Note: Pocket Pass are articles about a specific NBA subject.
Before we get started, a quick side-bar. Lebron is not my favorite player. I do, however recognize-- because I have eyes that can see-- that he is the most talented player, probably ever. He is also a wonderful humanitarian. If you came here for Lebron bashing, don’t waste your time reading any farther. This is not clickbait. Lot 10 is better than that, and we will continue to strive towards the journalistic integrity necessary to write articles that matter, like reviews of games that came out two decades ago...
Tune in to, read, or chat about anything even tangentially related to the NBA and you are are almost guaranteed to hear about Lebron James’s impending free agency. It’s understandable. Infamously, Lebron left Cleveland for Miami in what is still-- and likely always will be-- the biggest free agency move in NBA history. Free Agency is relatively young, having started in the late eighties, but even if we do have another NBA MVP, super star, and best player on the planet leave his team for greener er-- beaches?-- it will stall fall short of Lebron’s decision because before Lebron there was no precedent for it. Yes, big time players switched teams, but not true-blue superstars. The only way they moved was by midseason blockbuster trades. The only exception to this was Shaq, whose move from Orlando to Los Angeles did send shockwaves through the NBA, but it wasn’t announced on an hour long TV special. It was big, but Lebron was collassal. While not quite as big as the initial move to Miami, Lebron did manage a decent sequel when he returned to Cleveland and, as if scripted by an unimaginative screen write, he led Cleveland to a NBA Finals victory against all odds with heroic deed after heroic deed. If he had been forty, it would have been the perfect way to ride off into the sunset-- but he’s not-- he’s thirty-three, he’s still the most talented player in basketball, and he’s a free agent.
The buzz is obvious. It’s also pointless.
He isn’t going anywhere.
I understand the thinking. He’s done it before, and at this point Lebron cares about very little besides adding more NBA titles to his name. Cleveland lost in the finals again, and it seems to almost anyone looking in that they are unlikely to be a real threat to the teams coming out of the west any time soon. Lebron’s in control, he has seemed unhappy, and he wants to win.There are almost daily updates on ESPN of his feelings towards Cleveland, or his wish to play for other teams (who that team is also changes daily); Lebron’s Staying; Lebron wants to play for Pop; Lebron dreams of being a Knick; Lebron wants to trust the process; Lebron to the Lakers… It is non-stop, and I can’t even blame them. It makes for good TV, and they are, after all, a TV network-- but no matter how many supposive inside sources they trot across the ticker, Lebron is going to stay in Cleveland.
Below I articulate my reasons why-- to steal a phrase from our constitution-- I believe this truth to be self evident, but first, like any great debate, I will offer the counter argument.
Why He Might Leave:
1. Cleveland isn’t going to win: I concede this point. Cleveland is talented enough to possibly make it out of the East again next year, by which I mean Lebron is good enough to probably get them into the Finals, but that’s it. And even that doesn’t feel like the guarantee it did last year, as Boston seems likely to be the favorite. The Rockets and Warriors are both far superior teams, and while Cleveland could beat them in a winner takes all, they stand no chance in a best of seven series.
2. Cleveland won’t help him: Lebron wants to win, so he wants Cleveland to spend money so they can attract big name free agents that can take some of the pressure off of Lebron and give the a chance at another title window. They made some trades at the deadline that helped, but some argue it’s not enough to keep Lebron. They have this free agency period to make some moves, but they don’t seem to be in the front running for any major players.
3. He wants to beat Jordan: In the pursuit to overtake Jordan as the presumptive GOAT in NBA history (their words, not mine) Lebron needs to win more rings. He won’t because of the reasons listed above, and that will chase him to another team. I don’t disagree with this point, but I do disagree with the logic of it being a reason he will leave-- but we will get to that.
4. He wants to play for/with (Enter Team/Player): Most of these are probably true. I am sure Lebron would like to play with long time friend Chris Paul. I am sure Lebron would like to be the super star of a major market like LA or NY. I’m sure Lebron would like to join some young stars in Philly, or Milwaukee, or Portland… but not enough to lure him away from Cleveland, not this time.
I know what your thinking… those are some good reasons to leave, and your right. But all of these reasons combined don’t match his reason for staying: legacy.
Why He will Stay:
No other player in NBA history has has had a career shaped more by perception and legacy than Lebron James. He, more than any of his peers past or present, is acutely aware of the legacy of his career, and how that shapes people’s perception of him. This is important because through the years of public endorsement and exposure Lebron has become a savvy businessman. He has set up a post-career life that will support him, his children, their children, and probably their, genetically modified, space colony living children too. The endorsements and business deals are huge, of course, but perhaps the most important part of his post-career success is the legacy he leaves behind.
Lebron might be chasing Jordan, but that race isn’t as simple as gobbling up rings like Pacman darting through a maze. It is a game of tact and skill, a three-dimensional chess match that I don’t believe Lebron knew he was playing until a few years into his stint with the Heat. Before he left for Miami he has stockpiled good will and GOAT credits, but the departure cost him quite a lot of this surplus. His legacy was fractured and the whispers that began his last few years in Cleveland-- he’s not a winner, he’s not competitive enough, he withers under pressure--- began to grow louder. His first Finals with the Heat was catastrophic, and it seemed that Lebron’s career legacy was set; he’d be the classic talent who could never win; the guy who could win every regular season game single handedly but didn’t have the secret stuff necessary for a postseason run.
He was the guy who created his own super team just so he could get a ring. Even if he won it was tarnished, a cop-out compared to the struggles of the great individuals who fought and clawed their way to a ring-- and then he couldn’t even win it.
Things were looking pretty bad, and frankly his interviews and handling of the situation wasn’t helping anything.
It wasn’t that Lebron was having meltdowns in interviews or anything drastic, but looking back it was obvious that Lebron didn’t yet understand the game he was playing. The Decision, while a good way to raise money for a charity, was a PR nightmare.Then, there was the ridiculous hype assembly where the Heat trotted out their new big three and Lebron guaranteed thirty championships. Okay, it wasn’t thirty, but it was still a bad look. They were putting pressure on themselves that they couldn’t meet. At best, they won because they took the easy way out. And worst, they took the easy way out and still lost. It was a catch-22 before the season even started.
Lebron was hit with a wave of negativity he had never faced before, and he responded with a mixed message that made it obvious he getting a lot of different advice on handling the situation. Eventually he seemed to settle on trying to embrace the villain. He became cocky at times, and in his tweets and interviews his regular charm and guinness was replaced with jaded dismissals and non-answers. This works for people like Kobe Bryant, but it did not work for Lebron for one simple reason: it wasn’t genuine.
Lebron isn’t the bad boy of the NBA, and it showed.
When Lebron and the Heat were embarrassed by the Dallas Mavericks, and the negative backlash reached critical mass, his chances of overcoming the shadow of Jordan’s legacy seeme laughable-- and then, Lebron did something unprecedented for him; he bowed out of the spotlight.
To go any farther at this point I think first that it is best to go back to the beginning of Lebron’s rise to fame. He was born in a poor single-parent home, raised by his single teen mom in Akron, Ohio. His father was gone from his life before he could ever even be a part of it. It was obvious pretty early on that there was something special about him, athletically speaking. By the time Lebron got to eighth grade he was a phenom, and high school brought with it awards, magazine covers, and fame and hype like we have never seen before. The Lebron chasing Jordan story began here, as people began rumbling as early as high school that he would someday become the next Michael Jordan. He went straight to the NBA, where he immediately lit the league on fire.
He was a media darling; a baby faced monster who was a star immedietly, and whose career seemed to promise the comparative shine of a supernova. Lebron was raised in a petri dish of social exposure, and that has turned him into a very unique case study. He is our first modern-day super star. Yes, Jordan and Kobe were superstars who were known all around the world-- but their spotlights were burning brightest before the era of social media and the non-stop access to superstars that is now commonplace. Stars of the past chose when they were in the limelight, and could split their time between personal space and spotlight. There was no chasm between the two for Lebron. His spotlight was on twenty-four seven, and he embraced it by interacting with fans through social media. Fans and media alike had exposure to nearly every aspect of his life, completely unfiltered.
It was a mutual relationship during these early years. Fame and the spotlight seemed to welcome Lebron like an old friend. Sure there were a few barbs here and there, friendly chides that perhaps caused a day or two of awkwardness, but they they never stayed distant for long. Then, the backlash after The Decision happened, and suddenly Lebron was in uncharted waters. His friend had betrayed him, spurned him for the opinions of doubters. Lebron had grown up in the media buzz, but he had never learned how to actually deal with it. It was like he had been goldilocks sleeping in a cabin of bears, only he had never realized they were more than gaudy decoration until the day they woke from their hibernation.
He was woefully unprepared.
Which brings us back to the summer after the dismal finals loss. It may have been a low point for Lebron’s career, but it was critical for what would happen next. Lebron took the summer off, staying away from social media, and avoiding public appearances the best a person of his stature can. When he came back to the spotlight, there was a noticeable change in him. It seemed he had taken the silence as an opportunity to rediscover his own voice. It seemed as if he had shut out the voices pulling him in a hundred directions, and in doing so stumbled upon his own. He no longer seemed off base, his message seemed focused and determined, and the failed bad boy image was replaced by a more mature version of his old Cleveland self that felt genuine again.
But even more important than this return to form, I think, was the realization that he needed to be purposeful about the way he shaped his legacy from then on out. I know after saying he became genuine again this is going to sound like a contradiction, but Lebron began to carefully construct every aspect of his image again. He was familiar with the media and spotlight-- born in it, molded by it-- but it took a year of being backhanded by it before he learned all of its tricks. A new resolve born from the ashes of defeat galvanized him as he began to carefully construct every tweet, instagram post, vine, and interview with one laser focused goal: putting him back on pace to step out, and then over Jordan’s legacy shadow.
As I said earlier, this sounds like a contradiction-- but it isn’t. It would be contradiction if the image Lebron was rebuilding wasn’t genuine. For instance, if he had continued the bad boy image and began to wear black leather trench coats to every game, or darkened sunglasses regardless of context. He didn’t do that, he didn’t have spats with the media, and he didn’t make grand statements about his greatness. The brilliance of Lebron’s move back towards greatness was the subtlety of it; he was humble, he was kind, and he was honest. This was genuine because it was who he always was, the only difference now was that he made sure every action he took was carefully molded, maximizing their purpose, each a little piece of a puzzle that added up to a grand whole.
With every day that passed with this new, consistent Lebron, he bought back some credibility to his GOAT argument. But an on point image wouldn’t be enough; he would have to take care of business on the court.
And he did. He rebounded, and the Heat won back to back championships. Lebron played wonderfully, and the mumblings that he lacked something the Jordan and the Kobes of the world had began to simmer down again. There were still naysayers who delegitimize his championships due to his joining up with D-Wade and Chris Bosh, but controversial as they might have been, two rings settled a lot of people’s concerns.
And sure, it is fun to speculate what the sports world might look like if Ray Allen hadn’t netted his three in game six vs. the Spurs, and the Heat had lost again, but he didn’t and we don’t live in that world. Sports is interesting because it is a microcosm of the real world. They give us a chance to see our ideals, or morals, and our wills played out in hour long bursts instead of the slow burn of real life, and like real life, the sports word is filled with a trillion what ifs? But we do not live in the world of hypotheticals, and Ray Allen did tie the game, forcing a game seven, and ultimately resulting in another Heat championship.
So let’s stick to the facts:
Lebron began to reclaim much of the ground he had lost on Jordan, and while two rings will never match 6, the eye test of Lebron’s greatness was hard to ignore by many.
Then, they lost again. This should have probably sealed it for Lebron, but happenstance and enough regained credibility helped him over ride this storm too. Lebron played well and his teammates didn’t against a team in the Spurs who were clicking at all cylinders. Many pointed to the loss as another reason Lebron would never overtake Jordan, but strangely, despite the fact that the Heat were looking to three peat and and had been in four straight finals, the loss didn’t feel catastrophic to most NBA circles (I’m sure the Heat weren’t crazy about it). The Spurs dismantled them so easily, despite a strong Finals by Lebron, that it felt like it would have been impressive if the Heat had somehow managed to win. It seemed, to most, that Lebron had regained enough credibility for him to get a pass for this one.
Things were beginning to look up for Lebron, but they were about to get much, much better. That playwrite I spoke of at the beginning of the piece got off his couch, took an Uber to his local Starbucks, and began writing a story so cliche that someday it will be turned into a Lifetime movie, with remarkable accuracy, and the reviews will call say its too cheesy.
Lebron left the Heat and returned to Cleveland.
I mentioned this sequel before, saying it wasn’t quite as big of a deal as the original Decision, and I think this is largely due to the fact that it wasn’t really controversial. It seemed to much of the NBA that the Heat’s reign was over, and while Lebron chasing titles to another stacked team would have surely been met with uproar, his return to Cleveland brought forth the sort of auhs and good feelings that a compilation of kittens seems to bring the internet. He was Cleveland’s lost boy returning home, and the NBA seemed enamored with it (again, except for the Heat… they were a little put out).
As Lebron turned the absolutely awful Cleveland team into a contender, a great power was rising up from the Western Conference. The Golden State Warriors had spent the past few years raising up the NBA latter, but no one predicted the leap to greatness they would take that season. Steph Curry became an undeniable superstar, Klay Thompson became the best second act since Dick Grayson himself, and a plethora of other skilled role players highlighted by the gold standard of swiss army knives that is Draymond Green suddenly coagulated to become an NBA power house rivaling the best teams in NBA history.
These Warriors would become a double edged sword for Lebron. On one end, they stood directly in his way for the NBA titles he needs, and on the other they became so good that they have crippled the effect that losing these titles has on Lebron. This duality makes them the catalyst for the argument I am laying out.
So Lebron takes Cleveland to the playoffs, but for the third time in a row the happenstance storm brings lightning down on the James, striking him, and bringing forth an injury plagued playoffs that saw them losing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. They faced the upstart and seemingly unstoppable Warriors team for the championship. Without his star teammates, no one expected much from Cleveland going into the Finals...and in the end, they lost-- but Lebron put up a stats line rivaling a Monstar in Looney Toons, and there was mublings about him being the first Finals MVP on a losing team since The Logo did it decades ago. For the second year in a row Lebron made it to the finals and lost, but because of his play and because of their greatness he seemed to get a pass. During this time his play in the playoffs was so impressive that the knock on his postseason game began to lose much of its credibility.
If that Finals appearance had been it, it would have been enough from the screen write. But he was working on dangerous levels of caffeine induced cheese, and so he decided why not have Lebron face a record setting Warriors team looking to repeat, have Cleveland fall down 3-1, and then have Lebron will his team back to a victory. Yes, this time he had his star teammates back to help him, and heroics from Kyrie Irving sealed it in the end, but Lebron’s statline of 30 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks per game were objectively ridiculous, and his chase down block of Andre Igodala has already gone down in NBA lore.
Lebron brought a ring back to Cleveland, and his his credibility and legacy grew exponentially. He would return to yet another Finals next year, this time facing the new look Warriors with the addition of former MVP and professional cold blooded scorer Kevin Durant. Lebron and company would lose, despite another superhuman stat-line from Lebron. This year was the same story-- but magnified. Lebron’s stats are ridiculous, but the rest of his team looked largely overwhelmed in what would be a Warriors sweep. That should have been embarrassing, and to the harshest of Lebron’s critics it was the final nail in the coffin (imagine them sitting at their computer, aging Jordan jersey clinging to them a little tighter than it used to, as they troll the internet with their caps lock posts about Lebron’s finals record). But to most NBA fans, it hardly seemed to matter.
Lebron’s masterful handling of his image, his gaudy stats, and the meteoric rise of the Warriors has shifted the skew of people’s view on the chase for Jordan. Legacy, after all is a subjective argument that is all about perception, and Lebron’s tactful image rehab, and the sheer greatness of the Warriors has created a world where Lebron doesn’t have to win to… well, win.
Those are hard words to choke down for an avid Kobe fan, but ignoring the truth doesn’t make it less true.
Lebron’s battle to supplant Jordan begins and ends with how people weight his finals appearances. There had been a time when they seemed to be his doom, but now they seem to be his smoking gun.
And that is what brings me to my long winded final point:
Lebron won’t leave, because he can’t. He has managed to find the perfect storm. He can lose, and lose, and lose, and as long as he puts up out of this world stats, and the Warriors continue to look unflappable, he will continue to get a pass for all of these losses. The story is no longer why can’t he win, it is IF Lebron can’t do it, who could?
Lebron, in his puppet master control of his personal image, is acutely aware of this fact. Yes, he grumbles and puts pressure on Cleveland: he is, after all, still a competitor, and if given the choice he would prefer to win-- but it isn’t his end game. He doesn’t have to win anymore, he just had to lose the right way. But he will never leave.
His legacy wouldn’t allow it.
If he were to leave now, after returning to Cleveland, we would have a trilogy of Decisions that would in the end bury Lebron. He managed to revarnish the spots on his legacy that had been so badly worn down after the first Decision by reclaiming his image, and losing valiantly. If he was to go to another team, the same scenario would repeat-- this time, with scratches too deep to shine away. He would likely lose, again. If he did however go to a team-- like say, the Rockets-- and he managed to beat the Warriors and add one more title the story wouldn’t be about him closing the number gap between he and Jordan, it would be about him taking the easy way out again.
His legacy as a title chaser, so meticulously chipped away in the past few years, would not just be reestablished, it would be cemented.
And yes, there are tons of arguments still against Lebron’s case, ranging from the NBA’s babying of him, his title chasing, or simply personal preference. He is polarizing, like many sports figures are, and he will never change everyone’s minds-- but he doesn’t have to. He just has to change a majority.
As it stands his legacy is a 4 time MVP and 14 time NBA All-Star with three titles to his name. He is the brave knight who faced off against the fiercest team in NBA history four (or more) times, and managed once, to drop them to their knees. He is the boy who grew up in Akron and brought his city their first championship in decades, and for many, in the end, that just might be enough.
I think Lebron thinks so.
So yes, I think the rumors will continue. I think Lebron will even take meetings with other teams-- or at the very least, he will talk to him. It is his right as a free agent, and it is his way of putting pressure on Cleveland to not stay pat-- he does, after all, need to keep making it to Finals and Boston is beginning to look like a tough hill to climb. In the end though, I expect Lebron to sign another one year max contract deal-- his way of continuing the aforementioned pressure, and maximizing his income each year-- and I expect Cleveland to make a splash in FA that in the end won’t be enough to overcome the Western Conference champion.
Then I expect to hear the same meaningless buzz of his impending departure next year.
.... but, admittedly, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the NBA and I don’t know Lebron or anyone in his inner circle personally. I could wake up one day in the summer transplanted in to some bizarro world where Lebron is a Buck, or a Knick, or a Spur, or (enter NBA team) but if I had to bet the house on what he decides I would feel pretty safe in my guess that Cleveland’s prized son sticks to the beaches of Eerie.
It’s the only chance he’s got at shaking number twenty-three off of his back.
LA is Editor-in-Chief and Head Writer at Lot 10 Underground. He is an avid Eagles fan and a weary Lakers one. He grew up sneaking through the halls of Hogwarts after dark with Harry and his more talented friends, stumbling along the dark walls of Rock Tunnel in Pokemon Red, storming through flood riddled ships with Master Chief, and questioning Goku's parenting techniques in DBZ. If you'd like to contact him, you can try an owl, but he prefers e-mail.