Cavaliers

What’s important to LeBron James

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

If you’re a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, July 8, 2010, and July 11, 2014, are likely two touchstone dates–we remember exactly where we were when LeBron James announced that he was heading to South Beach for the former, and subsequently coming home for the latter. In the coming days, James will be adding a third date to the list, but where he ultimately ends up is anyone’s guess.

Before we look at what may be weighing heavily in LeBron’s mind as he looks forward towards his future, it’s important to take a look backward to try and gaze a little into the psyche of Cleveland’s greatest basketball player. Times changed, and so did his decisions.

What weighed more to LeBron from year-to-year varies in importance, whether it was family at the top of the list (probably always), championship, personal goals, pressure, personnel, it’s hard to say. LeBron has always kept his choices close to the vest, and while there have been many reporters that have professed to “being in the know,” there haven’t been leaks, only guesses.

2010

LeBron has stated many times that he felt like he had to leave in 2010, for a variety of reasons. While he always felt like he would eventually come back home to Cleveland, he compared his move to Miami to a four-year college stay.

Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.1

James was single at the time, but only in the “not-married” sense of the word. LeBron and Savannah Brinson had been together since high school, and already had two sons; LeBron Jr. was six, and Bryce was three. Both were young enough that a move wouldn’t cause any sort of earth-shattering changes to their lives. Savannah didn’t want to move to Miami at the time, as she stated in an interview in August after the decision, but was always supportive of any decision LeBron made.

Professionally, LeBron was already considered the best player in the NBA by many. He had won back-to-back MVP awards, and while he had only been to one NBA Finals, it was only a matter of time. The true key to his on-the-court success would be the team placed around him…and nobody wanted to come to Cleveland. LeBron even tried to bring Chris Bosh to Cleveland in 2010, but Bosh laughed it off and let James know that was “never going to happen.”

It’s clear that LeBron wanted to make a Man’s decision. At 25, he wanted to strike out on his own, and while he was slowing becoming savvy to the world around him, he hadn’t “lived life” outside of Northeast Ohio. He wanted to play with his friend in DWade, and after trying to recruit the likes of Michael Redd, Joe Johnson and Bosh, playing with three superstars, under Pat Riley’s watch probably wasn’t a bad thing either. You see, in 2010, LeBron realized that he had better start winning championships if he was ever going to be considered a great player. Cleveland just couldn’t put together that team…Miami could…and the national pundits were already mentioned LeBron’s legacy.

2014

LeBron was coming off four years of NBA Finals trips, two NBA Championships, two more MVP awards, and NBA Finals MVPs. Miami’s roster was in flux with Chris Bosh’s injury issues putting his future in doubt, a team growing old, with bulky contracts and a Team President in Riley who was busy throwing his ego all over the place. But I’m not sure anyone thought that LeBron was going to come home until Joe Lull began tracking Dan Gilbert’s plane.

I think the Heat could have kept LeBron had certain cards been played differently in the previous year or two, but as the Heat was losing the 2014 finals, the writing really was on the wall. LeBron had played the bad guy, had alienated the fans in Cleveland, and they alienated him back. But 2014 had been a year of healing for the Cavs fans and LeBron, which I’ll get into in a second.

LeBron almost needed to return to Cleveland to complete a process that in his mind…in everyone’s minds…needed to be completed. He wanted to win a championship for his hometown team…that much was clear.

But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.2

James married Savannah in 2011, and she was pregnant with their daughter Zhuri at the time. LeBron noted on several occasions that both Savannah and his mother Gloria didn’t want to move back to South Beach, but Savannah herself stirred up waves in late June when she made this interesting Instagram post, opening up Pandora’s Box:

Home sweet home!! The countdown is real! #330

A post shared by @ mrs_savannahrj on

I only post that because while LeBron’s wife seemed to have grown to love Miami, loving Akron was always a thing, and will always be a thing. Either way, you can see here that there was a personal draw for LeBron to come home, both with regards to smoothing things over professionally and with regards to this amazing relationship he’s always had with Akron.

Beyond that, the Cavs had Kyrie Irving, and a first-round pick in which the Cavs could utilize to bring another star to the Cavs to continue a championship ride. Miami couldn’t do that. Cleveland or Miami? The choice was easy.

2018

Where does that leave LeBron in 2018? WFNY’s Andrew Schnitkey wrote a fantastic article yesterday discussing this very thing. The Cavs made the finals four years in a row, and won a championship in his second year home. While I think LeBron always believes his team can win a championship, as Andrew noted, this likely played a part in where LeBron stands today.

No way did LeBron think the Cavs would make the Finals his first season back. And never did he dream at that time they would win the Championship in his second season back. That accelerated timeline may be the thing that changed everything the most. Suddenly LeBron’s role changed from team building to competing for Championships, and with that, his goals changed. No longer was it about just trying to get one for Cleveland. Now, it was about legacy.

Legacy.

Going forward, LeBron James will likely take into account all of the same factors that he has in the past, but with the fresh perspective of a 33-year old who has lived as a son, a father, a husband, a prodigy, a hometown hero, a Miami villain, a returning savior, a player representative, a mentor, a media giant, and about 100 other “titles” that most of us will never understand. The 25-year old LeBron was still figuring it out. The 29-year old LeBron was tying it all together. The 33-year old LeBron is now standing at the peak of the NBA mountain.

What will help shape his decision?

Family

Let’s just get this out of the way right now, LeBron James as a singular entity can do whatever he wants, and still make sure that his family can be content and happy, wherever they want to live. I know most of you are facepalming right now…”No shit Jim,” but hear me out. Should LeBron’s family want to move, then the decision is easy, they move. But should LeBron’s family want to stay, this doesn’t necessarily mean LeBron stays too. He probably does. I’d say the chances are 98% to 2% that he’d play in another city if they want to stay, but it’s really not that hard for a player of LeBron’s means to be in Akron a lot. They do have these things called planes (ask Joe Lull), and he can fly home and still see his family often. No, it’s not optimal, but there isn’t an NBA team in the league that wouldn’t figure this out for the James family.

But if you’re to believe that LeBron wants even more day-to-day, than obviously, the where becomes really important. As we’ve seen in the past, Savannah supports LeBron in his decisions and is a big part of them. This is the first legit decision that will factor in the kids and their friends, and their future in a major way.

Per LeBron in his post-NBA Finals press conference:

“I have no idea at this point. The one thing that I’ve always done is consider my family, understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age,” James said, per CBSsports.com.

“They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this four years ago. I got a teenage boy, a pre-teen and a little girl right now that wasn’t around as well. So sitting down and considering everything, my family is a huge part of whatever I’ve decided to do in my career, and they’ll continue to be that. So I don’t have an answer for you right now as far as that.”

Bronny is about to start eighth grade at Old Trail School, where he helped his team win a championship earlier this year. Bryce also attends Old Trail, and it’s clear that their path is leading them straight to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where LeBron himself attended. What does LeBron James think about his alma mater? Earlier this year, his alma mater won their second state championship in a row, and LeBron was geeked out.

LeBron was also following on twitter, rolling through this chain, acknowledging the coaches and players.

As Andrew noted the James’ family love for Akron, this has always carried to the school the LeBron attended. I can’t imagine that this isn’t at play in LeBron’s decision. Of course, there are schools like this in every city that LeBron is interested in, but in the end, none of the said schools are going to carry the weight that St. Vincent-St. Mary’s carries with it. They win titles, they’re in Bron’s hometown, and watching your kids walk down your path is a big thing for LeBron.

If they want to stay, I’m not sure how much longer the conversation goes with regards to the family. The only question then is whether or not the conversation continues. Does LeBron stay, or does he head to another city, and fly a lot more?

I don’t think so. He loves watching his kids play. His daughter is only three. It seems like LeBron has turned into the consummate family man, or been one the whole time. I don’t know LeBron, obviously, but it certainly seems like this is a big deal.

The Contract

The Cleveland Cavaliers can offer LeBron James the biggest contract in the history of the NBA, and he’s 33-years old. The Cavs can offer LeBron a five-year, $205-$209 million deal, while in free agency, he can only be offered a four-year, $150 million deal. Now obviously, there are two or three factors here, including the fact that the Cavs can sign and trade LeBron, or that he may not want to sign a long-term deal, instead, mortgaging each team he signs with by continuing his one-year deals for the foreseeable future.

But guys, he’s 33 years old. While he’s 100% healthy right now, how long are we to expect this to happen? While I can confidently say LeBron is a freak, these things happen quickly. Does LeBron want to take this chance? He may…

But James made some interesting comments this past December to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon.

“I want to kind of try to break the mold just for the next generation, just take the narrative out of, ‘You’re past your prime when you hit 31,’ or ‘You’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league,’ or whatever the case may be,” James told Vardon. “Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get $200 or $300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious.”

If you’re to believe the “over-38” rule,3 LeBron is in his last opportunity to sign a five-year, max deal. Now he’s never signed a deal longer than three years with Cleveland, and he’s taken the two-year route since his return. This could be trusted, or it could be a forced move organizationally, but with LeBron getting older, this option gets less-and-less viable.

If you’re to believe what LeBron said in December, his legacy in the NBA may be his ability to showcase that a player over the age of 31 or 32 can sign a deal bigger than anybody in the history of the NBA. Of course, maybe he isn’t the one to sign that deal since Chris Paul is likely going to do the same in Houston. But it sure seems like he wants to sign that deal, or at least did.

Now there are ways around all of this, in some interesting sign-and-trade scenarios that involve him option into the final year of his deal, which actually opens up the door to a lot of teams in a trade scenario. Said team could then sign LeBron to a long-term, four-year extension during the year that would give him the five-year deal he may seek.

Championships and Legacy

There was a day when winning a whole lot of championships was the key to anyone’s consideration of being the greatest ever. Let’s be honest, if you’re a Michael Jordan supporter, or a Kobe Bryant supporter, or a Bill Russell supporter, this still will be your thing. Hell, Michael and Kobe bring it up all the time, as LeBron threatens their standing (oh, and Kobe…give me a damn break…you aren’t in the conversation, or at least…not in the conversation for at least an hour or two). But LeBron has done something that neither Kobe nor MJ have, and that’s play in eight consecutive finals. While he’s three-and-six in said finals, the accomplishment alone carries sizable weight in NBA circles. And while the naysayers talk about a weak Eastern Conference, time will wipe away that narrative over the years.

Most unbiased NBA followers realize that the eight years of playoff runs, likely wipes away the quantity, should he never win another championship. The Herculean effort that LeBron has put into some of these runs has been unmatched by anyone in the history of the game. He consistently plays more minutes, and in at least three finals, carried an entire team on his back. That gets heavy.

LeBron wants to win. LeBron wants to win championships. LeBron wants to maximize his healthy years. But I’m not sure it’s at the top of his list. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think LeBron stays with any team that he doesn’t think can help him win a title, but look at last year. It was a mess, and they were still there in the end. No, LeBron doesn’t want to have to do it himself, as he mostly did this past year, and the East will certainly get a lot more difficult with Philadelphia and Boston improving. But with a healthy LeBron James, anything is possible. If a team can offer him more support than the Cavs did this year, that team (and it still could be the Cavs) is an immediate contender.

Championships are important…but…is there more to it now?

LeBron is on the path to setting some major NBA records, and while we aren’t there yet, he’s seventh in all-time assists, 11th in all-time assists, second in all-time PER, and has four MVPs.

LeBron has 31,038 all-time points, and averages 2,000 points a year. While that will likely diminish over time, it’s reasonable to think that LeBron will surpass Kareem Abdul Jabaar’s scoring record of 38,387 points in the near future. How amazing would it be for LeBron to do that while wearing Cleveland across his chest?

Some may not think that was important, but I can’t help but think of Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s jersey retirement in 2014. The Cavs scheduled it around an off-night for Miami, and LeBron attended.

Going forward, I have to believe that the term “championships” shift to the term “legacy” for James, and while that may have always been the case, I think young LeBron probably thought (and correctly) that championship was legacy. But as LeBron looks forward during what is likely the twilight of his career, legacy will incorporate many other factors, including ownership of some of the most hallowed NBA records of all time. In his drive to be the greatest NBA player of all time, there are now other ingredients.

While this is four or five years down the pipe, I think it isn’t in LeBron’s thinking. Now, there is no way that LeBron is pondering a contract based only on this factor.

But when you think about LEGACY, everything I mentioned comes into play, right?

LeBron has talked family being his legacy very recently, including playing with his son in the NBA, or against him. He mentioned this on Uninterrupted right before the finals.

“You want to ask me what is the greatest achievement of my life? If I’m on the same court as my son in the NBA. That would be number one in my lifetime as an NBA player. I’ve thought about it because my son is about to be 14, and he might be able to get in there a little earlier.”

You can see that his mind is on other things. If you look closer at this, things get interesting, as fun as puzzle pieces go. Bronny is about to enter eighth grade. He’s five years away from leaving high school. If he’s as good as his Dad thinks, he could be in the NBA in six years. If LeBron signs a five-year Max, guess who will be a free agent that year?

I know…one-and-done rule is still in effect, but most think it’s on its way out. A memo was leaked this past week saying as such. Of course, LeBron doesn’t have to sign a five-year contract to be a free agent when his son ends his high school career. Of course, the one-and-done doesn’t have to go away. Of course, LeBron’s son may not be NBA ready (talk about pressure, sheesh) after high school…but my point is simple…his greatest achievement would be his son playing on the same NBA court as he is. That’s not an NBA Title, is it?

LeBron is shifting over to the Player’s Union side of things, has records to break, and I haven’t even mentioned learning a new system, moving, doing the things that take time, and yes, more time for 33-year old LeBron, than 29-year old LeBron went through because…MVP-caliber season or no, LeBron is older.

He has a big family and has taken the town of Akron under his wing.

He’s re-embraced Cleveland, who have re-embraced him back.

He has an owner who he clearly still doesn’t trust, but who has done nothing but spend for LeBron since he’s been here…both times.

He’s not going to stop now…even though his roster makes it tough, and the media is reporting that ‘he’s going to set up his team the way he sees fit.’

****on a sidenote here, I just want to say one quick thing. I don’t trust a single reporter out there. One of my favorite writers is Brian Windhorst, who has amazing insight, writing ability, and access. There obviously isn’t a better writer on the planet that understands LeBron’s psyche. With ALL of that said, Windhorst was on TV saying LeBron wasn’t coming back to Cleveland when it leaked that LeBron James was coming back to Cleveland. So sorry…if Windy didn’t know then, there isn’t any other reporter that knows now. We can only guess…with that said…

I don’t know LeBron James.

I don’t believe any rumor that I’ve heard up to this point, because I don’t think LeBron James knows what he’s doing as of yet.

But the weight of LeBron’s move is likely up above somewhere…family, championships, records, contracts, and legacy. It’s all there, wrapped in a neat little package. Moving to a new city can be exciting for anyone, as can a new job, and a new team. I’ve been there before, and while LeBron is certainly not me, there are similarities.

I think about what’s important to me and look back on the moves I’ve already made, and use them to help me make moves I’m going to make in the future. For a while, I wanted to climb the ladder. I did all the things you can do in my profession to do that. I’ve moved companies and moved to new states. Today, looking back, I want to be where I’m happy…content…so I wonder if LeBron is in the same place.

He’s not as old as I am, but in NBA years he is. I wonder if LeBron looks back at his move from Cleveland, and to Cleveland. If he looks at his family…his job…his career…and his legacy…and just ask one important question.

“Where will finishing my career make me most content…make us most content?”

My friends talk about “LeBron’s worrying about what people will say if…,” and you can import anything after that if that you want.

…if he plays for too many teams.

…if he doesn’t win more titles.

…if he plays on another super team.

…if he stays and never wins again.

I don’t think LeBron cares a bit about any of that. Watching LeBron this year on the court was cathartic. This was his team. Sure, there were arguments. Sure, he got pissed. But there was something to that swagger up and down the court that was just different. Sure, can he find that anywhere, but does he want to?

While July 6, 2010, and July 11, 2014, were touchstone moments to every Cleveland Cavaliers fan, they were even bigger to LeBron and his family. It’s hard to say whether or not this will be LeBron’s last “Max,” or if he’ll continue to one-or-two-year it for another couple of season, but it’s easy to see that this next decision, quite probably will be his last MAJOR decision before his skills start to diminish.

Of course, this is LeBron James, and what the hell do we know anyways.

  1. From the LeBron James essay via Lee Jenkins and SI []
  2. From the LeBron James essay via Lee Jenkins and SI []
  3. it’s a complicated rule that keeps teams from signing players that are likely to retire to a long deal, long past retirement, that will end up “deferring money.” []