LOS ANGELES -- When LeBron James peels off the headband for the last time, he will be able to coach if he wants to do that. He will be able to buy part of a team, if he wants to do that, and run it, if he wants to do that. He will be able to head an agency, if he wants to do that, or work for the union, if he wants to do that. He will be able to fund movies and film commercials and earn untold sums. He’ll presumably have three decades or so to do it all.
But a man just gets a sliver of time to be the best basketball player in the world, and if James needed a reminder, he only had to look across the Staples Center court Thursday night. Kobe Bryant used to be that man and now he is cold-calling corporate leaders to discuss retirement options. Coaching? Running a team? Funding a start-up? Those are the jobs people take when they have to give up the best job of all. Those are the jobs they take when they can’t be the best basketball player in the world anymore.
James may know strategy better than some coaches and he may know talent better than some general managers. His mind is a powerful force. But his game is right when that mind is clear.
“The only time he ever gets in trouble,” said one of James’ former coaches, “is when there’s so much going on up there.”
In the NBA, the relationships between superstars and their franchises are always complex because the superstars drive the business. They’re partners. The partnership between James and the Cavaliers was bound to be cloudier than others because his presence did more than drive the business. He transformed it. He’s the reason for Kevin Love. He’s the reason for many of the reserves. His gravity has provided great influence, but it hasn’t necessary helped him. Being the best player is taxing enough. Throw in whatever other responsibilities James is assuming and the onus can become untenable.
“He’s the best,” the coach said, “when he just goes out there with his guys and plays.”
On Thursday morning inside UCLA’s Men’s Gym, James slung an arm around Kevin Love’s shoulders and guided him to halfcourt. He carried on an animated conversation, then called over Kyrie Irving and continued it. He pointed at both of them, one after the other. Maybe, in the course of a six-month season, the exchange meant nothing. Maybe, because the Cavaliers are so desperate for any hint of chemistry, it only seemed to mean something. Or maybe it really did mean something. The same went for the Cavs' 109-102 win over the Lakers at Staples on Thursday night. They didn’t remotely resemble title contenders, but James played loose -- he yapped with Bryant and laughed at himself on his way to 36 points -- and Love played hurt, grabbing his back and grimacing through pain on the way to 17.
Love suffered his third bout with back spasms right before pregame introductions and the Cavaliers considered scratching him. But they’d dropped six in a row and Love had been benched for the fourth quarter Tuesday in Phoenix.
“Whatever you’ve got,” James told Love. “Whatever you can give.”
When Love took a fourth-quarter charge on Jeremy Lin, he lay flat on the court, seemingly unable to move. James joked that he needed to call the ambulance. But James pulled him up, along with Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, and praised him afterward in stronger terms than he’s used before.
“There are moments in a season you know you’re taking a step forward,” James said. “As a team that was a huge step forward.”
While he spoke, Love hobbled out of the locker room, hurting but grinning. Again, the Cavs were trying to find a touchstone, clinging to anything that resembled one.
Forty games into this season, it’s appropriate that the Cavaliers are in Los Angeles because they can no longer soothe themselves with comparisons to the 2010-11 Heat. They must instead ward off comparisons to another supposed super team, the 2012-13 Lakers, who were only six games worse at this stage. The collateral damage from that season was Dwight Howard, who bolted as a free agent, and the stakes for the Cavs are similar. Love has not been incorporated into the offense. He is not winning. And he obviously does not have a long connection to Cleveland. He said this week he plans to opt into his contract for next year, but it was hard to know what to make of that comment because under the Collective Bargaining Agreement he’d be better positioned to opt out and re-sign.
“I have to do what’s asked of me and play better,” Love said. “I’m just trying to figure it out at this point.”
The club that might be best positioned to benefit from the Cavaliers' crisis is the one they faced Thursday. Love’s dad was a Laker, his uncle was a Beach Boy and his grandmother lived on the sands of Orange County during the Great Depression. He was born in Santa Monica, went to UCLA and still spends his off-season in the city. The Lakers will not be able to offer Love anywhere near the talent base the Cavs can, but they’ll have something else to dangle: the chance to be the first one in on a marquee team’s massive rebuilding project, with cap space to attract others. Whoever nabs that carrot will automatically be granted goodwill that normally takes years to accumulate.
Given some of his defensive limitations, Love may not be everything the Cavaliers hoped, but with their salary cap situation they would not be able to replace him. They have 40 games to ingratiate him, and if David Blatt can’t do it, James must. He does not necessarily have to lead through the grand statement or the dramatic gesture. He can simply walk on the court, tilt the defense in his direction and exploit it for the benefit of his teammates. That, plus the winning, is why most of the league wants to play with him. It’s why Love wanted to play with him.
Before shootaround Thursday, on Love’s old campus where he still joins summer pickup runs, he used that familiar descriptor which always seems to follow James’ name: best player in the world. It gets repeated so often, perhaps it has lost some significance. But it’s hard to keep that title and harder still while assuming other roles. Whatever they are, they can wait. He’s got the best position there is.