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Inside the Mind of LeBron James

It’s high season for LeBron speculation. What can we tell about his present, his future, how he views the league, and how he sees his colleagues based on who he picked where in the All-Star draft?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA drama is like magic — the audience’s attention is drawn to the beefs and the stagecraft, while, behind the scenes, the real work goes on unnoticed. Case in point: LeBron James’s All-Star team selections. LeBron is perhaps the most savvy and calculating player in league history. His use of short-term contracts to maximize his leverage has afforded him an astounding level of agency. He can decide where he goes, he can set his salary demands, and with that power, he can influence coaching hires and roster decisions. Everything he does is calculated. A recent report by ESPN’s Chris Haynes posited that, should the Warriors — already a world-destroying, league-neutering, narrative-hijacking juggernaut — be able to clear enough salary to offer a max salary, LeBron would listen to their pitch. Which I assume would be something like, “Hey, want to definitely win two championships?” So add the Warriors to the Lakers and Clippers as teams vying for LeBron’s talents.

This is exactly where LeBron wants to be: in the nexus of NBA conversation. All options available to him. Teams leveraged against each other. We can learn a lot about LeBron from what is written about him, just like we can learn a lot about LeBron from who he chooses to align himself with.

When the NBA and the Players Association agreed in early October to give the two players with the most votes in each conference the power to select their own All-Star teams, it was a tacit acknowledgment of embarrassment’s essential role in the game. It’s the sparkle and spice that lifts the NBA game above a mere accounting of wins and losses, of points and rebounds and assists. Embarrassment is what makes drama. The best thing about Atlanta Hawks home games this season is an ex-AND1 streetballer, Hot Sauce, dropping paying customers on their cheeks. Dunks are awesome. Dunks that cause a defender to instantaneously question all the decisions which led them to this moment are often talked about in terms that would be applicable to a violent crime. Speaking of — let’s check in with Joel Embiid:

Tough loss #TheProcess

A post shared by Joel "The Process" Embiid (@joelembiid) on

The Sixers lost this game, by the way. That’s thing about a soul-rending dunk or an ankle-liquefying crossover — it doesn’t matter if the victim-player actually feels embarrassed. Like a great scene in a movie, sequences such as these generate an illusory feeling of transitive embarrassment in the viewer. Now, Russell Westbrook is a man who recently swaggered into the arena wearing a mustard-colored sweatshirt so distressed and cleavage-revealing that it looked like it came from the costume wardrobe from a gritty SpongeBob reboot. A man like that, who attacks the rim like it killed his dog, and dons garments so fucked up they’re mostly notional, is not capable of feeling shame in a way that mortals could understand. That said, I watched Embiid dunk on Westbrook approximately 7,000 times and I instinctively winced with each viewing. It’s possible to feel embarrassed for a person who does not feel embarrassment.

That’s why the decision to not televise the All-Star draft was so strange. Why implement a system so clearly meant to evoke the nostalgia for pickup basketball and gym class if not to follow through with it? Getting picked last is the most relatable kind of NBA embarrassment. Who hasn’t experienced the fluttering feeling in the stomach and the reddening of the ears and cheeks that comes with standing alone, awaiting your name, ahead of a dodgeball game. OK, just me? Never mind.

Let’s analyze LeBron’s picks, their potential order, and what they likely mean.

Starters

James’s first four picks have been more or less confirmed. For the reserves, I’m making educated guesses.

1. Kevin Durant

A natural choice. Durant is the best player on the board. But there are hidden benefits behind the blaring obviousness. By picking KD, LeBron is simultaneously auditioning him and insuring that he won’t lose to him. The former is a wild here-to-the-moon long shot, but, hey we live in a crazy age where superteams roam the Earth and Anthony Davis-to-The-Bay seems terrifyingly plausible. The latter will be a theme.

2. Anthony Davis

At 24, Davis is one of the great young talents in the league. He is also the subject of frequent trade rumors. This is due to the fact the New Orleans Pelicans have been a model of quiet dysfunction during Davis’s years, with a ceiling hovering around mediocre. And that was before Boogie Cousins went down for the year with a ruptured Achilles.

Using extracurricular activities as a way to sound out potential allies is old hat for the King. Once upon a time, in the summer of 2006, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh used their time together with Team USA to explore the possibility of superteaming up. LeBron is at it again.

3. Kyrie Irving

Wait, what? Irving notably disliked playing with LeBron so much that he forced a trade to the Celtics. That windfall, combined with foisting future Markelle “Case Study for the Yips” Fultz on the Sixers for the pick that became Jayson “Can You Believe He’s Just 19?” Tatum, has Danny Ainge’s squad sitting comfortably atop the East with a clear view at the end of the rainbow, where the Warriors await in the Finals. The facile read for this pick is: Here’s LeBron showing that he’s the bigger man; the magnanimous King.

Sure. But, as with Durant, do you think LeBron wants to lose to Kyrie? Now he doesn’t have to. At least not until springtime.

4. DeMarcus Cousins (replaced by Paul George)

As my colleague Justin Verrier noted, Boogie’s Achilles tearing while the wildly talented and famously cantankerous big man was making an effort play (leaping to tap a loose ball back into play) was cruelly ironic. Cousins was in the midst of a career season, answering many of the questions about his dedication (sure), his defense (meh), his ability to mesh with Anthony Davis (hey!) that have dogged him. He was, in other words, assembling the ideal contract year ahead of his date with unrestricted free agency this summer. Which is why LeBron picked him. James is always thinking of the next team-up.

Bench

5. Russell Westbrook

Russ is the type of guy who — scrimmage or no — will come for the other guy’s neck. He’s powered by anger and holds a grudge as dearly as a family heirloom. Yes, Westbrook has a fraught history with Durant, his soon-to-be All-Star teammate. But you have to think that Russ will relish the chance to take down Curry while KD looks on.

6. John Wall (replaced by Andre Drummond)

Rich Paul, LeBron’s longtime friend and consigliere, founded Klutch Sports Group, a boutique sports agency, in 2012. LeBron is repped by Klutch. Active players are not allowed to be agents or to own agencies. It certainly looks shady; the notion that James has no influence on the decisions and strategy of the agency owned by his friend is so far-fetched as to be fantastical. Klutch reps James’s Cavs teammates J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. Last August it was reported that the NBA investigated whether LeBron’s ties to Klutch actually came in the form of an ownership stake. The league found nothing untoward. All that said, John Wall is a Klutch Sports client.

7. Bradley Beal

The Wizards are a mess. They have a nice starting lineup — Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat — backed up by hypebeast Kelly Oubre Jr. and a bunch of stray pieces of trash blowing across a desolate D.C. street. The team recently had a players-only meeting that apparently devolved into a bunch of dudes arguing about who gets to hold the PlayStation controller next. “Regardless of what may be going on,” Bradley Beal told The Washington Post, “as men we’ve got to be able to accept what the next man says, be respectful about it and move on from it. I think it was one of those situations where we didn’t necessarily get everything that we wanted to get accomplished.”

The Wiz find themselves on the dreaded mediocrity treadmill with no clear way to get off. Is it possible that they might [extremely Kevin O’Bomber voice] blow it up soon?

8. Kristaps Porzingis

LeBron likes skilled bigs who can stretch the floor and block shots. Skilled bigs who can stretch the floor and block shots who come with copious trade-rumor baggage. And skilled bigs who can stretch the floor and block shots who come with copious trade-rumor baggage and are looming free agents. In short: LeBron would like to play with whoever the bigger version of Chris Bosh is. It pains me to ask, but what are the odds Kristaps demands a trade out of New York within the next two seasons? Certainly not zero.

9. Victor Oladipo

Curry’s team is nearly ludicrously heavy on guards so LeBron plucked Oladipo.

10. LaMarcus Aldridge

Let’s say Kawhi Leonard who, in a shocking heel turn, apparently has his T-800 fucks meter set to zero, manages to force a move out of San Antonio. Let’s further surmise that this deal returns expiring salaries and cap-neutral assets. Now let us imagine that unrestricted free agent Tony Parker ($15.45 million this season) signs elsewhere or re-ups at an ear-popping discount. OK, the Spurs likely still couldn’t afford LeBron, who will seek a salary upward of $35 million per year. But! Tell me that you, as an inveterate hoops head, aren’t salivating at the idea of LeBron plus Popovich.

11. Kevin Love (replaced by Goran Dragic)

This pick is merely housekeeping. “Where was I picked? I don’t know. Probably dead last,” Love said when asked about his selection.