CLEVELAND, Ohio – Twenty years in, LeBron James still hasn’t lost the juice on his most powerful move.
For years, James has been fooling opponents with his driving spin move. His right-shoulder fadeaway has been near impossible to block. And his trademark chase-down block may be memorialized in bronze one day.
But none of those on-court maneuvers can move chess pieces like his go-to: The threat of leaving. James dusted it off again Monday after his Lakers were swept by the Denver Nuggets, and it landed with the same force as it used to during his prime.
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“Going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about,” James told reporters, including, as he told ESPN after the press conference, whether he wanted to return for a 21st season.
Really? Because as cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor wrote this week, James has proclaimed for years that he wants to play professionally with his son, Bronny, who could enter the NBA draft in 2024. And after breaking the NBA scoring record in February, James said he wasn’t going anywhere soon. Now he’s considering retirement three months later?
Unless the foot injury James played through this postseason is more complicated than we think, James’ comments sound more like a warning to the Lakers if they don’t upgrade his supporting cast. They should also sound familiar to Cleveland fans who watched James wield similar power over the Cavs. And whenever James does retire, those chess moves will be as much a part of his legacy as his rings and records.
Rewind to the late 2009-10 season, when James was playing the final season of his rookie extension in Cleveland, and the Cavs’ front office was frantically re-molding its team to his liking. Cleveland traded for 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal and 33-year-old Antwan Jamison within eight months of each other. The pair of aging big men couldn’t push Cleveland’s core over the top. And after James left the following offseason, it was easy – even correct – to view Cleveland’s roster management as desperate and short-sighted.
But that’s how the Cavs felt they had to act without a long-term promise with James. They couldn’t pitch free agents on a sustained partnership with him. They couldn’t risk too much of their future in case he left, which he did. So then-GM Danny Ferry threw plans at the wall. They didn’t stick. And one season after winning Executive of the Year, Ferry resigned.
One year after winning the 2016 title, Cleveland again confronted a crossroads when Kyrie Irving requested a trade. Cleveland sent him to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a coveted draft pick from Brooklyn. And when those pieces didn’t fit, they shipped Crowder and Thomas (among others) away to acquire role players like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood. They did not, however, trade the draft pick. They wanted a lifeline to the future in case James, who had a player option the following offseason, changed teams during the summer. James wanted to swap that for more playoff firepower.
James could’ve used it during the 4-0 loss Cleveland suffered during the 2018 NBA Finals. But the Cavs needed their lifeline more. James left for the Lakers that offseason. The Brooklyn pick became Collin Sexton, who eventually helped Cleveland land Donovan Mitchell.
They’d have preferred to keep James, but they couldn’t sacrifice a future he wouldn’t commit to.
Now the Lakers are stuck in Cleveland’s boat, which does not come with a life raft. James probably won’t retire, but can they afford to ignore his warning? They have no backup plan, and even if they did, few replacements can replicate James’ production, even as he inches toward 40.
James has wielded such power for years as the pioneer of player agency. But he’s also strained front offices and stung his fans. And while his spin move, jump shot and statue pose remain indelible, so too does his quest for control — and the constraints it put on Cleveland.
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