 15th NBA season, he was as dominant as ever.
He is showing no signs of fading — yet.
But he’s 33. Father Time is undefeated. James’ window of greatness will close, someday.
James can leave without owing Northeast Ohio anything. He came back. He brought Cleveland an NBA title. He has given the city so much. Still, James will never forget the infamous letter that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned when he left for Miami in 2010.
Whether he stays or goes, it’s now the summer of LeBron again.
Many free-agent moves around the league after July 1 will be held up while teams wait to see what James does. His decision, whatever it is, could mean Kevin Love gets traded. His decision, whatever it is, could decide whether Tyronn Lue returns as coach. His decision, whatever it is, will dictate if Cleveland is a contender next season or a tanker. There really isn’t any in-between.
It’s all up to James.
How the league looks a year from now hinges in so many ways on what he decides a few weeks from now.