Reimer: It now appears likely LeBron James will leave Cavaliers in 2018

Alex Reimer
June 21, 2017 - 10:47 am

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

It all started with a tweet from a fake Adrian Wojnarowski account. Last week, a faux Wojo tweeted that LeBron James was going to leave Cleveland for Los Angeles in 2018 so he could build a super team and “defend himself.” It prompted nearly four minutes of debate on “Around the Horn” where, surprisingly, none of the four panelists disputed the phony report. In fact, NBA reporter Frank Isola called it the “worst kept secret” in the NBA. 

Fast-forward five days, and the murmurs about James ditching the Cavaliers are getting louder. Adding to the speculation is the fact that Cleveland seems intent on angering the league’s best player whenever possible. The Cavaliers parted ways Monday with general manager David Griffin, who lured James back to Cleveland and built a championship team around him. James thanked Griffin on Twitter, and appeared to take a swipe at the Cavaliers in the process. 

"If no one appreciated you Griff I did, and hopefully all the people of Cleveland! Thanks for what u did for the team for 3 yrs! We got us 1," he wrote

While James was always expected to opt out of his contract in 2018 –– he seldom forfeits a chance to wield more leverage –– there now seems to be a real possibility that he takes his talents to Hollywood –– opening up the Eastern Conference for the Celtics in the process. Numerous reports, in addition to a series of circumstances, support this emerging theory: 

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire 

The real Adrian Wojnarowski reported a bombshell of his own last week, when he said there's a feeling around the NBA that James is "likely" to join either the Lakers or Clippers in 2018. Comcast SportsNet's Brian Scalabrine took that one step further, guaranteeing that James is going to LA after next season. 

The chatter about James leaving Cleveland has only picked up this week, especially in the wake of Griffin's departure. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said Tuesday on Kirk & Callahan this is the "most vulnerable" James has been since he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014. 

Damaged relationship between James and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert

When James signed with the Heat in 2010, Gilbert penned a ridiculous letter in Comic Sans, in which he attacked James personally and professionally. During a recent video for his website,  Uninterrupted, James opened up about the lingering hard feelings he still carries. 

“He didn’t just disrespect me as an individual, he disrespected my name,” James said. "“Some people were [on] the fence. My wife was like, ‘I ain’t with that.’ My mom was definitely like, ‘[Expletive] that, we ain’t going back.’ For me, I had to say, ‘You know what, it ain’t about that. It’s more of a bigger picture. It’s more [about] all these kids and all these people who need inspiration and need a way to get out. And I believe I’m that way out.’”

As the Vertical's Chris Mannix points out, the Cavaliers are a rudderless operation right now, entering free agency without a general manager. That can't sit well with James, especially with Gilbert as the defacto decision-maker. 

James campaigned for Griffin to keep his job  

It's apparent that James wanted Griffin to remain in Cleveland. He didn't get his wish. 

"It makes no sense why [Griffin] shouldn't get an extension," James said in April, via ESPN. He's pulled every move –– he's tried to make every move happen –– to better this team to be able to compete for a championship. So we wouldn't be in this position, obviously, without him and without the guys that are here."

According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin, Gilbert didn't consult with James when he opted to part ways with Griffin. In the NBA, owners often acquiesce to star players in an effort to appease them. Gilbert took the opposite approach. 

James' close relationship with Jerry West 

The Clippers recently hired West to serve as a consultant, and it reportedly was for the purpose of courting James in free agency. USA Today's Sam Amick says Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is paying West between $4 million and $5 million annually for this task. 

James and West, despite their nearly 50-year age difference, have built a close relationship over the years. James confided in West when he signed with the Heat in 2010, and has read his biography three times. 

There's still a lot to be done –– Los Angeles must first re-sign Chris Paul this summer –– but it's apparent the Clippers are making a big play for the King. 

Lakers are clearing their cap 

The Lakers traded point guard D'Angelo Russell and center Timofy Mozgov to the Nets Tuesday in exchange for Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick in the draft. The deal erased the remaining $54 million on Mozgov's contract from the Lakers' books. With Lopez's $22.6 million deal expiring at the end of next season, the Lakers are expected to have $30 million in cap space in 2018. Wojnarowski reports they're clearing money to make runs at Paul George and James next summer. 

Turmoil in Cleveland 

Even though James is tethered to Cleveland for at least one more season, the Cavaliers are seemingly no longer a coveted destination. Several Cavaliers players have reportedly told Jimmy Butler, whom Cleveland is trying to acquire, to stay away from the situation. There are also rumblings that point guard Kyrie Irving may force a trade, too. 

Situations can change quickly, of course. But at this point, it seems as if the Cavaliers are heading down a path towards dysfunction.