What does LeBron James want next?

He is establishing the terms for future NBA stars

Every four years LeBron James becomes a free agent, and I have been wrong in forecasting his moves every time.

In 2010 I guessed James would stay in upper Ohio with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It turned out that he was so desperate to win championships that he was willing to leave the only home he had ever known.

In 2014 I figured he wouldn’t leave Miami to return home because the Cavaliers were lacking stars, apart from Kyrie Irving. But James was driven by the larger goal to finish what he had started in Cleveland, to provide his local story with a happy ending.

In recent weeks, leading up to what may be the last big relocation of his career, I’ve been assuming that he would be focused on winning additional championships in his pursuit of Michael Jordan. The common idea that he may stay in the less-competitive East by signing with the 76ers is based on a premise that he wants nothing more than to add to his collection of three titles. But people who know James insist that he wants something more substantial. 

The higher calling. “I don’t think it’s a basketball thing,” Dwyane Wade, his close friend and former teammate, said of LeBron’s upcoming decision. “He’s shown this year he can get to the Finals no matter what the circumstances are. I don’t really think, for him, the basketball decision of saying, ‘Oh, let me go team up with three All-Stars’ – I think at this point in his life it’s more so of a lifestyle thing of where my family is going to be the most comfortable, or where I’m going be the most happiest at. Because basketball-wise he’s so great he can bring along and take along whomever.”

Last week ESPN’s Brian Windhorst – whose coverage of James goes back to high school – built on that same point of view. “On a personal level, after everything I’ve seen him go through, I just want for him – for him – to be happy,” Windhorst said on Zach Lowe’s podcast. “I think that’s going to be a guiding principle here.”

Throughout LeBron’s 15-year NBA career he has been judged in terms of the championship race, which is to say that he has been assessed one-dimensionally. How he has played and what he has overcome in his life and who he wants to be have all been dismissed. Did he win or didn’t he? This was the only question that mattered.

Such were the terms that had been passed down to him by the preceding generation. As the heir to Michael Jordan, James was expected to dominate the league competitively. The pressure to win championships drove him out of Cleveland in 2010 and pulled him back there in 2014.

The demand to live up to the high expectations of Jordan has forced James to explore every phase of his potential. There has never been a player more talented than LeBron, and yet, for most of his basketball life, whatever he achieved was never great enough. And so he has not received the proper credit for his efforts. He has made the game look easy even as he has been tortured by comparisons with the selective myth of Jordan, as if Jordan was infallible always. LeBron was engaged in an argument he could never win – and yet he continued to argue his case while adding to his skills and deepening his hard-earned confidence. 

Jordan was lauded for his killer instinct. James should be appreciated now for the patience of his faith. He never could have kept pushing himself to improve if he didn’t believe in the ultimate payoff.

James hasn’t matched the six championships of Jordan, but he may well be the better player. James has driven his teams to eight straight NBA Finals, a streak last achieved in the 1960s by Bill Russell, and the team he carried this past season was weaker than any of Jordan’s “supporting casts” of his 1990s Bulls.

It makes little sense to argue Jordan vs. James. Because all the evidence is not yet in. The one certainty now is that LeBron is no longer chasing his idol. Wherever he goes this summer – whether he signs with the Lakers, remains with Cleveland or settles on an unexpected destination – the terms of his decision will no longer be influenced by Jordan’s ghost. 

By Jordan’s example, the next great NBA star was supposed to win more championships and score more points and make more money than everyone. James embraced those demands. He met them. Now they are yesterday’s news.

The expectations for the next generation of NBA stars is that they should be skilled in a variety of areas, that they should score as well as create plays for their teammates – because that is what LeBron has done. They should take responsibility for recruiting the best teammates, even if that means moving to another city – because that’s how LeBron did it. And it’s not just about winning championships and making money: If civil wrongs are being committed in the larger world, then the next generation of stars will be expected to make a moral stand on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves while building an enormous charitable foundation for young people – because LeBron has established that new standard.

He inherited Jordan’s empire and extended it. LeBron really is the king now.

So now, in free agency, he is on the verge of establishing his own platform. “I don’t think there’s anybody that can persuade him to go where he wants to go,’’ James Harden said of LeBron’s next move. “It’s all up to him at this place in his career. Whether he wants to go to Houston or LA or stay in Cleveland, no GM, no friend, nobody can persuade him other than maybe his kids and his wife. Whatever he decides to do, he’ll do it.”

Maybe he’ll remain in Cleveland. Maybe he’ll opt into the final year of his contract and demand a trade to that team for whom he’s always to play. Or maybe he’ll decide that he wants to live in Los Angeles, that he and his wife want to raise their young family there without having to move again in years to come. If that’s what he decides to do off the court, then he is surely talented enough to make it work on the court, with the formidable backing of the Lakers, of course.

It’s true that the Lakers aren’t very attractive right now, but James can have faith in his ability to transform them. Current teammates Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle (if he is re-signed) will play better in his company. Established stars and reliable role players will want to sign with the Lakers if James is there. 

When James turned pro at age 18, he was expected to be a winner, a scorer and a money-maker. He was judged by the numbers. Now, 15 years later, he has transcended that bottom line. The one-dimensional view has given way to something more interesting and inspiring. He has become The Man in full.

NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans everywhere.

Have an NBA question for Ian? Email him at ianthomsennba@gmail.com. He’ll answer your questions each Friday (available for subscribers only).

To buy The Soul of Basketball, the first American book for NBA fans around the world, please click here.