LeBron James walked into his final interview of the NBA Finals with one last surprise: A dark brace on his right hand, covering an injury he’s hidden for a week.
“Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand,” James said.
The cause: He punched something after Game 1 of the finals, his frustration having obviously boiled way over when the Cleveland Cavaliers let the series opener against the Golden State Warriors get away amid late-game miscues and one overturned call that left him seething.
The injury was never disclosed, and James played basically every minute for the rest of the series and put up great numbers.
James didn’t get the only reward he still seeks from the game of basketball. There will be no parade for him this year, no ring, no banner ceremony. All James has now is a few weeks to think, a few weeks to ponder his next move.
With that, the watch is on. What will LeBron James do next?
“I have no idea at this point,” James said.
This ending — a loss — was inevitable: For as good as James was this season, his 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.
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.
“He’s a bad boy, and I love having him on our team,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He fights and competes to the end. Sometimes you can give everything you’ve got and still come up short. I thought that’s what our group of guys did in this series.”
It’s entirely possible that James left the floor Friday night knowing he was wearing a Cavaliers uniform for the last time.
But 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 an 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.
His decision will be based on what his family wants and where he can win.
“My family is a huge part of whatever I’ll decide,” James said.
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.
“I think maybe the greatest testament to LeBron is that five years ago he was one of the top five players of all time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “From five years ago until now, it seems like he’s 10 times better, because he’s added so much skill to his game.”
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 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.
“We’ll see what happens,” James said.
With that, he was gone. Cleveland can only hope he comes back.