— Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
— Nikil Saval, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace”
— LeBron James, November 2014, after the Cavaliers started the season 5–7
How many hours a week does LeBron James spend with J.R. Smith? I started pondering this question Saturday afternoon. The Ohio State Buckeyes were playing the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium, the latest chapter in a Midwest collegiate sporting rivalry with roots that go all the way back to the Toledo border war of 1835. And, there on the sidelines, were LeBron and his teammates, including the formerly mercurial Smith.
Kickoff was at noon. To get there on time, factoring in prep and travel, the Cavs probably woke up at 9 a.m. Which, considering Smith’s pre-Cavs history, would seem early. On Friday night, the Cavaliers — figuratively beating a dead horse — crushed the woeful Mavericks at the Q, 128–90. The team had most of Saturday off before a late flight to Philadelphia for a Sunday afternoon game. A Friday game with Saturday off is, traditionally, prime J.R. time. A time for riding bikes with strangers from the internet, getting heckled by teens at a pizza spot, or any number of variously ribald Smithian diversions that might, as statistical analysis has borne out, adversely impact his play.
Want to know why LeBron is the greatest player on earth? Because in order to keep the Cavaliers’ title window wedged open, James has dedicated himself to never letting J.R. Smith out of his sight. That’s leadership.
November 2016 timeline of LeBron hanging out with J.R. Smith:
- November 1: vs. Rockets
- November 2: LeBron, J.R., and the Cavaliers attend Game 7 of the World Series
- November 3: vs. Celtics
- November 5: @ Sixers
- November 6: LeBron and J.R. speak at a Hillary Clinton rally in Cleveland
- November 8: vs. Hawks
- November 9: Cavs arrive in Washington, D.C.
- November 10: Cavs fêted by President Obama at the White House
- November 11: @ Wizards
- November 13: vs. Hornets
- November 15: vs. Raptors
- November 16: @ Pacers
- November 18: vs. Pistons
- November 22: J.R. Smith Turkey Drive
- November 23: vs. Trail Blazers
- November 24: Thanksgiving
- November 25: vs. Mavericks
- November 26: Cavaliers attend Ohio State vs. Michigan
- November 27: @ Sixers
Out of 27 days, spanning a dozen games, LeBron spent at least five off days with J.R. Smith, attending four extracurricular events. If there’s a reason we haven’t seen a return to the wild, ragged, and mercurial Smith of New Orleans, Denver, and New York, it’s because LeBron won’t give him the opportunity to backslide. That’s why he’s the king.
LeBron’s return to Cleveland marked a sea change in the leadership culture of the NBA from the transactional to the transformational. Transactional leadership is defined by a contractual reward structure, whereby leaders essentially remain hands-off unless followers don’t live up to their obligations. Post-Jordan, NBA greats have ruled their teams by fear and fiat. MJ tortured Toni Kukoc before he ever joined the Bulls, and, later, harangued Kwame Brown’s career into mediocrity. Kobe Bryant feuded with Shaq, drummed Smush Parker out of the league, and had Derek Fisher over to his house (probably for the best). Kevin Garnett made Big Baby cry on the bench. (The exception, as always, is Tim Duncan and the Spurs whose particular mix of personalities created an institutional culture that is likely not replicable.)
This is in contrast to transformational leadership, which researcher Bernard Bass described as taking place when “leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir their employees to look beyond their own self-interest.”
“Broaden and elevate” is the crucial idea here. Does J.R. Smith have any interest in national politics or Hillary’s (sadly doomed) campaign if not for LeBron James? You know the answer. After all, we are talking about a dude who once Instagrammed a model of the twin towers with the caption: “Celebrate the deaths of the people in 9/11.” (No one got mad because everyone understood what he meant. Also: It’s J.R. Smith.) Three years later, he was standing on a stage with first female presidential nominee for a major political party. A few days after that, J.R. was at the White House, with his shirt on, getting lightly roasted by President Obama.
It’s become popular to criticize the Knicks for the January 2015 three-team trade that sent J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cavaliers for the paltry return of Lance Thomas (from OKC), Lou Amundson, and Alex Kirk (and a second-round pick). After all, the Knicks have a long and storied history of getting absolutely steamrolled in trades and the Cavaliers would reach the next two NBA finals, winning one. “By the way,” said LeBron at the Cavaliers’ victory parade, “the New York Knicks said J.R. was just a throw-in.” Then the King scratched his head in mock confusion and added: “Yeah, we’ll leave that one to the side.” (Here, perhaps, is some of the context behind Phil Jackson’s ill-advised “posse” jab at James which seemed to emerge out of the clear blue Montana Sky, circa 1960.) This is revisionist history.
Shumpert, then in his fourth season, was averaging 12.9 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.4 turnovers per 36 minutes, with a near-replacement level PER on trade day. Smith, meanwhile, marginalized under the demands of Phil Jackson’s strict triangle constructionism, was shooting his worst percentage (40.2 percent) since his second year in the league, and had semirecently been untying dudes’ shoes while awaiting free throws. He was 29 years old, had been in the league 11 years, and his market value was at an all-time low. J.R. was as likely to produce marijuana suspensions and (admittedly entertaining) off-court antics as 3-point shooting and perimeter defense. But, with the Cavs, Smith stabilized. The reason? LeBron.
We’ve become inured to the greatness of LeBron’s stats in the 13-plus seasons since he entered the NBA. He puts up 27-point, seven-assist, and seven-rebound performances with such sun-rising-in-the-east regularity that we barely remark on them. His leadership is similarly underrated — mainly because it appears so transparently hokey. Imploring Kevin Love to “FIT-IN” on social media during an admittedly shaky moment in their interwork relationship, then chilling with him poolside in Los Angeles. All the after-game Instagrams, the extracurricular hangouts, Inception-ing J.R. into the culture of Northeast Ohio to the point that, as my friend Jared Dubin posits, Smith might actually think he’s from the area now.
Bass, the leadership researcher, wrote that “charismatic leaders inspire and excite” with “the idea that they may be able to accomplish great things with extra effort.”
In other words, when LeBron asks you to stop trying to fit-out, you listen.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the Cavaliers attending the Ohio State–Michigan State game; it was the Ohio State–Michigan game.