This first appeared in the July 2 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
For the past eight years, every move LeBron James made was based solely on winning. From going to the Miami Heat in 2010 to returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers four years later, James has been laser-focused on trying to secure more championships, doing everything he can to run down Michael Jordan as the greatest player basketball has ever seen.
Sunday, James chose a different path.
By agreeing to a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, James has clearly stated that he feels quite secure about his legacy. Choosing to go to the Lakers without any assurances another star would join him, without any clear path to championship contention this season, clearly wasn’t about winning.
This was about James doing what he wants, and not worrying about what anyone else thinks.
James is right to feel secure in his legacy. Making eight straight trips to the NBA Finals this decade is a feat that will become grander as more time passes. Winning a championship for the city of Cleveland, something that hadn’t been done in more than a half century before James led the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit against the 72-win Golden State Warriors two years ago, felt like multiple titles in the moment. It will grow in importance over time as the Cavaliers sink back into irrelevancy.
For 15 straight seasons, James has mesmerized and dazzled us with his greatness, playing at a higher level than virtually anyone in history while taking on a ridiculous nightly burden and never getting hurt.
It has led to a remarkable journey, taking him from Akron to Cleveland to Miami, then back to Cleveland and now, finally, to Los Angeles. It also has clearly empowered James to take his life into his own hands and make decisions that will allow him, and his family, to be happy.
Some in Cleveland will undoubtedly scoff at James giving the Lakers a four-year commitment (even if the final year is a player option) after signing one and two-year deals during his second stint in Northeast Ohio. But after the way Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert acted the first time James left, the trust level would never allow him to commit to Cleveland long term in the same manner.
One could argue the Lakers have done little over the past few years to earn such trust, either. But again, this isn’t a basketball-first decision. If that was the case, James either signing with the Philadelphia 76ers or opting into his contract and being traded to the Houston Rockets would’ve made far more sense.
As one source said, “This was always the right move.” And it was the right move because it was the move James wanted to make.
Eight years ago, James turned the basketball world on its head by leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat. In doing so, he shepherded in a new era of self-determination in basketball, one that saw a cavalcade of stars change free agency over the past few years.
That included one of them, Kevin Durant, upending all of James’s best-laid plans for a second act in Cleveland. He undoubtedly expected it to last a lot longer than four years when he penned his essay in Sports Illustrated declaring his intention to come home four years ago.
Today, James is taking that self-determination to another level. By moving to Los Angeles, he’s not only putting himself where he and his family will be comfortable and he can continue to expand upon his myriad business interests as his career winds down. He is also willingly taking on the mantle of reviving the mystique of the Lakers, something that has flagged in recent years with the franchise besieged by dysfunction and mismanagement since the final years of Kobe Bryant’s career.
The Lakers won’t be good enough to compete with the Warriors this season, though they will undoubtedly be entertaining after signing Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee, of all people, Sunday night to play alongside James. But they will have a shot at making it as far as the Western Conference finals thanks to James’s presence alone. With a slew of all-stars becoming free agents next summer — including Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love — he will be able to entice more players to join him.
By signing a four-year deal, James is committing to the Lakers regardless of whether they keep bungling things, or if none of those stars want to join him in Los Angeles. And, to be honest, he really wasn’t committing to the Lakers, anyway.
James was committing to himself. If championships to burnish his legacy follow, so be it. But that wasn’t the determining factor here. It couldn’t be.
For the past 15 years, James has entertained the entire basketball world. He’ll continue to do that in Los Angeles. But in going there, he decided it was time to ensure he was happy, too.
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