Tampering rules prohibit the Sixers from openly courting LeBron James, so, in the next few weeks, some Sixers fan should buy a billboard space (or three) on I-95 North.
King James and his Cavaliers hosted the Sixers on Thursday night, but they will visit Philadelphia on April 6. A solicitous ride from the airport in April might make a difference when James is looking for a job this summer.
Something like "Welcome Home, King." Maybe, "Dilly, Dilly, Play for Philly."
Maybe, "You Complete Me" – implying that, if James opts out of his contract with the Cavs in June, the Sixers will show him the money.
That last suggestion would be a fitting bookend billboard to one of the three outside of Cleveland that a remodeling company in Chester bought for the next three months in its effort to bring the King to Philadelphia. One of the Cleveland billboards reads, plaintively, "Complete The Process."
A fine sentiment. But would it? Would it complete The Process, or would it impede it? Would the Sixers be better served by growing their tantalizing core organically? Would LeBron disrupt a perfect, delicate balance?
Of course not.
If you believe in The Process — in either its original iteration or in the saner version it has become — then asserting that LeBron would derail it is heretical to tenets of The Process itself. The plan wasn't to tank indefinitely, to horde draft picks and grow them together, but only together. The capstone involved adding a star when the cornerstones were set and the right star came available.
The cornerstones are set. The right star will come available.
This isn't meant to predict whether James will become a Sixer this summer. Yes, there is a connection: The agency that represents LeBron also represents Sixers rookie Ben Simmons, who considers LeBron a mentor. Yes, Sixers color commentator Alaa Abdelnaby reported that LeBron was in Philadelphia over the all-star break looking at private schools for his children. (LeBron denied it.) Yes, LeBron said of the Cleveland billboards, "That's dope," and marveled that a city would beg an old man like him to deliver it to the promised land; a latter-day Moses, if you will. (Either Moses fits the metaphor.)
Yes, it could happen, but this addresses only whether it should happen. It should.
Maybe this is preaching to an empty church. Maybe everyone wants James to be a Sixer. There are mutterings, but perhaps those mutterings aren't real. Perhaps they exist only to drive ratings or to bait clicks.
To be fair, a measure of reluctance is almost understandable. Almost.
LeBron's a coach-killer, they say. Maybe so. He had only one coach in four seasons in Miami, Erik Spoelstra, but Spoelstra had Pat Riley protecting him in the front office. James has had five coaches in 11 seasons in Cleveland, where there has been no Pat Riley. Maybe LeBron has picked his coaches. OK. It's not as if Paul Silas or David Blatt landed elsewhere and won something.
LeBron's a control freak, they say. OK. He has controlled his teams into seven consecutive NBA Finals and three titles.
He's manipulative? Fine. The cold reality is that stars control the NBA, and LeBron is not just any star. He's an unstoppable star. You can argue that Kobe Bryant hung with him through 2011, and that Kevin Durant has been nearly as potent since, but LeBron has been a transformative force through the fall of one and the rise of the other. He's a star like none we've ever seen before and might never see again. There's never been a second Wilt, or Michael Jordan, or Shaquille O'Neal. Would anyone have hesitated to bring them aboard a young and promising team?
Of course not. So, why dither about LeBron?
Maybe it's because LeBron Fatigue infected most of us years ago. He was so big and so strong and so good so young that we began to expect him to never lose, to never fail. We expected him to hit every big shot in every big game, and we expected him to say all the right things all the time.
That didn't happen, because Marvel characters are fictional. LeBron won a lot. He succeeded a lot. He hit lots of big shots in lots of big games. He said mostly the right things most of the time. Still, instead of appreciating his gifts and respecting his character, it became a sport of sorts to find his flaws and to magnify his shortcomings.
The same people in Philly who criticized him for saying he was taking his talents to South Beach in 2010 would trade their birthright to hear him say he's taking his talents to South Philly in 2018.
What's the downside?
Are you worried about LeBron disrupting the chemistry building between all-star center Joel Embiid and Simmons? Well, consider that the Sixers gave JJ Redick a one-year, $23 million contract to provide three-point shooting and, as important, to bring veteran leadership to the locker room. LeBron would bring more.
Consider, too, that LeBron is, by any measure, still breathtakingly good. The same silly, egalitarian logic that denied Jordan annual MVP awards has kept James from at least twice as many as the four he has won. He's 33, and he's playing his 15th season, but he's averaging 26.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists, shooting 54.6 percent from the field and playing 37.1 minutes per game. He just became the oldest player to average a triple-double for a month; Wilt was 31 when he did it. LeBron has endured an enormous amount of physical abuse on his way to 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists, the only player in NBA history to hit those marks officially, but if James came to Philadelphia, he'd usually be Option No. 2, behind Embiid.
Not that LeBron needs to defer. Not after what he's done.
If you're into analytics, you probably know that he ranks second all-time, behind Jordan, in the Player Efficiency Rating advanced metric. PER is a slightly flawed quantifier –Wilt Chamberlain ranks behind Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson – but LeBron's rank is completely defendable among players from the past 45 years. He's fourth all-time in Win Shares. He's first, by a mile, in Value Over Replacement Player. He's also fun to watch.
As an assist junkie, it's especially enticing to imagine King James and Big Ben and The Process moving the ball in a half-court set. It would be a pass-a-holic's fantasy.
By any metric or measure, LeBron-to-Philly is a delicious proposition. It would accelerate The Process by at least two years, maybe three. It would enrich the locker room: He's a total hoop nerd with a social conscience who dotes on his family and is loyal to a fault. He continually expands his game: He became a proficient three-point shooter after eight seasons and has averaged career highs in rebounds and assists the past two seasons.
So, what's the problem? Imperfect shooting form? Imprecise grammar?
The NBA has never seen anything like LeBron James. The same might be true of Embiid, a giant with freakish athletic ability, and Simmons, a powerful, athletic ball-handler and willing distributor. LeBron is the perfect player to serve as mentor to these raw talents.
He would teach them how to win. He would teach them how to star.
Why would any general manager miss the chance to bring them together?