How LeBron James controls fortunes

LeBron James reportedly informed the Cleveland Cavaliers, his current employer, on Friday that he was exercising his option to become a free agent rather than remaining under his current contract for another year.

The decision vigorously revived an annual phenomenon in the NBA that is unknown to every other sports league: one person grabs hold of the collective psyche of fans, team officials and even civic leaders, single-handedly in control of their fortunes.

If James decides to join your team, you are instantly an NBA title contender, and your city feels the lift. If James decides to leave your team, you are the Jackson 5 after Michael left the band, or "The West Wing" after Aaron Sorkin's departure — looked up to fondly with nostalgia but otherwise obsolete.

James, 33, has successfully turned the high-stakes drama of free agency into his own reality show. He is the NBA's best player and its most captivating presence. He is also one of its savviest power brokers, and he has developed a summer ritual of holding the rest of the NBA and entire metropolitan areas in a state of expectancy as he weighs his options every July.

"This one guy not only controls the league, but part of our economy, too," said Jason Herron, 45, a long-time Cavaliers season ticket-holder and the general manager of a car dealership.

Herron said he recently talked to a bar owner in downtown Cleveland who told Herron that he might have to lay off part of his staff next winter if James leaves town.

"It's been a heck of a ride," Herron said. "We just don't want it to end."

James chose to enter free agency — which officially begins Sunday — rather than exercise his $35.6 million option to stay under his current contract for another year. He can still re-sign with the Cavaliers, but he also has a host of suitors, headlined by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Basketball is different from other team sports. The Los Angeles Angels can have Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, and still be thoroughly mediocre because he gets only four or five at-bats a game. An NFL team can sign a star quarterback and still fall short of making the playoffs because he cannot throw the ball to himself, and he won't be on the field to play defence.

But when free-agent maneuvers involve the very top tier of NBA players, those players' decisions can have an outsize impact on individual teams, the league more broadly and even entire cities.

Kevin Durant is one of the more famous examples. Since he jumped to Golden State in 2016, the Warriors have won two straight championships. Without him, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team he departed, has not won a playoff series.

A team with James is an instant title contender. A team without James — well, you better have a collection of All-Stars already on the roster.

Cleveland is uniquely familiar with both sides of this equation. James, who grew up just outside the city in Akron, spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Cavaliers and led them deep into the playoffs his final five seasons. But in a made-for-TV spectacle known as "The Decision," James announced that he was joining the Miami Heat in 2010. This was the first Summer of LeBron — the first time he was capable of holding sway over the league as a free agent, and it quickly became clear just how much power he wielded.

With James, the Heat went on to win two championships. Without him, the Cavaliers were left in ruins, a perennial resident of the draft lottery as one of the worst teams in the league.

The Cavaliers' fortunes dramatically reversed course when James returned in 2014. Four straight trips to the finals followed, including the franchise's first and only championship, in 2016. For three of those seasons, James teamed with Kyrie Irving, a perennial All-Star, to form one of the league's most fearsome duos.

But the dynamics changed last summer when Irving asked for a trade — in part so he could escape James' shadow. The Cavaliers sent Irving to the Boston Celtics.

In his absence, the Cavaliers labored last season to find their footing, even as James played some of his finest basketball. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists a game while shooting 54.2 per cent from the field. He also played in all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career.

But the Cavaliers had to shuffle new personnel in and out of the lineup — experiments that often fell flat. The result was a hodgepodge season that James assessed as one of the most challenging of his career. There were many moments when he did not appear to be enjoying himself. And still —still!— James managed to haul the Cavaliers into the finals, which might have been one of his most miraculous feats to date. The only problem was they got swept by the Warriors, and James appeared to be mulling free agency before the series even ended.

"Every GM and every president and every coaching staff is trying to figure out how they can make up the right match-ups to compete for a championship," he said at the time.

New York Times

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