In a sport where peaks typically span from 26 to 31, there’s a high variance as to when a player is actually prepared to play his best basketball. Magic Johnson was ready for titles before he even donned an NBA jersey; Mouhammed Saer Sene was never truly there (we still hoped, though). Tyson Chandler was ready for a year in New Orleans, already deep into his career, seemingly dropped out of that sweet spot when he succumbed to injury, and then re-emerged in Dallas. Everybody wants to win the title, but not everybody is ready at the same time.
As if this weren’t sufficiently complex, each NBA roster consists of 13 to 15 such gentlemen. Much like on court synergy is important when building a basketball team, so too must the timelines fit together. A contender can’t afford to overload on youngsters, whereas for a lottery dweller, paying a 10 year vet the full mid-level could be a sunk cost. Ideally, you want your core players to hit their primes together, with guys on the fringe of the age Gaussian there to mentor and/or develop, but the distribution of choice is inherently intricate and depends on where and when you want your team to be.
LeBron James, franchise player since day one, has always seen his timeline tilt more towards the here and now than other members of his age group. But when normalizing for his brilliance, his is still the familiar career curve. And for the vast majority of his career, that timeline did not converge with those of his teammates.
The Cleveland Cavaliers infamously splurged in the 2005 offseason, surrounding a 20 year old James with the veteran likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones, with relative youngster Larry Hughes proving the worst and most costly flop of the group. Even worse, they flubbed their lottery picks before (DaJuan Wagner) and after (Luke Jackson). By being so good so soon, LeBron essentially disqualified himself from the search for someone to grow with. His solution to this problem was growing on his own, a strategy that worked well as he grew to dimensions very few players ever have. But that growth was definitely somewhat stunted as the Cavs had to acquire their Mo’s and Delonte’s rather than enjoy a Wagner or Jackson hitting their respective strides congruent to LeBron’s.
LeBron’s 2010 Decision brought him that chronological synchronization that he didn’t have in Cleveland. Literally hand picking two all-stars who entered the league with him, a 25 year old LeBron, 26 year old Chris Bosh and 28 year old Dwyane Wade were all just hitting their primes (though Wade, retrospectively, was closer to the end of his than we thought). Pat Riley doubled down on this initiative in a similar manner to the 2005-2010 Cavs, by bringing in veterans to win immediately with the Big Three rather than mid-career folk to win both now and a bit later. He just did it a bit better, because he’s Pat Freaking Riley.
It’s hard to fault the decision, as it created a nearly unprecedented 4 year, 2 title span. Those titles were the best fit LeBron has ever had with his teammates regarding their respective places in the league, and the results were exemplary. But that alignment was thrown somewhat out of whack with the declines of Wade and some of Miami’s role players, leaving LeBron in a bit of a predicament. 2010 was all about finding teammates to win with for the next decade. Instead, the second half of that decade was in question. As his own timeline, still blooming, slowly started inching to a point where its conclusion became visible in the distance, LeBron needed those surrounding him to be a bit closer to the beginning of theirs.
By returning to the Cavs, LeBron is almost over-correcting for this problem. Kyrie Irving is talented enough to be within range, but is still fraught with the type of defensive struggles that often accompany immature NBA players. Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett are NBA teenagers. Tristan Thompson is arguably close to his peak, but that has more to do with a discouraging 3rd season plateau than anything else. Dion Waiters’ future prospects are contingent on him either accepting a smaller role or growing into a larger one, both of which are developments that take time. Not only is Anderson Varejao the only current Cav anywhere near his prime – he’s the only one of Cleveland’s supposed core (i.e. excluding recent acquisition Brendan Haywood) who was in the league the last time LeBron donned wine and gold.
This is still subject to change — one Kevin Love trade, or even two/three Mike Miller-esque signings could give Cleveland’s timeline a manual push in LeBron’s direction. But the dynamic is unmistakable. LeBron is not quite good enough to reverse Father Time himself, but whether intentionally or not, as he has aged his situations of choice have become younger. As LeBron’s timeline follows due protocol, the timelines that surround and converge with his have seen violent jumps in the opposite direction.
Which presents an interesting dynamic regarding James’ role with the Cavs from here on out. He’s been the youthful, forceful engine, with talent so vast it can only inspire. He’s been the peak-of-his-powers omnipotent first billing on a star studded ensemble. Now his new team requires pretty much everything. LeBron is at the point of his career where contributing everything doesn’t seem out of the question, but is that a fair and prudent request with nearly 40,000 minutes and 4 straight Finals runs on his odometer? Wouldn’t these Cavs be better off exposing some of their youngsters to baptism by fire with LeBron as an overseer and mentor who just happens to be the world’s best player?
For the past decade or so, the Zeitgeist of LeBron James has been a major, if not the sole component in the Zeitgeist of the league. By once again taking a plunge towards the unknown, James sends the league head first into a pool of disarray. Suddenly, this unholy amalgamation of Hall of Famer in his prime and a core seemingly a few years away could be solely responsible for where the NBA goes from here.