What’s Next for LeBron James?

LeBron James Cavs Championship Parade
Getty Images/WFNY Illustration

The Cleveland Cavaliers are set to receive their rings and officially begin defending their NBA Championship in just one week’s time. While the Indians are in the throes of the MLB Playoffs and the Browns are full throttle on their way to Tanksville, WFNY will take the next several days to preview the storylines that surround the Wine and Gold.

A funny thing happens when a team ends a city’s 52-year championship drought in mainstream professional sports:1 Food tastes better, cold beverages feel more refreshing, the sun shines brighter, people act friendlier, and even water seems … waterier, if that’s possible.2 When the Cavaliers reversed the 52-year misfortunes of Cleveland by defeating a juggernaut team against odds no other champion had ever overcome in the final act, la résiliation if you will, of the NBA season, they not only put a temporal barrier between a half-century of torment and a new age of prosperity, but they put the pep in your pizza’s pepperoni, and the hop in your ale’s hops.

With the Cleveland Indians stalking the Red Sox for the kill before Game 2 of the ALDS, a beautiful thing happened. The Progressive Field camera operators in their infinite wisdom put the crew of Cleveland Cavaliers — attending the game and decked out in Tribe gear — on the stadium big screen, provoking an obnoxiously exuberant action fit only for a birthday party of nine-year-olds all jacked up on Mountain Dew and ice cream cake, or a collection of athletes still on their championship tour. The clip (below) ends with LeBron James giggling like a schoolgirl, multiple players flexing their muscles with faux machismo, and Channing Frye apparently groping/molesting one or more of his teammates.

The moment was the intersection of the Cavaliers and their fans basking in the reflected glow from the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and the Indians using the byproducts of that success to propel their own confidence bordering on hubris. It was a poignant moment, one that made me proclaim, “I want to freeze this moment of Cleveland and keep it this way forever and ever and ever and ever.”

All of this to say … hasn’t this Indians playoff run been a hell of a lot of fun? It hasn’t been the fun tinged with panic, dread, and horror like in years past, but pure, unadulterated fun. Sure there’s been anxiety (it is playoff baseball, after all), but nothing resembling the paralysis, the fear-induced catatonia felt in the decades prior.3 For Cleveland sports fans, doesn’t it feel like we’re playing with house money? We can lose this hand, sure, but we’ve already hit the jackpot. And if it feels like that to us as fans, what must it feel like for LeBron James, the man entrusted with bringing this revolution about since before he could legally buy firecrackers? Hold that thought.

Before we get to what’s next for LeBron James post-parade, let’s reflect for a moment on what James has already accomplished in his career. Even uneducated NBA fans are familiar with the four league MVP awards, the three championships, the six consecutive NBA Finals appearances,4 and the one super-duper championship he’ll be credited with for winning a championship in Cleveland, where hopes and dreams long went to die.

But what’s maybe less obvious is how James has endured an extraordinary workload in the last several seasons, the cost of going to six straight NBA Finals. LeBron James already has the fourth most lifetime minutes played in the NBA Playoffs.5 Only Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant have played more minutes in the playoffs, and James will likely have the most career playoff minutes of anyone within two seasons. James is already ranked No. 42 in career regular season minutes played, and has played more minutes than any other recorded player before age 32 in both the regular season and the playoffs.

What is a fully unburdened James capable of?

So there’s a lot of wear on the tread of those Akron-rubber tires. Having accomplished the loftiest goal of his career, how will James manage his body and playing time going forward, especially in the regular season? Will he rest every fifth game? Can James placate his competitiveness by playing only 30 minutes per game? Or is James simply the most durable basketball player ever, and able to maintain this pace for the next 5-to-10 years thanks to miracles of modern science? Can James afford to continue paying the massive minutes tax of sustained playoff success?

But with that staggering minutes load comes staggering production, as James is already one of the most statistically prolific players in NBA history, with whole another phase of his career likely remaining. In the regular season, James is already ranked eighth in win shares, 13th in points, 18th in assists, and 109th in rebounds. In the playoffs, James already has the most win shares (passing Michael Jordan last season), and is ranked fourth in points, ninth in rebounds, and third in assists. According to win shares, he has three of the top 10 playoff performances ever. Since he entered the league, James has more points, rebounds, and assists in the playoffs than eight franchises, including the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks, proving again that LeFranchise is a team unto himself.6

James is already in elite company when it comes to “all-around best players.” He is one of four players in NBA history to average 25/5/5 per game — the other three being Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West — and has joined Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan as the only players to have 5,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists in the playoffs. James’ all-around prowess on the court and the greats he could soon surpass are summarized in the chart below, which shows James and the only other nine players to have 25,000 points, 5000 rebounds, and 5000 assists in their careers, how they compare to one another in several statistical categories, and a projection of where LeBron James could conceivably be in five-to-eight years.7


A few things stick out to me in that chart:

1. Kareem. The man was an absolute statistical monster. We all marveled at what Tim Duncan was doing the last few seasons (rightfully so), but we also forget that Kareem averaged 23 points per game at age 38, and played until he was 41 in a time when the science of health was basically prehistoric compared to today.

2. Tim Duncan is surprisingly not on the list (he’s 700 assists short).

3. Let’s not forget how great Karl Malone and John Havlicek (the Buckeye great from Martins Ferry) were, as we tend to overlook their games beyond their scoring abilities.

4. Jerry West is the only point guard on the list.8

5. It’s already fair to say that James and Oscar Robertson are the best passers who were not guards in NBA history. Look at the Big O’s assist numbers! His assist numbers dwarf everyone else in the 25k/5k/5k Club.

6. It’s realistic for James to reach the second most win shares and have the second highest sum of points, rebounds, and assists by the time he retires.

So with that crash course in James’ historic workload and the stakes of the next few seasons, let’s circle back to the beginning, and rejoin our heroes acting goofy at the Indians game. LeBron James was already one of the most decorated and statistically productive athletes in American professional sports, and now he’s captured the one accomplishment that not only eluded him for years, but threatened to diminish his entire career. Since James was 17 years old, people from all over the country heaped colossal, delusional expectations on his shoulders that he could deliver on some impossible errand and complete some storybook fable. James managed to reach the pinnacle of his sport — repeatedly — with that 800-pound (and ever-growing) gorilla on his back. Now, with a block, a shot, and a poof!, that gorilla is gone.

James is going to start a new phase of his career beginning with this season — either James 3.0 or 4.0, depending on how you want to divide the rest of his career. Plenty has been written about how James will defer more, allowing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to do much of the driving during the regular season. But there’s an equally important point to be made: What is a fully unburdened James capable of? Having slain the unkillable beast of a Cleveland championship, James seems imbued with more confidence, more comfort, and more serenity than he’s ever had in his career. His “legacy” secure, James is now completely at ease for the first time in his career, and that has to be a frightening notion for the league.

Most people will probably assume that James will be in the infamous “chill mode” or cruise control or whatever you’d like to call it all season, only to emerge in the playoffs, and that will probably be true to an extent. But whereas there would be a panic in 2014 and 2015 whenever the Cavs dropped three games that would require James to take the wheel, James is now captain of a team that knows itself and knows its capabilities. Unlike Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or even Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, the best success of James’ career has come when he let the game of basketball come to him, instead of imposing his will on the game. What will happen when James completely surrenders to the ebbs and flows of an 82-game season? I’m envisioning a James, completely exorcised of his demons, willing to let the game to come to him in a way we’ve seldom seen before.

Expect more one-handed crosscourt touch passes and in-game dunk clinics and two-handed overhead 30-foot bounce passes and outlet passes from Kevin Love when James leaks out early. Expect a free-wheeling and freestyling James, a James completely liberated from expectations, and a James unshackled from a great mental weight.

Expect LeBron James to have more fun on the court than we’ve ever seen before. Now that the Cavs have won, James is no longer chasing the next game or the next point; he’s only chasing history.

Unbound from the game-to-game drudgery, what will James create when he’s able to see the full picture? Whereas the metaphor for James’ versatility so far in his career has been the queen on a chessboard, I’m expecting to finally see the chess master that moves all the other pieces. The question will be: Can the rest of the NBA keep him in check?

  1. My deepest apologies to the Cleveland Crunch and Lake Erie Monsters for not receiving credit for their contributions to Cleveland professional sports history. []
  2. Also, I think the word is “wetter” or, just to make readers cringe, “moister.” []
  3. It probably also helps that they’ve been winning. []
  4. A feat duplicative of only Bill Russell and his legendary Celtics teams. []
  5. Unless otherwise stated, all stats are via []
  6. The other teams are New Orleans (Hornets/Pelicans), the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sacramento Kings, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Charlotte (Bobcats/Hornets). []
  7. The projection assumes James is 90 percent as productive as his career averages, which is comparable to the production levels of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett through several of their post-age 31 seasons, though their career trajectories varied. It’s an imperfect approximation, and is probably better as looking a continuum of the next five-to-eight years, depending on how long James’ career lasts and how high his productivity remains. []
  8. West often had more of a two-guard role, but he’s the only one who ever played point guard on the list, unless you count James’ penchant for handling the ball being a “point guard.” []