By most accounts, the NBA has never seen a talent like LeBron James. But this may be a reduction of the King’s greatness, because the NBA has also never seen someone of his intellect, determination and less-acclaimed stewardship.
LeBron came into the NBA at a mercurial crossroads. Just months before draft day, 2003, Michael Jordan bowed out for the final time. The void left by his hoop earring-shaped legacy created a problem for the league. Long buttressed by the popularity of Jordan, the NBA’s reputation would suffer after his exit. What’s more, in losing the star who’d been the face of the league for 15 years, the players lost a big chunk of their collective power.
The current narrative of the NBA contends that it is more equitable, safe and transparent than any other American sports league. Nonetheless, from time to time, evidence of the power dynamics that permeate all owner-player relations flare up.
In 1996, Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf chose to sit for the national anthem because he viewed the American flag as a symbol of racism and oppression. The league suspended Rauf and two years later, he was out of the league (The Undefeated, “Still no anthem, still no regrets for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” 09.01.2016). In 2005, the NBA instituted a dress code that forbade many items including T-shirts, jerseys, sports apparel, “headgear” and sunglasses while indoors. The fashion prohibition proved controversial, and to many carried a racist subtext. In this decade, the wounds of Donald Sterling’s egregious tenure as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers linger, fresh and painful. The fact remains that out of 30 owners, only one is Black, a former player— Michael Jordan.
In the aftermath of Jordan—as the league punished dissent and regulated player expression, and as racist owners like Donald Sterling reigned—the power of the NBA player arguably reached its nadir.
The 2003 draft class is one of the greatest ever. It produced at least four future Hall of Famers and numerous other players still scattered across the league’s starting lineups. Seven years after that draft, three of those Hall of Famers, in an operation orchestrated by LeBron, teamed up in Miami to form the first “Super Team” of the 2010s. The rest is history.
But LeBron’s infamous televised “Decision,” as it turned out, was the decision that launched a thousand more moves. When his contract was up in Miami, Lebron changed teams for the second time in four years—an unprecedented maneuver for a superstar at the very apex of his career. Upon his subsequent return to Cleveland, LeBron penned a letter expressing his excitement to play with the team’s young players. The Cavaliers’ first overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, was notably absent in the letter. A week later, LeBron voiced his interest in playing with Minnesota Timberwolves’ forward Kevin Love. In August, Love was in Cleveland, Wiggins was in Minnesota and the myth of “LeGM” was born. LeBron’s influence grew.
Since the Decision 2.0, the traditional constitution of a superstar has fallen apart. So many of the NBA’s best have changed teams that the phrase “franchise player” has gone the way of the mid-range jumper and the sleeved jersey. The year that LeBron returned to Cleveland, the 2014-2015 season, 12 of the 15 members of the All-NBA teams played for the team that drafted them.
What’s more, of the three exceptions, none had ever demanded trades and only two had traded uniforms in free agency: LeBron and Pau Gasol.
Seven of those 15 players now play on different teams. Soon, Anthony Davis, who recently requested a trade from the Pelicans, will make eight.
In 2016, Kevin Durant, arguably a top-3 player in the NBA, rocked the league when he signed with the 73-win Warriors. Such a move by a player of his status hadn’t occurred since the ’70s. Yet while the move harkened back to the Decision, the precedent set by LeBron is no longer the paradigm of player empowerment.
Since 2016, All-NBA members Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler have demanded, and received, trades. The trend has infiltrated the lower rungs of NBA stardom as well. In the last week alone, Kristaps Porzingis and Dennis Smith Jr. were dealt after demanding to be moved. Star migration of this magnitude is unprecedented, but trade demands are nothing new. What is new is how players are calibrating their landing spots. Players near the end of their contract are now expressing their desire, or lack thereof, to re-sign with the team to which they are dealt. And the ransom teams give up to obtain superstars is not worth a season-long rental. Players can decide where they want to play, even while under contract.
When LeBron left the Cavs the first time, owner Dan Gilbert called him a coward and a narcissist. Instead of departing Cleveland via free agency, envision if James had hamstrung the Cavs’ options by curating a list of viable suitors. One can imagine Gilbert would have used more colorful vocabulary.
LeBron is now the NBA’s hegemonic power, on and off the court. Many of his elite contemporaries were either his friends (Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul), or his teammates (Chris Bosh and, twice, Dwyane Wade). Last summer, however, the King relinquished some of his power.
LeBron gave a multi-year commitment to the Los Angeles Lakers, a pledge he never made to Cleveland the second time around. He demonstrated patience and a willingness to look towards the future rather than the present. Conventional wisdom suggests the process shouldn’t take long. Anthony Davis, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have all expressed interest in moving to LA.
However, in committing, LeBron may have ignored another NBA trend. It seems NBA players no longer need the spotlight to make names for themselves and find success, a strategy first executed by James himself. George signed a lucrative extension with Oklahoma City last summer, and Leonard may very well stay in Toronto. Despite the best efforts of his agent, Davis may find himself on a team that can offer a better package than can the Lakers. In his final maneuver, it seems possible that LeBron overplayed his cards, and discounted the ability of players to make stars of themselves in teams and cities where they yield more control.
There is a world in which neither Davis nor Leonard head west to LA, where the young Lakers—Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart—become adequate, but not champion players. In this case, the 34-year-old LeBron places himself in a very unusual position, a position in which he is weighed down by a lengthy contract in a market that no one seems to need, an athletic non-shooter speeding past his prime.
LeBron created this world; now he has to survive it.