LeBron James is probably the most powerful athlete we've ever seen in sports—certainly in basketball. His second run in Cleveland began when he went back to the owner who'd vilified him to local and national fans. Then he forced that owner to pay him max money and demanded annual opt-outs that would guarantee him leverage over the owner's decision-making.
Also: LeBron engineered the Kevin Love deal on the way back to town, then made sure he signed a max extension a year later. That same summer, he made sure that ImanShumpert and Tristan Thompson were paid exactly what they'd command on the open market—maybe more—and a year later he did the same with J.R. Smith. He's refused to take a penny less than the max salary for himself, and he's warned fellow superstars against making similar sacrifices. The value of the Cavs has skyrocketed since James returned, and in return, Cleveland has paid the luxury tax every year he's been there. It's been a phase of his career that's helped bring his impact on the league into focus.
When he left for Miami, it was the most audacious free agency decision the NBA had ever seen. When it worked, he established a new paradigm for player movement. In the LeBron era, part of being a superstar meant putting yourself in a position to succeed. Other stars followed suit, and they had to, really, because that was the only chance at beating LeBron.
Then, when he returned to Cleveland and made that work—with some help from Draymond Green—he became bulletproof. He saw the Heat's window closing, he jumped to Cleveland, created a new title window with the Cavs, and he won all over again. It was a masterful career move that silenced every critic he ever had. Along the way he continued building a now-thriving sports agency with Rich Paul and made himself the most recognizable athlete of a generation.
To put LeBron's power in perspective, consider something Jerry Reinsdorf said during the early years of the Bulls dynasty, after Michael Jordan lashed out at Jerry Krause when a trade fell through. "Michael Jordan," Reinsodorf said, "is undoubtedly the greatest player that ever lived. He's probably one of the three greatest competitors of all-time in any sport, the other two being Jake LaMotta and Muhammad Ali. Guys you had to kill to beat. Michael's like that. But he's still a player and, quite frankly, players don't know a whole lot about coaching and they don't know a whole lot about what it takes to make a deal. If Michael knew what we tried to accomplish and the pitfalls we ran into [trying to obtain Walter Davis], he probably wouldn't feel as frustrated. But he doesn't, and we can't sit and explain to every player player what moves we are trying to make. And we cannot single out one player and make him a consultant to the general manager."
Can you imagine any coach or GM saying that about LeBron today? Or any superstar? Most of today's franchise players are not only consulted regarding personnel decisions, but LeBron's made it unthinkable for teams to conduct business any other way. And with respect to LeBron, specifically, the last time an executive used the media to get tough with the best player in the NBA, the Heat dynasty was over within 30 days.
Altogether, LeBron established a new meta-game for superstars and played it better than anyone could've imagined. This will be his legacy when he retires. His approach was ground-breaking, he made the entire league more entertaining than it's ever been, and many of the most dramatic moves of the modern era were a direct response to his dominance.
Look at that list of accomplishments and you'll see that LeBron has earned the benefit of the doubt, but this Cavs season has gone off the rails. Every day there's a new report of some amazingly dysfunctional episode, and it'll probably continue this way at least through the trade deadline. Even if Cleveland can salvage this season with another Finals trip, the outlook doesn't look great going forward. Meanwhile, LeBron's got at least another five years left in his career. So... now what?
There's room to wonder about what the Cavs will do this season—George Hill? DeAndre Jordan?—and there's room to wonder about where LeBron could go next summer—L.A.? San Antonio? Houston?—but those answers are unknowable at the moment. The one thing that's becoming clear is that the story of LeBron's power is changing. As the Cavs struggles come into focus, there's a common thread that runs throughout every story.
Players like Thompson and Smith are tough to trade because LeBron made sure they were given huge contracts. The Cavs are full of slow, offense-first veterans like Channing Frye and Kyle Korver because those are the short-term solutions LeBron's demanded every year. They have Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder because Kyrie Irving asked for a trade, but Kyrie wanted to leave, at least in part, because he was tired of being treated like a pawn in LeBron's never-ending chess game of subtweets and trade rumors. And speaking of rumors, everyone on this year's teams has spent the entire season knowing that everything could change this summer, a fact that's pretty clearly wearing on half the roster.
It really shouldn't be surprising that the Cavs are struggling in this context, and while many of LeBron's tactics have been laudable and understandable, his role in the problems is undeniable. LeBron makes life much simpler for a team on the court, but he makes everything else more complicated. His presence guarantees more scrutiny for players and management, and he demands more urgency, too. It's a trade-off that has always been absolutely worth the trouble, but the more mortal LeBron becomes, the trickier the calculus gets for any team he's on.
Watching the Cavs this week, I'm less curious about what they do the rest of this season, and more interested in whether LeBron changes his approach as his career unfolds. Because of his size, power, and intelligence, his game should age fantastically. Some of the meta-game tactics may not play as well as the years pass.
If he leaves Cleveland this summer, will he wield the same kind of power with his next team? Kobe Bryant took all kinds of criticism for trying to do everything himself, but what happens if LeBron goes to L.A. and starts pushing for them to trade Brandon Ingram for veterans who can push the Warriors to six games instead of five? Isn't that corrosive in its own right? Will there ever be a LeBron team that's not constantly engulfed in trade rumors? How will it affect his career if none of these tactics lead to another title?
Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are in the middle of their prime and not going anywhere. They are Shaq and Kobe for the modern era. There's no guarantee that this problem will get any easier to solve if LeBron's on the Lakers next year. And if the past 10 years were the story of the most powerful professional athlete the NBA has ever seen, it's beginning to look like the next few years could be the story of LeBron James slowly realizing that even his power has limits. Or if not the next few years, then—[checks Cavs defensive rating]—certainly the next few months.