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All the King’s Big Men

The story of the NBA’s past two decades can be told through LeBron, and the story of LeBron is best explained by the bigs he played with in Cleveland, Miami, and now Los Angeles

Davide Barco

Carlos Boozer remembers the first time in his professional career that he took direction from a teenager. It was during a game in fall 2003, after a play designed to free up Zydrunas Ilgauskas worked exactly as intended, with every X and every O in its place. A precocious rookie then pulled Boozer aside; LeBron James, just months removed from playing for the Ohio high school title, had seen a moment of opportunity in the eyes of Boozer’s defender.

“Booz, your guy is looking at me,” James told him, per Boozer’s recollection. “If we run this play again, just duck in.” When Cleveland later returned to that set, Ilgauskas became the decoy, James the distraction, and Boozer the uncontested scorer. An already successful plan of attack sprouted another possibility—all through the cultivation of an idea from a first-year playmaker, and his insistence that the end of a possession was hardly an end at all. “Even if the play worked, he would see something else that could work the next time we ran that same play,” Boozer says. “That’s what made him so special to me. I don’t know how to explain it. I would just call it his mental Rolodex.”

It’s a fitting metaphor for the last remaining star of the analog age. When LeBron arrived on the NBA scene in 2003, cameraphones weren’t yet common nor sophisticated enough to capture the moment. Today, a picture of James walking to the bus in street clothes will beam directly into the pocket of his 72.6 million Instagram followers. At this point, there are more coaches and executives from LeBron’s draft class than there are active players. An entire wave has come and gone. “He’s got an old game,” former Cavs head coach Mike Brown told The Plain Dealer back in 2009. “That’s not anything negative. It’s powerful, it’s athletic, it’s energetic—the whole nine yards. It just seems like he’s been doing it forever.”

To update the math, that’s now forever and a decade. James will compete this week in his 10th NBA Finals, cementing his standing as one of basketball’s living institutions. “It’s been like this for a very long time,” says Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who will guard James in the championship series. “If you wanna win, you’re going to have to go through a LeBron James–led team.” The triumph in that sort of constancy is the change it requires. The competitive landscape of the NBA is always shifting. For the better part of two decades, LeBron has managed to move with it, or at least to stomp with force enough to make tremors of his own. The only way to understand the nature of that progression is to see the game as LeBron does: as a playmaker first, in a league in which power forwards and centers—his natural pick-and-roll partners—are at risk of being phased out of the game entirely. The story of the NBA can be told through LeBron, but the story of LeBron can be fully understood only through the bigs he played with—the teammates who, with the right guidance, took a familiar play to new ends.

With unprecedented hype, a $90 million shoe deal, and a tattoo across his shoulders announcing him as the CHOSEN 1, LeBron James came into the NBA looking to defer to his veteran teammates. It was telling that James, then 19 years old, described himself to Ahmad Rashad as “a more explosive Penny Hardaway” rather than, say, “a perimeter-oriented Shaq,” though both descriptors would eventually turn out to be accurate. Penny is simply closer to LeBron’s default setting.

It took months of losing and the urging of his teammates for James to override it. “Coming in, I kind of didn’t know my role, what was I going to be for this team,” he told reporters in early 2004. His fellow Cavs took notice—both of the fact that LeBron was the team’s best chance of turning their season around and that he was reflexively yielding the offense to Ricky Davis, an unrepentant gunner who wore his operating principle, “GET BUCKETS,” on his wristbands. While productive, Davis was part of the reason Cleveland had lost enough games to draft James in the first place. With the Cavs stumbling along a similar trajectory, Boozer made an appeal to the rookie who saw the game more clearly than any other player in the locker room.

“At some point,” Boozer says, “I just asked him: ‘Bron, when are you gonna step up and be our best player?’”

The Cavaliers answered on LeBron’s behalf by first trading Davis to the Celtics, and then sending Darius Miles—another relatively high-usage wing—to the Trail Blazers. The entire offense tilted toward James, and more specifically, into the momentum of his pick-and-rolls with Ilgauskas. The two might seem an unlikely pair. James was a basketball prodigy with the kind of athleticism that transcended the bounds of his sport; during the Cleveland years alone, LeBron was described as (or compared to) a fullback, a tailback, a quarterback, a wide receiver, a tight end, a linebacker, and a safety, leaving him a stout line away from a one-man run at the Super Bowl. Ilgauskas, on the other hand, was one of the slowest players in the league—a 7-foot-3 center compromised by multiple foot surgeries who maxed out at a brisk shuffle. Together, they found chemistry in contrast. Working with Ilgauskas would become one of the most productive relationships of LeBron’s basketball career, resulting in 785 assists for 1,594 points parsed out over 500 games played for two franchises and four head coaches.

“Man, between the two of us, we’ve probably run the pick-and-roll 2 million times, including practice,” Ilgauskas said in 2010. An incredible majority looked something like this:

It is an utterly uncomplicated premise, given power by the fact that LeBron is the most dangerous player to ever run a pick-and-roll. Separating James from his defender for even a moment requires a task force in response: The big defending the immediate play has to shift their focus to LeBron, a teammate on the back line needs to veer into the lane in support, and LeBron’s actual defender must scramble around the ball screen and back into position as best they could. “Really, we don’t even need a play call,” Ilgauskas said. “We just need eye contact. Sometimes we’ll just keep running it until the other team stops it.” Some opponents never really did.

In their seven years in Cleveland, James and Ilgauskas worked as pick-and-roll artists in residence, and in the process helped to shape contemporary basketball strategy. Their connection was the standard-definition precursor of the modern pick-and-pop; next season, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will take the same angles and dance the same steps, only stretched to the extremes of the 3-point line. More locally, Ilgauskas made a mark on whichever young bigs came into his orbit—which is to say he created a sort of fraternity of LeBron’s most frequent passing targets. When Anderson Varejão parachuted into Cleveland in 2004 with a tenuous grasp of the English language, Ilgauskas took him out to dinner and helped him order at restaurants. When Boozer had trouble getting his shot off over Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan during his rookie season, Big Z spent the summer with him in Cleveland and taught him the fadeaway.

“He always shared information,” Boozer says, an act less common in the NBA than one might think. Ilgauskas never seemed to mind sharing his best practices and signature moves, and because of that, most of the bigs to come through Cleveland—from Drew Gooden to J.J. Hickson—benefited from their proximity to Ilgauskas. So many of LeBron’s teammates in that era were glaringly imperfect; the supercut of would-be dunkers bobbling perfect passes might be an eight-episode miniseries. Yet Ilgauskas helped them to be better pros, and LeBron, through the compulsion of his playmaking, turned them into better players.

“A lot of scorers get tunnel vision, and you can help, and they’re kind of just looking at you and waiting for the opportunity to go,” Tyson Chandler (who would later play with James in Los Angeles) told Chris Ballard for his excellent book, The Art of a Beautiful Game. “But with him, you help and he burns you.” Throughout his time in Cleveland, LeBron would expertly—and consistently—find the other big out of a pick-and-roll. If Ilgauskas set a screen and popped out to the wing, Varejão might slink down the baseline and into a layup. Any big who ran the floor, screened hard, and knew when to cut to the rim could be a scorer next to LeBron. Just look at the crowd that would form when James would so much as approach the foul line:

Varejão was an awkward finisher who played big minutes for a contender. Gooden was a box-score stuffer who logged his most efficient seasons as a Cavalier. Hickson never seemed so viable as during his time in Cleveland, when a flash down the lane was as good as generating offense. When Hickson was on the floor with James for three seasons, he posted a 61.8 percent true shooting percentage—comparable to what Montrezl Harrell managed in his Sixth Man of the Year–winning campaign with the Clippers. When forced to do without the lift of LeBron’s playmaking, his true shooting cratered to 48.6 percent.

Bigs Most Dependent on LeBron

Player Team TS% with LeBron TS% without LeBron Differential
Player Team TS% with LeBron TS% without LeBron Differential
Erick Dampier MIA 62.5% 42.9% 19.6%
Markieff Morris* LAL 63.9% 47.0% 17.0%
Ben Wallace CLE 46.3% 33.3% 13.0%
JJ Hickson CLE 61.5% 48.6% 12.9%
Robert Traylor CLE 48.2% 38.5% 9.7%
*Markieff Morris has played only 295 minutes with LeBron since joining the Lakers and 162 minutes without him. The usual small sample size warnings apply. Data from PBP Stats

James was able to elevate teammates out from the clutter. Cleveland would play Hickson alongside Shaquille O’Neal, or pair 34-year-old Ben Wallace with 33-year-old Ilgauskas. Even lineups with more tenable frontcourt pairings would sometimes run an offense in which every player but the one with the ball stayed inside the 3-point line, nearly tripping over each other at every turn. Yet through the vision of LeBron, the Cavs would score anyway:

Donyell Marshall, a herald of the stretch 4, was a clear exception. Prior to Marshall’s arrival in Cleveland in 2005, LeBron had assisted a big on just a smattering of 3-pointers. The NBA game was still rooted in the midrange, with its 4s and 5s tethered even more closely to the rim. Marshall dared to space the floor—the gall!—and immediately created a connection with James as a result. In each of their first two seasons together, LeBron assisted Marshall on more 3s than he did any other shooter. Most notable, of course, was a shot Marshall missed: one that came in the final seconds of the first game of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, consummating a loss to the veteran Pistons. James drove, drew three defenders on the way to the rim, and did what he had always preferred to do: pass the ball, and the potential glory, to an open teammate. The pass itself became a strange public indictment.

“I missed, we lost, and everybody asked him why he gave it up,” Marshall told Sports Illustrated. “But what I remember was the next day at practice when we went over late-game situations. We ran the same play, and LeBron passed it to me in the corner again. I knocked it down, and he jumped on me like we’d won.” There are echoes of that pass throughout LeBron’s career. Some direct, like when he swung the ball to an open Udonis Haslem for a potential game-winner in 2012, again missed; and some indirect, like James screening so that Anthony Davis could take a gut-punch, buzzer-beating 3 to top the Nuggets in this year’s West finals. His career to date is, even now, a relentless search for the open man. Never was that clearer than in his first stint in Cleveland, when LeBron willed misshapen rosters into inexplicable contenders. Every assist was an omen. If a pass from LeBron could make a player out of Hickson, what might it do for a star?

For LeBron, the promise of joining the Heat was the opportunity to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The payoff was a reimagining of what a team structured around him could be. After attempting a conveyor-belt center rotation of Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Erick Dampier, Jamaal Magloire, Dexter Pittman, and Ronny Turiaf for two seasons, Miami stumbled—through its desperation—into the smaller lineups and faster style that would become its signature. “Everything happens by accident,” Bosh told Zach Lowe, then of Grantland, in 2014. “It was just our instinct to survive. It came at a time when our backs were against the wall. But LeBron’s big and strong, and we had other guys who could guard the post. It was like, all right, we’re gonna make this a nightmare for somebody.”

In the following two seasons, James would play with fewer and fewer bigs as he effectively became one himself. There was a time in Cleveland when traditional power forwards and centers accounted for upward of 60 percent of LeBron’s assists in a season. During the Heat’s run to the 2013 title, that portion was nearly halved—a hard directional shift that reflected the broader state of the league. LeBron’s passes would go out to Bosh and Haslem as they helped space the floor, and later to Chris Andersen as he lingered around the rim. Yet his playmaking has never skewed so heavily toward guards and wings as when he was with the Heat:

Miami’s spacing was a silent killer. Opposing coaches had to pick and choose when they could even afford to have their own bigs on the floor, and during the 2013 playoffs alone, the Pacers and Spurs gave up devastating plays to the Heat in part because they had chosen to pull their centers. The smaller the game gets, the more it benefits LeBron—a 6-foot-9 point guard who, even in more traditional lineups, can already see over the top of the defense. Opening up the floor only made it easier for him to break every possession down to its moving parts.

“He doesn’t make the easy first pass, because he knows the other team can rotate and then get their defense set,” one general manager said of LeBron. “He waits for the opportunity to hit the one they can’t rotate to.”

Putting James on the block was usually enough to cause a defense some immediate distress, and any movement from Wade and the Heat’s 3-point specialists could push opponents into a blind panic. Bosh and Haslem were often the beneficiaries of that terror—they were shooters innocuous enough, in the commotion of a fully rotating defense, to be momentarily left alone. Most stars could pick out an open teammate on the weak side. LeBron, however, managed entire possessions in anticipation of it, at times throwing a pass to one of his bigs in the tiny window after a defender turned his attention but before the defender actually vacated his spot:

“LeBron James had the best basketball IQ I’ve ever seen from a player,” Haslem told The Undefeated in 2019. “The way I see the game now, I know everybody’s position. I know where everybody should be. I know what everybody should be doing. When I’m looking at the defenses, I’m not just looking at the man that’s guarding me. I’m looking at the other four defenders on the floor. That’s something I learned from LeBron.”

By that point, James had spent years thinking his way through overloading defenses, a coverage popularized by Tom Thibodeau and the Celtics that sent three defenders to the side of the court with the ball handler. Repetition showed LeBron every angle he needed to work those systems, and better floor spacing offered him the means to exploit vulnerabilities with the pass. That said, it wasn’t enough for James to keep an eye on the other four defenders on the floor; to beat more sophisticated schemes, LeBron learned to watch for when an opponent shifted their weight to their heels, stole a glance toward the ball, or inched in the direction of a cutter. He had always been an intuitive passer, but it was in Miami that LeBron found the control and precision to regularly fire the ball through the heart of the defense:

That kind of perspective opens up a different level of game management. “He could see so much,” says Boozer, who faced off with James and the Heat in two playoff series as a member of Thibodeau’s Bulls. In those matchups, Boozer recalls James systematically finding perimeter scorers like Wade, Ray Allen, and Mike Miller throughout the first three quarters, conditioning Chicago’s defense to a particular rhythm. “And then who was LeBron looking for in the fourth quarter?” Boozer asks. “Chris Bosh. That’s the brilliance of LeBron.” In the 2011 Eastern Conference finals against the Bulls, Bosh scored more fourth-quarter points than every player but James—topping not only Wade, but the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose. The Rolodex had become a supercomputer. LeBron’s strength and speed allowed him to overwhelm matchups, but it was through raw processing power that he was able to overwhelm entire teams.

When James returned to Cleveland as a free agent in 2014, he immediately vaulted a young, talented roster with minimal postseason experience into position as a conference favorite. Kevin Love had to rework his entire game to function as the Cavs’ third star, but LeBron had already facilitated one such transition with Bosh and the Heat. Kyrie Irving had to grow up on the job under intense public scrutiny, but James could steady the offense in the interim and take over whenever necessary. In all, it was messy. It was combative. Eyes rolled, tweets were sent, and along the way, Cleveland dismissed all comers in the East for four consecutive seasons and pulled off the most dramatic comeback in the history of the NBA Finals.

“We were a team that thrived under chaos,” Love said last spring in an appearance on FS1. The All-Star forward would know better than most. Playing with LeBron is ostensibly easy; open shots will never come so frequently as when running with basketball’s greatest playmaker, as so many of the shooters and dunkers to benefit from the passing of James can attest. Former Heat center Chris Andersen once put it quite elegantly: “If you can’t make a shot a foot away from the basket, I shouldn’t be playing this sport.” Yet to get to the point when he could even complete a LeBron assist, Love needed to remap where and how he participated in the offense.

“Bron is just a one-in-a-generation talent,” Love told JJ Redick on the Old Man and the Three podcast. “Arguably the greatest player ever. Playing downhill, he’s just a freight train. So it’s like: All right, this is how we’re gonna set up. We’re just gonna get out of the way.” Love’s role was often to run to the corners, where he would rank as one of the most prolific shooters in the league from 2014 to 2018. Whenever Love discusses this, he returns to the same ideas: that he didn’t understand what it meant to sacrifice as a basketball player until he came to Cleveland; that finding comfort in that role required personal growth; and that he regards James, a player he once spoke of quite tepidly, as a brother. There is little doubt that it was the chaos that bonded them.

During his second stint in Cleveland, no teammate shared the court with James more than Love. The kind of spotting up that felt reductive for a former All-NBA forward helped turn the Cavs into one of the most formidable offenses ever assembled. A quality shot for Love—and thus a quality shot for Cleveland—could be dialed up on command.

A narrow role could never be fully comfortable for Love, but it could at least be justified. “If you can get through it, good things can happen,” Bosh said of working as a superteam’s third star. “But it never gets easy. Even up until my last year of doing it, it never gets easier.”

Life as a Cavalier was a bit simpler for Channing Frye. Years earlier, Frye had taken to long-range shooting at the urging of Alvin Gentry, then the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Stepping his jumper back beyond the arc changed the course of his entire career. The mandate from Gentry was this: If Frye stopped shooting, he would come out of the game. End of discussion. When Frye was later traded to Cleveland after a detour in Orlando, he took his standing as a reserve as reason enough to keep firing.

Shoot that thang,” says Frye, who now works as a broadcaster for Turner Sports. “What’s the worst they’re gonna do? Send you back to the bench?”

In the playoffs, Frye became the kind of contributor that, under the right circumstances, could break open a series. Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks were absolutely flummoxed by Frye in 2016; his 27-point eruption in Game 3 destabilized their entire coverage, balling up a carefully designed plan to contain James and Irving and tossing it—from deep—into the garbage. Other matchups were too fast or too physical for Frye to do much good. Still he would come in for spot minutes, ready to shoot if the ball ever came his way.

The regular season was more forgiving, to the point that in Frye’s first full campaign with the Cavs, he became LeBron’s second most common assist target behind Love. “While I was out there,” Frye says, “my biggest thing was: Nobody’s gonna get double-teamed or else I’mma make this. So when Kevin would play, or Bron, I would be there. You wanna post up? If you get double-teamed, I’ll make it. If I make it once, they’ll stop double-teaming you, and then you can score all you want.”

“I would sit in the corner, and a guy would have to have his hands on me, like on my chest,” Frye says. “Coaches would be like, ‘Touch his chest. You have to be this close.’ That’s fine, but you’re a rotational guy. So who was gonna rotate all the way over to stop LeBron going full speed?”

Given the preposterous extent of LeBron’s accomplishments, it’s easy to gloss over the smaller realities of his basketball life—like the fact that he has assisted more total 3-pointers than any other player in NBA history. Part of his growth as a playmaker came from understanding that shot to its fullest. James has never himself been a volume 3-point shooter; the 6.3 attempts per game he averaged with the Lakers this season, a career high, ranked tied for 38th leaguewide. Yet his game is built on the systematic creation of 3s and exploiting the space they provide.

“You help on LeBron at the rim, and he gets them a corner 3,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said in 2016. “You help from the weak side, and he finds a guy and you give up a 3. Sometimes you’re in good team defensive position, and the ball zips out of his hands and there’s a 3-pointer. I don’t know how you defend that.”

When LeBron came back to Cleveland in the prime of his career, the Cavs invested in two modes of bigs: shooters like Love and Frye who would give James the most physical space possible; and offensive rebounders like Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, who would give him as many chances to interrogate the weaknesses of the defense as they could. Cavalier bigs were coached specifically to look for LeBron after hitting the offensive glass—to wear down opponents with the full weight of his continued scrutiny. Cleveland staked its contention on the idea that if there were any flaw to be found—the slightest lapse, some unseen deficiency—James would root it out.

“He controls everything,” says one executive, “from the way he positions his body to the tempo and the way he dribbles the ball. He’ll put it down in a totally different rhythm for a team that’s really active in the paint versus a team that’s slow to react in the paint. He’s as big a basketball savant as I think has ever existed in the league, and he couples it with the best physical gifts.”

James has stated before that he can tailor the delivery of a pass to whether a shooter wants their fingers on the seams when they catch it, a claim ridiculous on its face until LeBron goes through the entire rotation, player by player, and explains his teammates’ individual preferences. While walking reporters through the lineup in 2017—how J.R. Smith likes to catch the ball low so he can dip into his shot, why James Jones needs a higher pass since he releases at the top of his jump—LeBron cut himself off with a smirk. “That is all I’m giving you,” he said. “Get out of my mind, please.” Many current and former teammates have stories of LeBron, as an opponent, calling out their team’s plays on the floor in real time. “He’s always been a guy that could literally do the 29 other walk-throughs in the league,” Love told reporters after a game against the Lakers earlier this year. “He’s just a cerebral guy. He’s a sponge. I think that allows him to grow every single year, even if he is a quarter-step slower or whatever you want to say. He’s not. He just seemingly keeps getting better.” Some minds are just worth deferring to.

In the lead-up to his first NBA Finals, James bypassed prediction for self-fulfilling prophecy. “I’m going to be a GM someday,” he said in 2007, perhaps not realizing at the time that those aspirations would be fulfilled even before he finished playing. Since 2010, no professional athlete has done more to mold the team context around them than LeBron. Players he likes wind up on the roster; those he doesn’t care for so much are shipped out for another shooter, another big, or another “fucking playmaker.” His will be done, even if it isn’t articulated directly or explicitly to management on those terms.

For years he denied this, shrugging off the suggestion as he has so many overmatched defenders. Yet when the Lakers secured their place in the Finals with a Game 6 win against the Nuggets, James—as careful an interview as you’ll find in the NBA—took on a slightly different tone when referring to his partnership with Anthony Davis. “This is the reason why I wanted to be a teammate of his,” James said, “and why I brought him here.” It was both warm sentiment and stark truth. LeBron didn’t hop on the trade call with the league office to finalize the particulars, but he delivered Davis to the Lakers in most every other sense. As he navigated a new challenge in Los Angeles in the face of his inevitable decline, James handpicked Davis as the star he wanted to play with.

And why wouldn’t he? No team in the West could muster the collective size and speed to combat both Davis and James at once, a predicament as glaring in these playoffs as it was on the day the season began. Basketball is a game of beautiful complexity—a synthesis of scheme, talent, and ego that can lead to some unexpected results. (Enter the Miami Heat.) Yet sometimes, it can all be as simple as the fact that the greatest playmaker of all time wears the same uniform as one of the most dynamic bigs of the modern era.

“The pick-and-roll that we create has been very successful for us,” Davis says, “because he’s able to attack downhill and get attention from either my man or the weak-side guys.” As Davis explained all the opportunities that could result from a defense’s reaction to a single LeBron drive, he shook his head in disbelief. “His playmaking ability is insane,” Davis says.

In their first season together, James assisted Davis more than he had ever assisted any other teammate in any other season. It’s a connection that begins at the moment of the rebound. If an opposing team isn’t quite on top of its matchups in transition—and how could they be when two of the most daunting athletes in the league are involved?—LeBron will sail a pass 80 feet downcourt, over the head of every defender, and directly into the hands of Davis:

James has worked every variation of the two-man game with Davis: He has fed him dutifully for post-ups, found him diving into space, and worked with him to engineer the ideal mismatch. LeBron doesn’t allow his teammate to dominate so much as he insists upon it. Even top defenses have only so much say in the matter. Given his height, James is operating at a level that is literally above most of his defenders; where other point guards could have their line of sight blocked or their passing angle denied, LeBron continues on his way completely unbothered. “It’s a lot different,” Davis says, “just because of his size.” Establishing Davis in scoring position is often just a matter of patience.

Yet in some ways, their relationship is defined by the fact that Davis doesn’t need LeBron in the same way other teammates do.

Bigs Least Dependent on LeBron

Player Team Points per 100 possessions without LeBron
Player Team Points per 100 possessions without LeBron
Anthony Davis LAL 42.5
Shaquille O'Neal CLE 33.5
Antawn Jamison CLE 31.4
Kevin Love CLE 30.8
Chris Bosh MIA 30.4
Data from PBP Stats

Davis has scored well all season long, no matter if he’s finishing an easy lob or carving out an edge in isolation. The fact that the Lakers have found ways to thrive in their minutes without LeBron, however, has been the single most important development of the entire playoffs. Those minutes were precarious in the regular season. Now they provide the sustenance for an extended run. Against Miami, the Lakers will hope to rest the 35-year-old James just enough that he can meet the most challenging basketball puzzles at his best. He may be the only point guard in the league who could take a team this big this far; every half-court possession Davis plays alongside another center is a potential traffic jam, which makes it a wonder that the Lakers do any driving at all.

It helps, as it turns out, to run an offense through the world’s most overqualified post-entry passer:

In the tao of LeBron, the big who runs the floor into a deep seal around the basket is rewarded. So is the off-ball screener, the patient threat in the dunker spot, and the trailer on the play who cuts all the way through to the baseline. “Especially as a big who isn’t really a dominant on-the-ball big, you’re just able to be out there and look for the ball,” says JaVale McGee. “It really drives your motor.” No other star can so seamlessly translate his teammates’ activity to production as LeBron. And as he surveys the floor for the right moment to deliver a pass, his bigs gauge how and when they should make their move. “It’s just picking and choosing when to roll, when to get out the way, when to set a good screen,” Dwight Howard says. “It’s just all-around reading the defense.”

The Lakers offense stands as a monument to precision, which is to say it probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. A team like Miami will use high-level 3-point shooting as a means to run an adaptive blend of cuts and handoffs. The threat of Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro coming off a screen might clear a path for Bam Adebayo to romp down the lane for a dunk. So much of L.A.’s continued success, on the other hand, comes down to whether LeBron can drive into four defenders, turn across his body, and launch a pass to the opposite corner with enough force to beat the quick-twitch reflexes of some of the world’s best athletes.

A perfect pass can be its own kind of burden. Those who play with James have spoken about the public expectation that they should hit every shot and convert every dunk he serves up; there is an added pressure on every attempt due to the magnitude of what a LeBron team plays for. “I don’t really feel that pressure,” McGee says. “But I feel the importance.”

Frye, in spotting up to clear space for LeBron in Cleveland, felt both. “When you play with a Hall of Famer like ... LeBron,” he says, “you don’t wanna be the guy that fucks up. You do not wanna be the guy that ruins their legacy.”

There will be times in the Finals when the Lakers move at the pace of a stale dribble while LeBron surveys a muddled floor. Yet the more he watches, the more he absorbs. “The further you go in a playoff series, the harder he is to beat,” one general manager says. “Because he’s learned more than you the whole time.”

The same idea could apply to the past 17 years of NBA basketball. LeBron has seen every form of coverage during his time in the league, and led teams of almost every possible construction. The Lakers are effectively a composite of his basketball experience: a superteam with the flexibility to play bigger than the throwback Cavs or smaller than the pace-and-space Heat. “Think about the players he played with,” Boozer says. “Big Z, Drew Gooden, and obviously Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, and now with Anthony Davis and the new-generation Lakers with Kyle Kuzma and those guys. Obviously the big man has changed from being a post-up, pick-and-roll guy to being a 3-point-shooting, transition kind of guy. But the bottom line is: LeBron’s IQ is so phenomenal he finds the big man whatever the game style is.”

In a way, joining up with Davis feels like the culmination of a life’s work. There’s no need to worry about whether the first-team defender will hold up in rotation, or whether one of the game’s great finishers will be able to convert under duress. There isn’t a transformative sacrifice to be made and managed, nor any apparent friction to date. The game can finally be as easy for James as he made it for everyone else.

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