For the third time in nine years, LeBron James has shifted the NBA’s balance of power.
In 2019 Kevin Durant will be a free agent. In 2020 Anthony Davis could be available (and the Lakers have already taken the first step of undermining his relationship with the Pelicans by signing his point guard Rajon Rondo to a one-year deal). The big story over these next two years will revolve around the Lakers’ hoarding of cap space so that James can recruit fellow stars to join him.
It’s easy to complain about player power in the NBA, because it’s so hard to find in other leagues. The leading footballers in Europe and the stars of American football and baseball are able to move from place to place, but by the nature of their sports not one of them has the power to instantly turn a bad team into a championship contender.
LeBron has that power. The Lakers have been lousy for five years, and now - based entirely on his recent verbal agreement – they are projected to win 52 games. In 2014 he had the same effect on the Cavaliers, who had sunk to the bottom of the East in his absence. His last eight teams in Cleveland and Miami have reached the NBA Finals, and three of them were champions.
A lot of people don’t like the power that is wielded by James and other basketball stars. But I am here to argue that his actions are serving the best interests of the NBA.
James deserves the benefit of your doubt because, in all of his career moves, he has been focused on winning. He moved to Miami because he needed to learn how to win. He moved back to the Cavaliers to help them win the championship they hadn’t won during his first run in Cleveland. Now he’s moving to LA to build a new team that can reenergize him, provide him with a new mission and bring meaning to all of the work he puts into his body and his game.
NBA stars used to be accused of pursuing the wrong priorities – of wanting to score the most points and make the most money. Think about the fable of Shaq and Kobe: They won three straight championships together with the Lakers and might have won several more together. But each wanted to be the leader of the team.
Being The Man was more important to them than continuing to win championships together, based on the example that had been set over the preceding decade by Michael Jordan, who became the first NBA player since George Mikan to consistently lead the league in scoring while also leading his team to championships. Jordan did this six times, and he created a standard that was impossible to emulate.
Three years after the cautionary tale of Shaq and Kobe, the Celtics changed the tone by surrounding Paul Pierce with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. At the urging of coach Doc Rivers, the three stars agreed to not be distracted by which of them was receiving the most credit. Over the next three years they reached two NBA Finals while forcing LeBron, the young star in Cleveland, to recognize that he also needed to be surrounded by stars if he was ever going to win championships. The Cavaliers were unable to acquire the necessary talent, so James took care of it himself.
It’s not unusual for people to get caught up in LeBron exercising the powers of his influence to decide where and with whom he will play next. I’m arguing here that the wrong conclusion is being drawn. Instead of dwelling on leverage, it’s more important to celebrate the team goals that James is seeking to achieve.
Since 2010, when he conspired with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to take their talents to South Beach, the biggest NBA stars have sought to play with each other. Instead of each wanting to have his own team, they have preferred to share the ball – and the credit – with co-stars. Kevin Durant is still being criticized for moving to the Warriors in 2016, but shouldn’t he receive some measure of appreciation for prioritizing the championship above all else?
His teammates are all of the same mind. Draymond Green never seems to worry about his offensive numbers. Neither does Klay Thompson. Stephen Curry was willing to cede territory in order to make room for Durant in Oakland, much as Wade did for James in Miami.
Chris Paul and James Harden wanted to unite together in Houston; they play the same position, but their shared ambitions were greater than the potential conflict. More recently you’ve seen Paul George choosing to re-sign with Oklahoma City, even though he is the number 2 option behind Russell Westbrook.
There is talk that LeBron is no longer chasing titles by moving to LA. Hogwash. He may not prevail next year, but the Lakers have all the necessities to add to his three championships – cap space, tradition, Hollywood and Magic Johnson. Every imminent free agent will be disappointed if he isn’t rumored to be joining the Lakers.
There are all kinds of business and family reasons for James to settle in LA. But he is there mainly because he believes he and the Lakers will form a winning partnership, and that’s a good thing. It shows that his heart is in the right place.
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