The N.B.A.'s Decider: How LeBron controls James Fortunes

    Abdulaziz Sobh


    It is reported that LeBron James informed the Cleveland Cavaliers, his current employer, on Friday that he was exercising his option to become a free agent instead of remaining under his current contract for another year.

    The decision vigorously revived an annual phenomenon in the N.B.A. that's unknown to any other sports league: a person grabs the collective psyche of fans, team officials, and even civic leaders, with no help from anyone in controlling their fortunes.

    If James decides to join your team, you are instantly N.B.A. aspiring to the title, and your city feels the elevator. If James decides to leave his team, you are the Jackson 5 after Michael left the band, or "The West Wing" after the departure of Aaron Sorkin. He looked at it with affection and nostalgia, but for the rest it was obsolete.

    James, 33, has successfully turned the high-risk drama of free agency into his own reality show. He is the best player of N.B.A. and its most captivating presence. He is also one of the shrewdest power brokers and has developed a summer ritual to celebrate the rest of N.B.A. and entire metropolitan areas in a state of expectation as they weigh their options every July.

    "This guy not only controls the league but he's also part of our economy," said Jason Herron, 45, a veteran Cavaliers season ticket holder and general manager of a car dealership.

    Herron said he recently spoke with a bar owner in downtown Cleveland who told Herron that he might have to fire some of his staff next winter if James leaves the city.

    "It's been crazy," said Herron. "We just do not want it to end."

    James opted to enter free agency, which officially begins on Sunday at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time, instead of exercising your $ 35.6 million option to remain under your current contract for another year. He can re-sign with the Cavaliers, but he also has a large number of suitors, headed by the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Basketball is different from other team sports. The Los Angeles Angels can have Mike Trout, the best baseball player, and still be completely mediocre because he only gets four or five at-bats per game. An N.F.L. The team can sign a star quarterback and still not reach the playoffs because he can not throw the ball to himself, and will not be on the field to play defensively.

    But when free agent maneuvers involve the upper level of N.B.A. the players, the decisions of those players can have a great impact on individual teams, in the league more broadly and even in entire cities.

    Kevin Durant is one of the most famous examples. Since he jumped to Golden State in 2016, the Warriors have won two consecutive championships. Without him, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team he left, did not win a playoff series.

    Players like James, Durant and other valuable few forge contenders for the title, which means higher ticket sales and merchandise, higher television ratings, more tourists coming to watch the show, more international media exposure to the city.

    It is technically out of season for N.B.A., which means that all the players have dispersed during the summer. Without practices, and without games. But the draws of the superstar of free agency create a strange rhythm for the league, which discovers in the summer which teams will be the best next season and which will be sent to competitive oblivion in the foreseeable future.

    When that superstar draw involves James, a four times valuable player who is able to dominate the games and who has continually kept up the pressure on the Cavaliers to update his roster in recent seasons by signing a series of short contracts, the effect multiplies. many times. above.

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

    Cleveland is especially familiar with both sides of this equation. James, who grew up outside of town in Akron, spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Cavaliers and took them to the depths of the playoffs in his last five seasons. But in a show made for television known as "The Decision," James announced that he would join the Miami Heat in 2010. This was LeBron's first summer when he was first able to dominate the league as a free player. agent, and it quickly became clear how much power he exercised.

    With James, the Heat won two championships. Without it, 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 drastically reversed course when James returned in 2014. He followed four consecutive trips to the final, including the first and only championship of the franchise in 2016. For three of those seasons, James partnered with Kyrie Irving, a perennial All-Star, to form one of the most fearsome duos in the league.

    But the dynamic changed last summer when Irving asked for an exchange in part to escape from James' shadow. The Cavaliers sent Irving to the Boston Celtics.

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

    But the Cavaliers had to mix new personnel in and out of alignment experiments that often fell apart. The result was a season of batches that James qualified as one of the most challenging of his career. There were many times when he did not seem to be having fun. And yet! James managed to take the Cavaliers to the final, which could have been one of his most miraculous exploits to date. The only problem was that the Warriors swept them, and James seemed to be reflecting on free agency even before the series ended.

    "Every G.M. and every president and everybody of coaches is trying to figure out how they can make the right matches to compete for a championship," he said at the time.

    He could very well have included himself. No one in the league is able to exert a greater influence on the teams, and the moves they make, either directly or indirectly, than James, who recently moved with his family to Anguilla, a British territory in the Caribbean. Throughout the turmoil swirling around him, James seemed very cold. On Thursday night, he shared a video clip of himself on his Instagram account, which has almost 40 million followers: he was jumping off a cliff, presumably to a hot water below.

    For the breathless masses who are curious about James' future and those masses include friends and rivals, coaches and executives, fans and enemies, the clip has been analyzed with forensic details: what does it mean? Was I offering some kind of coded message? A metaphor about taking the step with a new team?

    Or maybe I just wanted to go swimming. The real news will arrive soon, and James, as usual, will be the one to do it.



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