It’s accepted that LeBron’s return to Cleveland will simultaneously buoy the Cavaliers and sink the Heat. After all, the last time James left a franchise, the team imploded; the Cavs went from a league-best 61 wins in 2010 to just 19 wins in 2011, last in the conference.
But do you know how historically significant LeBron’s moves have been? He might just be the most dominant NBA player to ever change teams.
Using Basketball-Reference.com, I pulled up the season-by-season Win Shares of the league’s all-time greats—with a close look at the players who, like LeBron, switched to a new team in the prime of their careers. For simplicity, I didn’t look at in-season trades.
You can see the results of that exercise below…and how LeBron is the most dominant player to change teams since LeBron James. And maybe, ever.
The players who top the single-season Win Shares list are names you would know: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, George Mikan. (Michael Jordan’s all-time greatest season ranks ninth.)
And among players who have changed teams, it’s Chamberlain who comes off as slightly more “dominant” than LeBron—even if you include playoff Win Shares, which narrow the gap. (Chamberlain had 22.8 combined regular season and playoff Win Shares in 1968; LeBron had 20.8 in 2010 and 20.2 this year.) In 1968, Wilt also was finishing off a run of three straight MVP awards, too.
Now, Win Shares isn’t a perfect statistic, especially given the lack of some data for older players. (You can read the methodology behind Win Shares here.) But it’s my favorite way to make player comparisons—it’s a comprehensive metric that accounts for offensive and defensive performance, while heavily weighting statistics that contribute to team victories.
It also penalizes players who can’t stay on the court. While Dwyane Wade’s PER was a healthy 22.0 this year, he had just 5.5 Win Shares because he played just 54 games. Shaquille O’Neal had a surprisingly low 6.9 Win Shares his last season in Orlando, largely because he played just 54 games, like Wade.
Even though Win Shares don’t give James the nod over Chamberlain, I think James is the greatest player to switch teams—and I’d argue that—here are two points to put him over the top.
Unlike the Cavaliers in 2011, the 76ers didn’t implode in 1969 after Wilt left the team—at least, not immediately. (They won 55 games that season.) And unlike James, Chamberlain didn’t leave two title-contending teams at the peak of his powers. Win Shares don’t encapsulate that kind of impact.
But even if Win Shares aren’t your measure of choice, it’s hard to deny that impact of LeBron James moving back to Cleveland is something we’ve seen before, and we may never see it again.