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LeBron James Is Still the NBA’s Biggest Agent of Change

Eight years ago, the King’s landmark ‘Decision’ established a new paradigm for both competition and player movement. Now, a new crop of stars are trying to push for a new ideal—but LeBron’s westward expansion proves he’s still the standard bearer.  

Illustration of LeBron’s face against a purple background Scott Laven

The bread crumbs leading to Los Angeles had been there more than a year before LeBron James officially agreed to join the Lakers on the second day of free agency in July. How James would deliver the news, however, remained a mystery; the only thing we knew was that he wouldn’t announce his decision like he did eight years prior.

At center court of a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, James stumbled through 18 painfully uncomfortable questions, ranging from the recruitment process to whether he still bites his nails, before he was finally asked to reveal his choice. “This fall,” James began—stopping abruptly to note how difficult it was to speak his new team into existence, before powering on toward that infamous, awkward phrasing: “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” His explanation was more to the point:

“I feel like it’s going to give me the best opportunity to win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row or three games in a row,” James said in July 2010, to a television audience of almost 10 million. “I want to be able to win championships. And I feel like I can compete down there.”

Vitriol spewed from 29 fan bases, condemning him for supposedly betraying Cleveland, for supposedly taking the easy way out, for supposedly not delivering the news in The Right Way. But for all the antipathy that came as a result, James stuck to what he set out to do, almost to a fault. The Miami Heat went to four straight NBA Finals, winning two titles and 72 percent of their regular-season games in the process. And when Dwyane Wade’s health and a cap-strapped roster threatened his chances of winning some more, James took his talents right back to Cleveland, where the prospect of a newer-model Big Three awaited. LeBron got everything he wanted from his Miami years—and the rings-obsessed viewing public got everything it wanted from LeBron.

This summer, James kept it simple, stripping down his decision to a press release. When his agency delivered the message, via what was then a little-known business Twitter account, James and his wife were en route to Europe. He didn’t even address signing with the Los Angeles Lakers until nearly a month later, at the opening of his elementary school in Akron, Ohio. In that sit-down interview, with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, his answers focused on the shiny tradition of the Lakers franchise, his fondness for their young players, the challenge of building something—but not stacking titles. James didn’t ignore his new team’s prospects for contending, mentioning a desire to bring the Lakers back to “championship levels” more than once. But his comments, and the roster he signed off on, suggested it wasn’t an immediate concern.

“The main goal is to continue to be as great as we can be every day, build championship habits,” he said. “[I’m] not saying that we’re a championship team now, but build championship habits so when we get to that point, we can fall back on something. We have a great young core, we have great veterans, a great system, and a great organization, more importantly. It should be fun.”

It was a historic moment: One of the greatest players of all time had joined one of sports’ blue-chip franchises, sure, but he was doing so without the party-line bloodlust for rings. James made a choice that, at its core, was strikingly similar to the one he made eight years ago, only this time he did it without either a clear path to the Finals or the sense or urgency to create one—and he was widely lauded for it.

Building a team around three star players was hardly fresh IP when James joined forces with Wade and Chris Bosh, but the restrictions of team-building in the 2000s—a hard cap, contracts with longer team control, and, later, a more punitive luxury tax—made the union of multiple All-Stars in their primes a feat as remarkable as anything they did together on the court. It also set off a domino effect, forcing any other elite player with aspirations of contending to follow suit. Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony both fled to the coasts the following season. Dwight Howard eventually, mercifully, did too. The Thunder incubated their own star threesome, and the Celtics and Spurs built around their aging trio, like new additions to a house with good bones. A Big Three wasn’t the only route to success—Dirk Nowitzki and a grisly band of That Guys bested James’s Heat for the 2011 title, and Roy Hibbert verticality’d the Pacers to two conference finals—but it was prevalent and era-defining. The blueprint worked so well that James ensured that the Cavaliers had two new All-Star teammates waiting for him before he agreed to go home in 2014.

In speaking to Nichols in late July, James conceded that he seriously considered forming another Big Three this past summer, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia or with James Harden and Paul in Houston. Ultimately, he said, he preferred the pursuit of breathing life back into a fallen empire.

“Everyone kind of looks at [2010 as] me joining a superteam,” James said. “But if people look at it, I think Miami was 35-47 the year before I joined that team. You can look at the Lakers’ record [and say the same thing]. I like the challenge. I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to places they haven’t been to in quite a while.”

James is doing some historical contortion here—the Heat won 47 games before his arrival and became instant title favorites the following preseason. (For what it’s worth, the Cavs won 33 games before he rejoined in 2014 and also became instant favorites.) The Lakers lost 47 games last season and were predicted to finish in the middle of their conference with James.

It’s probably an honest mistake, but it’s also a critical distinction. With Miami, and again with Cleveland, James chose the team that had the best chance at a championship the next season; both would go on to make the Finals and finish two games shy of that goal. Los Angeles can offer James many things—closer proximity to his business interests, a preferable environment for his family, the raw resources to one day build a title-winner, maybe even a higher echelon of fame—but not championship contention this season. That does not make his choice any more Right or Wrong, but it does make it different. And that difference is an important inflection point in the stories of James and the NBA.

In downshifting from winning at all costs to winning on his own terms, James is this time less a pioneer and more of an early adopter. The first instance of a star seeking out more than titles in the post-Decision NBA came not from James, but from the teammate who wanted to escape his shadow. Two summers ago Kyrie Irving asked to be traded from the Cavaliers, a team with which he had won a title and been to three straight Finals, with the goal of once again becoming the focal point of an organization. Irving ended up on a Celtics team that figures to be in the title picture for years to come, but his original list of preferred destinations—San Antonio, New York, Miami, and Minnesota—was focused more on opportunity.

Since James’s L.A. move, even more stars are charting similar paths. Before being shipped to the 76ers, Jimmy Butler reportedly had his heart set on a big market willing to pay him top dollar. Kawhi Leonard is rumored to favor grabbing the reins of the Clippers over riding shotgun for James’s Lakers. Kevin Durant’s own teammates expect him to ditch a dynasty in favor of some nebulous new challenge, presumably in New York. The unavoidable commonality among them is a desire to start something special, rather than to join it. As Durant recently proclaimed to Bleacher Report, that’s impossible alongside a player like James, who takes up a lot of oxygen in the room and possessions on the court. “If you’re a younger player like a Kawhi, trying to pair him with LeBron James doesn’t really make sense,” Durant said.

Durant’s cutting words may be more of a blow to James’s once-bulletproof station than even Irving’s abandonment; it is not DeShawn Stevenson or some hired goon taking shots at the King, it is a player James considers an equal. It also may be the ultimate compliment. James did not glom onto the old guard in 2010; he forged his own path, with his own contemporaries. More than anything, his Decision represented a deviation from bygone ideas about success and competitiveness.

But now that paradigm is what the new guard is seeking to deviate from. Unlike James and Bosh in 2010, and Paul and Anthony later on, Irving, Leonard, and Durant have already won at least one championship. The nagging criticism for the latter group is not the looming specter of Michael Jordan (who retired months before James, Bosh, Anthony, and Wade were drafted) or the precedent, in terms of both success and comportment, set by Kobe Bryant, the league’s alpha in the early 2000s. It is something more individual—whether it be organizational control or personal pride. By not joining James, Durant—whose current state of surliness may stem from the validation he has not received from his own superteam experiment—would be more like LeBron than he may care to admit.

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