CLEVELAND—LeBron James won’t be picking any players during Thursday’s National Basketball Association (NBA) draft.
At least not directly.
With the trajectory of their franchise riding on where he decides to play next season and beyond, the Cleveland Cavaliers will enter this year’s draft not knowing if they’re choosing a player to help them—and James—contend for another championship, develop a prospect for the future or potentially take a player to trade.
It’s a guessing game.
James has until June 29 to exercise his $35.6-million contract option for next season or decline it and become an unrestricted free agent, officially making him the planet’s best and most coveted player.
The 33-year-old is not expected to reveal his intentions until after the draft.
By that time, the Cavs, still stinging from a Finals sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, hope to have chosen a player that makes them more appealing to the three-time champion, who is mulling whether to leave them—and his Northeast Ohio home—for the second time in his career.
Anything seems possible at this point. James and his representatives have kept an air-tight lid on their plans.
The Cavs, too, have been secretive, while General Manager Koby Altman prepares for his first draft by consulting with his staff on what to do with the No. 8 overall pick, the one they received last summer in the seismic trade that sent All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics.
It’s quite a quandary for Cleveland, and James isn’t helping the Cavs by keeping them in suspense.
It’s also possible that James hasn’t made up his mind.
Following Game Four in the Finals, James said he’ll factor in his family’s well-being along with his thirst to win more titles into a decision that once again has Cleveland edgy.
“I still want to be in championship mode,” he said. “I think I’ve shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode.”
And while there are numerous unknowns, there is one indisputable fact: the Cavs must upgrade their roster to have any chance of keeping James and continuing a relationship that was resurrected in 2014.
After yielding to Irving’s request and trading him, the Cavs spent all last season trying to replace him. They never came close, and without a dependable second scoring option or a guard, James was forced to shoulder a heavier load than ever. He succeeded in getting to his eighth straight Finals, but was then overmatched by the deeper Warriors.
To remain viable contenders and keep James happy and healthy, the Cavs must address their backcourt issue this summer, either in the draft, through free agency or a trade.
With this year’s draft top loaded with quality big men, there’s a strong possibility the Cavs will have their pick of one of the elite guards, perhaps Oklahoma’s Trae Young or Alabama’s Collin Sexton—two players James has praised in the past.
Young was college basketball’s most electrifying player last season, averaging 27.4 points and 8.7 assists even while teams designed defenses specifically to stop him. James kept an eye on the 6-foot-2 scoring phenom from afar and is intrigued by not only his ability to break down teams but his unselfishness.
Young could be gone by the time the Cavs are on the clock, but Sexton would be a nice backup plan. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 19.2 points and 3.6 assists as a freshman and showed he’s got a big-game gene, carrying the Crimson Tide on a run in the SEC tournament that secured the school’s first NCAA berth since 2012.
Sexton worked out for the Cavs at their training facility and owner Dan Gilbert referred to the 19-year-old as “a very interesting draft prospect” on Twitter.
There’s also a chance that Cleveland could select a guard to use to entice a major trade. The Cavs have long been interested in Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, who will be a free agent after next season, and landing a player of that caliber would send a resounding message to James that they intend to keep chasing championships.
Walker might not be enough to keep James here, but he would give the Cavs a new star to build around.
James has remained off social media since the playoffs began in April, and his self-imposed blackout has continued since the Finals ended.
He’s been quiet, but there’s no doubt he’s watching.