LeBron James has been bigger than the game, a cultural artifact for discussion, dissection and discernment for six years through triumph, misery, and wait, did he have a cartoon show? In advance of LeBron’s second big decision, we wanted to weigh in with our writers’ thoughts on the different worlds this moment in time touches and how honestly weird this entire process is — because the four most powerful words in the NBA are “LeBron James free agency.” Enjoy. – Ed.
At times, it seems that the average NBA viewer doesn’t understand LeBron James. They don’t understand why he doesn’t have that basketball sociopath personality. They don’t understand why he chooses the right play over the heroes play. And they don’t seem to understand why he embraces player movement when many greats spent their careers with one team.
Simply put, the game may be the same, but the rules have changed.
The idea that great players are somehow less if they change teams is a fallacy. While players like [Lakers shooting guard], [Chicago Bulls shooting guard], and Tim Duncan have recently led championship careers with one team, that has proven to be the exception. Greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal each not only played for multiple teams; but found themselves showered in championship confetti wearing different colors. In the same way there is no wrong way to build a championship team, there is no wrong way to become a champion either.
A big reason that many players did not move as often as they do now is that there wasn’t a salary cap until the 1983-1984 season. And one of the rules that came with the new soft cap was the Bird Exception that allowed teams to go over the cap to re-sign their players, instead of a hard cap that forced them to let their stars to leave for nothing. This created what is now restricted free agency, and allowed teams to entice their RFA’s with longer contracts and more money as incentives to stay. In a situation like a player like James’, this means walking away from serious money in order for the best chance to win. People hate when comparisons to real life are made to sports, but this really is no difference that leaving some money on the table to go where you have the best chance to be successful and achieve the goals that matter most to you. In the way most people don’t stay with the first company that hires them until life and move on to reach their goals, players do the same thing.
For players that were fortunate to land with the organization that allows them to reach their financial and professional goals, that’s great. However, money has not always been enough. Kobe Bryant nearly forced a trade to Chicago before nixing the deal because the Bulls would have given up too much to better his situation, and eventually Los Angeles acquired Pau Gasol. Michael Jordan threatened to leave the Bulls fresh off of a championship run to have both his financial and basketball needs met. Shaq left Orlando for brighter lights although the Magic were not far removed from a Finals run, just as James was in Cleveland. And if you remember, Tim Duncan was this close to leaving the Spurs in the early 00s before returning to San Antonio at the last minute
Yet, player movement has changed drastically from the 80s, 90s and even the 00s. Players have more control over their destiny than ever, which evidently makes some folks uncomfortable. People weened on this idea that truly great players only play for one team and hold this against James are denying a large part of NBA history. The extension of this falsehood is that it’s only okay to move to another team if they’ve spent years of frustration for one team. And for what– why spend the best years of your career, not fulfilling your dreams? Imagine if Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler or Charles Barkley were afforded the same opportunities to puruse a title as today’s players. We may remember them differently. The truth is that players like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird didn’t have the same opportunities to explore the market that James has, and that someone like Kevin Durant eventually will.
In reality, LeBron James is the star of the Player Movement era. Over the years, players have fought to maintain their standard of living and a fair amount of the league’s revenue proportionate to its growth over the years, and the ability to choose your employer like any other profession. And if James chooses to leave money on the table (Which he easily makes back in sponsorships) to put himself in position to win, that’s his choice. Remember, of the Heat’s Big Three the last four years, Chris Bosh, not James, was the highest paid player. He took less to go to a situation that allowed him to achieve his goal of winning a title and was successful in his decision.
James is in the perfect time for a player like himself since he essentially has first choice over where he wants to play. Had he played in the first 30 years or so of the league, his only out of an undesirable situation would have been to force a trade to another team. Players were essentially teams’ property, and that climate has changed for the better. Look at Jordan’s case. He signed an insulting eight-year/$25 million dollar deal right before a new CBA was signed that would have allowed him to make far more and his team refused to tear it up to pay him what he was worth. The focus is now on ensuring that you keep your best players happy and convince them that you are their best longterm option. A cynic may see this as appeasement or hostage holding, but it’s really just good business. Elite players are few and far between, so the intention should be on keeping them around as long as possible anyway.
This time around, James will once again be able to choose the team that gives him the best chance for success. Whether he chooses to re-up with Miami, join the Bulls or return to Cleveland, it will be his right of choice. You cannot compare his actions to stars of the past because the situations were different and you never actually know what they would have done had they had these opportunities. This is a different era where– love it or hate it –players and agents hold more power than ever. Being that there has never been a player as decorated as James with these freedoms, it can be difficult to understand. Unfortunately for James, he is going to pay the price again (albeit to a lesser-extent) in the court of public opinion for truly being the first to blaze this trail. He’s an MVP, a future Hall of Famer and he’s going to go where is best for him. As for the public, they’re just going to have to make peace with that.