Post by Space City Scoop contributor Mike Mitchell
Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) shoots against San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Four summers ago, when LeBron James sat down in the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut to announce he was leaving Cleveland for Miami, cynics were quick to announce LeBron was part of a narcissistic generation lacking in loyalty and humility.
While ignoring the cringe-worthy self-regard of national icons of the 1960s and 70s such as Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain and Reggie Jackson – to name a few – LeBron’s decision to take less money to chase team glory was branded an unforgivable sin against decency by the old guard. Machiavelli in high-tops, they cried.
Reality is simpler, as it usually is. LeBron James wants to win rings, because winners are immortalized, and even Hall of Fame scoring champions are doomed to an after-life as trivia answers without jewelry. Pat Riley put his rings on the table. Literally.
Four seasons, four Finals appearances and two rings later, there is no reason for LeBron to change his philosophy. Unless the top of his priority list is to join Rony Seikaly and Alonzo Mourning in the Miami Heat (est. 1988) Ring of Honor, he can be persuaded by probability and logic just as he was in 2010.
And here’s the new logic: the Houston Rockets offer a better supporting cast in 2014 than the Miami Heat offered in 2010, let alone in present form with a nearly-decimated Dwyane Wade and a declining Chris Bosh. In fact, the Rockets with LeBron James would be the most talented roster of the salary cap era, spanning back to the 1984-85 campaign.
Let’s dig into the evidence:
There have been 44 First-Team All-NBA players over the past 30 seasons. (All-NBA selections are not a perfect barometer of greatness. But they can give us some necessary context.)
Included on that list are LeBron James (8x), Dwight Howard (5x) and James Harden. Three players with a First-Team All-NBA selection to their credit have played together just twice before in the past 30 years: the 2004 Los Angles Lakers, who should not count because two of the legends (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) were role players on their last legs; and the 1984-1990 Boston Celtics teams, who won two NBA championships in their first three seasons together before their core of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Thompson atrophied rapidly in their early 30s.
James, Howard and Harden are all under 30, younger than any such past trio of comparable acclaim. Three players with First-Team All-NBA on their résumé have never played together before the age of 30 in the history of the NBA.
The trio represents three of the only seven players under 30 in the entire NBA who can boast of such a selection.
With the Rockets uniquely gifted core established, let’s get closer to ground level and explore the current factors weighing on Houston and LeBron. The Rockets cap sheet is, by Daryl Morey’s intelligent design, one of the cleanest in the league.
Houston currently has Chandler Parsons fit into a cap hold as he tests restricted free agency. If James signs on with Houston now, or if Houston has a wink-wink with Parsons to wait out their pursuit of James and Carmelo Anthony before testing the market, they would then be able to exceed the cap in order to retain Parsons’s services once another max-level star has been lured to Space City, allowing James (or Anthony) to play significant minutes at stretch four and Parsons to get the highest-percentage looks of his career.
The Rockets also boast Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley producing on bargain-basement rookie contracts. Jones’s 19.1 Player Efficiency Rating placed him in the top 40 in the NBA at age 22, while Synergy ranked Beverley as the 18th best isolation defender of point guards in the league at age 25.
Don’t overlook Beverley, a player who can save LeBron from having to stay in front of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard during the next few seasons of Western Conference playoff battles by playing air-tight fourth quarter defense in isolation and through screens.
There is no on-court argument against a six-man core of James, Howard, Harden, Parsons, Jones and Beverley. James, at age 29, would be the elder statesman of a group that requires no projection, having cemented their reputations at a young age.
Jeremy Lin, who chucked and bobbled his way to an above-average usage rate of nearly 21 on last year’s 54-win team, will be leaving behind most of the possessions LeBron would soak up (if and when Morey attaches his walk year to a sweetener or two). There will be no need to divide up egos and possessions to appease The King.
By signing on with the Rockets, would LeBron cement his reputation as a mercenary?
In the short-term, perhaps.
Ultimately, James will be judged as all great athletes are: by how many championship trophies he delivers. And by that simple logic, LeBron James’s legacy project should lead him to Houston for the next phase of his journey.