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LeBron’s Imprint on Today’s NBA

Greatest of all time? That’s still up for debate. But players and execs all agree that James has already left a lasting impact on the game.

Dustin Watson

Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It is one of the essential questions in the modern era of sports fandom, encompassing facts and biases, statistics and anecdotal evidence, and the ever-shifting barometer of cultural relevance. It turns friends into foes, barbershops into the site of parliamentary debates, and the Super Bowl LII champions into bickering schoolchildren. The question of Jordan or LeBron may live on for longer than they do. So, before we fully gear up for what should be a frenzied second half of the season, why not celebrate and examine the impact of two of the most influential players in basketball history?

Welcome to Jordan-LeBron Week.


On May 31, 2007, I became convinced that LeBron James had a real chance of becoming the greatest player in basketball history. LeBron, then only 22, dropped 48 points, including 25 in a row and 29 of his team’s final 30, to lead a Cavaliers squad featuring Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson to a Game 5 victory against the top-seeded Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.

”Everybody keeps asking for more, and he keeps giving more,” then-Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said after the game. “I feel bad that my words don’t do justice for what he did.”

That’s something you could say again and again about LeBron. James is in the conversation to be the GOAT, and is one of the most influential players of our time. But what exactly has been his imprint on the game? Players, coaches, and executives all weighed in on his still-developing legacy in the league at large, and pinpointed the following three areas as his biggest contributions thus far:

Versatility

“Has it been six straight times in the Finals?” Pelicans big man Anthony Davis asked this past weekend. It’s been seven straight. But the fact you could lose count says it all. James has a chance to tally more than 40,000 points, 10,000 assists, and 10,000 rebounds in the regular season, and lead all players for points, minutes, assists, and steals accumulated in the playoffs. His accolades speak for themselves, and there’s no young player currently in the league who will come close to matching him. But the ripple effect of his style of play can be felt across the league.

“LeBron is different because he’s 270 pounds. That really changed a lot of the on-the-court stuff. Big kids grew up with guard skill sets,” ex-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told me by phone. “He’s a totally otherworldly freak of nature who made it so a lot of kids that might’ve been pigeonholed as 4s or undersized bigs are now able to be thought of as mismatch problems because they can handle the ball.” James is now listed at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, but those around the league acknowledge that his weight has hovered around 270 for some time. “He would’ve been a center 25 years ago,” a scout said.

Because of his rare blend of power and grace, James was able to score and pass from both inside and outside starting at a young age. As he rose to prominence, James was often compared to Magic Johnson, but there’s no perfect comparison. He has shades of Magic, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird. He has broken the mold—and helped pave a way for other players who do, too. “Everyone said Magic was a once-in-a-lifetime guy, but now you have all these big, capable ball handers,” Griffin said. “There’s no doubt LeBron is very largely responsible for bigger, stronger kids having a vision of themselves as guards.”

Today, we see the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons playing point guard, with Blake Griffin and Al Horford running the show. Positions are nonexistent, partially because of the rise of the 3-point-shooting European big man, but also as a result of LeBron’s ability to defy a conventional position. It’s not as if larger players didn’t handle the ball before LeBron. Anthony Mason, who was listed at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, ran pick-and-roll to create mismatches in the ’90s. But it was always an isolated incident. “LeBron is the first one who did it full-time, other than Magic Johnson,” Griffin said. “Ben Simmons would’ve been pigeonholed as a 4 and never had the opportunity to be as ball-dominant had it not been for LeBron’s success.” There were big wings like Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce who facilitated, but LeBron had point guard skills and the body of a freight train power forward. “Karl Malone and Charles Barkley were focal points of the offense, but I don’t think they were really running pick-and-roll,” said a team front-office executive, who requested anonymity because of NBA rules preventing executives and coaches from discussing other teams’ players. “LeBron was using and setting screens, and competently switching across most positions.”

Multiple players I spoke to cited LeBron’s unselfishness as a passer, while others mentioned his athleticism. James is unlike any player that came before him, but players find something relatable in his uniqueness: They no longer have to adhere to the expectations their stature and body types often dictate. A big man can envision himself as a perimeter ball handler. A wing can see himself posting up against mismatches. “He’s the most selfless superstar the NBA has ever seen,” said Suns guard Devin Booker. “It’s the purest form of basketball. He can dribble, pass, shoot, get players involved, lead. He’s everything a basketball player can do.”

Free Agency

When James was 18 years old, former Reebok chairman and CEO Paul Fireman offered him $10 million to not talk with Nike or Adidas. LeBron declined, he recalled on a recent Uninterrupted video. “I was lost for words at the beginning,” James said. “For some odd reason I started thinking, ‘If this guy … is willing to give me a $10 million check right now, what is it to say Nike or Adidas is not willing to give me $20 or $30 [million] up front, or to say maybe the upfront money is not even the biggest thing, maybe let’s start thinking about the backend?’” James taking the long view in high school was a sign of things to come.

James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony discussed playing together during the summer of 2006, as James told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck in 2016, so James signed a three-year extension (with a player option) with the Cavs in 2006 with his sights set on becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2010. Wade followed suit with the Heat. Anthony took the five-year extension, but the plan worked with Chris Bosh in his place. The trio joining forces in Miami marked the first time in league history that a superteam was formed through free agency in one coordinated strike. A handful of executives I spoke to cited LeBron’s control of the market as his greatest influence.

“I certainly think that LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh deciding to team together in Miami set in motion the star-laden team,” Griffin said. Paul Pierce would disagree, but his Celtics championship team traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and acquired Rajon Rondo during the draft; the Big Three Heat were born of free agency. “The Heat put that thought process in everyone’s mind,” Griffin said. “The irony in it is that if they don’t do that, there’s probably no way Kevin Durant thinks to go to Golden State.”

No team, aside from the Warriors signing Durant in 2016, has been able to replicate what the Heat did. But the Heatles—and later, the new Big Three in Cleveland for James’s second tenure with the Cavaliers—created pressure around the league for other franchises to create superteams. It started with the 2012-13 Lakers and snowballed from there. James’s decisions—for where he played, with whom he played, and the type of contracts he’d sign—also laid the groundwork for players to take control of their destiny. Whether it’s walking away from a playoff team in favor of a more star-heavy setup (like Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving), or signing short deals to create leverage and flexibility for oneself (like Durant), most recent player movement by marquee players can be traced back to James. “The freedom of player movement [is his greatest influence],” said Hawks rookie John Collins. “He caused a bit of a frenzy.”

Off the Court

“[LeBron’s influence is on] more than basketball,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. “His voice is always going to matter. He’s not afraid to talk and share his opinion whether you like it or not.” Indeed, James is among the most outspoken athletes of today, following in the footsteps of Bill Russell, among others. But those that came before him didn’t have the same sort of reach and control of his or her own message as James. LeBron has 76.3 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, double the amount of Stephen Curry, and 19.1 million more combined than the personal account of the president of the United States, Donald Trump. “When he states his opinion, everyone listens,” Grizzlies rookie Dillon Brooks said.

More than half of the 16 players at All-Star Weekend that I asked about LeBron cited his role in social activism, not his basketball contributions, as his biggest influence. “LeBron’s greatest influence was just being a role model,” Celtics second-year pro Jaylen Brown said. “He’s an African American male who’s never been in trouble. You don’t see him in tabloids or involved in anything that he shouldn’t be involved in. And when he’s talking, he’s always talking about stuff that’s important.” Brown added that in the age of social media, when everyone is recording everything, it can be inevitable for a celebrity to “fall off.” But LeBron never has; his voice has only grown louder. James’s activism started in 2005 with a King for Kids Bikeathon (renamed in 2011 to Wheels for Education), which helps kids get involved in school and encourages exercise. The LeBron James Family Foundation has committed to spend roughly $41 million to send more than 1,000 Akron kids to college. He led the charge against Donald Sterling, and vehemently denounced the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Most recently, he has been a staunch supporter of Colin Kaepernick. And just last week, after being told by a Fox News host to “shut up and dribble,” James used his platform to stand up for athletes’ right to speak out, and went on to question U.S. gun laws in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“For him to do things like that with the position he’s in, he has probably influenced more guys to do that,” Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. said. “It’s major. You have to tip your hat to someone that does that.” It’d be easy for an athlete of LeBron’s stature to keep his views private, but the kid from Akron has used his platform and wealth to empower the youth. “I mean too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out and need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in,” James said at All-Star media day. “To be an African American kid and grow up in the inner city with a single parent, mother, and not being financially stable and to make it where I’ve made it today, I think I’ve defeated the odds. I want every kid to know that. And I want everybody to know that the youth, they can do it as well. That’s why I will not just shut up and dribble.”

Charles Barkley said in 1993 that he’s not a role model, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar criticized Michael Jordan for prioritizing “commerce over conscience.” Those times have changed. “He’s a role model not just for kids, but for us players,” Antetokounmpo said, “because he’s not just a pro on the court, but a pro off the court.”

Kids wanted to be like Mike. Now they want to be like LeBron. That’s the most important legacy of all.