- On and off the court, nobody anticipates like LeBron James. This summer's NBA free agency provides a chance for him to stay in Cleveland and prove that again.
What should LeBron James do? The basketball geeks among us would argue for the Lakers. They want to see LeBron combine with Kawhi Leonard and maybe Paul George, and see if that group can beat the Warriors. James and the Cavaliers have banged their heads into that Golden State wall enough—they won once, but without Kyrie Irving, how can they win again? It’s time to go to L.A., try to go around the wall instead of through it, and see what happens. James is the best player in the world. He should pursue his best chance to win championships.
This argument is absolutely logical.
And yet: I think James should stay in Cleveland.
James can do whatever he wants, of course—and he has shown that he is keenly aware of this. But he has also shown a strong willingness to buck convention. He went to Miami when most people wanted him to stay in Cleveland. He went back to Cleveland when most people expected him to stay in Miami. He won championships in both places, made eight straight Finals, and both of those moves look brilliant now.
But bucking convention now does not mean signing with the Lakers. It does not mean chasing the Warriors. That’s what everybody expects him to do. As James thinks about the rest of his career, he would be wise to consider what he did this spring.
James led the Cavaliers to the Finals again, of course, but he did something else: He made the last few critics of his game look like idiots, and he showed that winning a championship does not prove you are the best player in the world. Kevin Durant won the title and Finals MVP. James Harden won the regular-season MVP award. They are both incredible players. But there was no doubt this spring that James is superior to both. He didn’t need another ring to prove it. His effort to get it was enough.
If James stays in Cleveland, he may not win another championship. But he will show that he is completely secure about who he is and what he has achieved.
When it comes to legacy—a silly word that, as far as I can tell, means “what we think about a guy”—there are now two common opinions about James:
1. He is the best player of this era, but not as great as Michael Jordan.
2. He is better than Jordan was.
I’m not going to debate that today. I won’t even offer an opinion. I will just say: I think you subscribe to Belief No. 1 or Belief No. 2 (or, blissfully, you don’t care), and nothing James does the rest of his career will change your mind.
If James goes to the Lakers and wins four championships—giving him seven, one more than Jordan—the MJ fans will not just say, “OK, LeBron wins. Let’s get some lunch.” They will say LeBron had to bounce around the league to do it, that Michael never lost in the Finals, that the NBA was better in MJ’s day, etc., etc. Then they will get some lunch.
The LeBron-MJ debate is not settled, but it’s over. You’re on one side or the other. He can’t convince Jordan fans he is better. They have their God. They don’t want to worship another.
If he stays in Cleveland, James makes a statement we don’t get to tell him how he stacks up. He will assess himself, thank you. He has seen what happened to Durant in Golden State—he won two titles, but intelligent people realize he was a brilliant player before and after he went to Golden State. He is just on a better team now.
James should not stay in Cleveland simply to make that statement. But making that statement allows him to do what, I suspect, he really wants to do in the first place: stay home. As he said recently, his kids know Northeast Ohio as home. So much of his charity work is based in that area. Yes, he has a house in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean L.A. is home. He will never be as beloved in Southern California as he is in Cleveland. He will never be as beloved in Southern California as Kobe Bryant is.
James has a deep interest in connecting with people. You see it in his entertainment platforms (movies, the Uninterrupted Network, his social-media feeds) and in his answers to questions about politics or music. He also likes being seen as a leader, not a follower. Eight years ago, he set a trend by forming a superteam in Miami. Now, he can go his own way by eschewing the chance to create a superteam and staying put.
Does LeBron see this? We will find out soon enough. But I think of a story that former Cavs general manager David Griffin loves to tell. It was late in a playoff game against the Toronto Raptors. Toronto coach Dwane Casey called timeout. As the Raptors went back on the floor, Toronto’s Patrick Patterson lined up in the wrong spot. He didn’t realize it, but LeBron did. James told Patterson where he was supposed to be, then told him the play the Raptors would run.
On and off the court, nobody anticipates like LeBron James.
This is a chance to prove that again. If James goes to the Lakers, then in the next year or two, he may have a better shot at winning a title. But if he stays home, then in 20 years, he will be happy he did.