LeBron’s Free-Agency Decision Still Comes with Plenty of Unanswered Questions
LeBron James speaks at a news conference after the opening ceremony for the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, Monday, July 30, 2018. The I Promise School is supported by the The LeBron James Family Foundation and is run by the Akron Public Schools. (AP Photo/Phil Long)

Phil Long/Associated Press

AKRON, Ohio — In 2010 after LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, he didn’t return to Ohio until August for his then-annual bike-a-thon. He thanked his fans for the previous seven years, and then he thanked Cleveland again, possibly as a PR move for failing to mention the city a week prior in a full-page newspaper ad. His return to the state was a highly anticipated moment given the reaction of fans to his departure.

Flash forward eight years. James has left the Cavs in free agency for a second time, but from the highly publicized opening of his Akron school to the championship he gave the city in 2016, he was able to address the crowd at The I PROMISE School in Akron this time not so much as a basketball player but as a philanthropist who’d made good on his previous title promise.

“If I’m playing in Los Angeles or not, Akron, Ohio is always home to me,” he stated Monday. 

But while there would be plenty of coverage of James’ school, media members in attendance were hoping to get answers. James leaving a winner for a lottery team isn’t new, but it would be the first time leaving home to do it as opposed to returning. Why, after declaring he was never leaving again, did James go against these words? Why was he suddenly willing to commit to a four-year deal (with a player option in the final year) after so many “one-plus-ones” with the Cavaliers? And potentially more important, would he consider returning again?

      

Unanswered Questions

Chiang Ying-ying/Associated Press

In 2014, James stood on a stage in the University of Akron Stadium, located less than two miles from the I PROMISE School’s grounds. Surrounded by thousands of fans who traveled from all over Northeast Ohio to partake in James’ “Homecoming,” complete with musical acts and speeches from various individuals in James’ life, the four-time MVP professed his unwavering love to the region.

“I’m not going anywhere ever again,” James said in his first post-essay press conference. “I don’t have the energy (for free agency).”

The moment was met with pomp and circumstance and a region-wide celebration. Those very words were the headlines of countless news stories, words James said were rooted in a “business decision.”

That summer, James signed a two-year contract with the second year being a player option, otherwise known as a “one-plus-one.”

If we’re parsing words, in James’ 2014 essay that marked his return to Cleveland, he said his most important goal was to “[bring] one trophy back to Northeast Ohio,” but facing the music for the first time since deciding to go against his own words, James—while attempting to steer the conversation away from basketball and toward the I PROMISE School—referred to his most recent move as “bittersweet.” 

“It’s always tough to leave anywhere when you have to uproot whether you’re by yourself or with your family,” James said Monday. “Today was a bittersweet moment because on one handI’m opening up a school where I would love to be every single day. On the other hand, I’m starting a new journey in my light on the other coast.

“I haven’t had time to really reflect on anything I’ve done in my career. It was a heck of a run, obviously. When I first came here, I didn’t think we could win a championship. To break the 50-plus-year drought, it was more than we could’ve imagined. It was my goal. My goal was to come back and win a championship. I felt like [a part of my] book was left unturned.”

Very little, if anything, has been made about James’ “I’m not going anywhere” remarks from four years prior. Very few athletes or celebrities are as calculated with their word choice as James—from the discussion of teammate contract situations all the way to calling the President of the United States a “bum”—but any attempt to get James to discuss leaving Cleveland for a second time has been couched in doing, according to him, what is best for his family.

     

‘Business Decisions Are Not Given an Autopsy’

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

On the cover, James’ decision to head to the Lakers felt swift and succinct. The “LeBron Watch” buildup that started the moment James left Quicken Loans Arena following Game 4 of the NBA Finals was a self-perpetuating machine that just four years earlier included sourced reports from cupcake bakers, the tracking of private flights to and from Miami and an analysis of color code combinations housed in the inner depths of James’ personal website.

This time, while there was another round of flight tracking and the soul-crushing agony of losing another NBA Finals, there were no presentations; there was not a television show or even an essay. The press release issued by his representation was one sentence long and would not be paired with a tell-all conference.

Behind the scenes, however, James had been doing his due diligence on a handful of teams—the Lakers, the Cavaliers, the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers were specifically named—to determine the next phase of his career. James’ agent, Rich Paul, handled the correspondence with potential suitors, but no pitch would be able to trump the vote of his wife, Savannah, and their three children.

“It wasn’t as quick as it may have seemed,” said James of the weeks between the end of the NBA Finals and the July 1 free-agency period. “It just wasn’t July 9th. After talking to my family more than anybody, I felt this was the next step in my journey.”

In 2010, when James left for Miami, there was an overarching sense of bitterness. “The Decision” was heavily criticized as a medium for dissemination, and the city of Cleveland was left to rebuild after multiple seasons of 60-plus wins. In a story penned by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne following James’ most recent decision, current Cavaliers GM Koby Altman spoke with a more grateful tone than some of the messages delivered four years earlier.

“This is what he wanted to do for him, as a personal preference or a family decision,” Altman said. “And I’m OK with that. I have to be OK with that.”

Being OK with James’ decision to act upon his free agency is one thing. Being OK with James’ unwillingness to commit to Cleveland for more than two years is another. Attempts by Bleacher Report to get additional thoughts from Altman went unanswered, but the words of former GM David Griffin provide a sense that the team felt the writing was on the wall.

“Remember, LeBron didn’t give us the four-year commitment he gave the Lakers,” Griffin said in a recent interview with Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan. “We had to do it one year at a time. It’s a totally unsustainable model. What was significant was we were plotting that there was always going to be a point where LeBron was going to leave because he wasn’t willing to commit to us, and that said something.”

Mathematically, James gave Cleveland a four-year window, just as he did the Miami Heat and just as it appears he will give the Lakers. The path to the four years and the focus on “commitment,” however, is the subject of plenty of debate.

It’s safe to assume that the unprecedented salary-cap spike early in James’ four-year stint with the Cavaliers made short-term deals much more lucrative. Once things leveled out, James signed a three-year deal with the third being a player option.

Privately, James’ camp is defensive, if not defiant, as it pertains to why the three-time champion strung together a series of short-term deals with Cleveland while providing lengthier commitments to his other teams, inferring that public relations played no role in his most recent decision.

“Nobody knows why we did a one-plus-one in Cleveland, and nobody knows why we chose to do a three-plus-one this year,” a source close to James told Bleacher Report. “Half of the opinionated do not even understand the business.”

“Business decisions are not given an autopsy,” Paul told Bleacher Report.

 

‘Doing What He Wants to Do’

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 15: Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers greet each other during the 2018 Las Vegas Summer League on July 15, 2018 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expres

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

When James came back to Cleveland in 2014, he had two small boys, was still attempting to sell his home in South Beach and had a burgeoning production company. Today, he’s the proud father of three children thanks to the arrival of his daughter, three-year-old Zhuri. He’s also on the masthead of SpringHill Entertainment, which has since partnered with Warner Bros., has been linked to a Space Jam reboot and has the 6’8″, 260-pounder potentially starring in a body-swapping comedy.

In his previous free-agency decisions, James had emphasized winning. And while he believes his time with the Lakers will be somewhat fruitful—”There are going to be months when we’re really good and months when we’re not so good,” he said—it’s evident that a 15-year career steeped in elite levels of play and championship habits has earned him the right to take on projects, be they in the way of filling up a box score or filling up the box office.

“In 2010, when he went to Miami, it was about championships,” Paul recently told Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins. “In 2014, when he went back to Cleveland, it was about delivering on a promise. In 2018, it was just about doing what he wants to do.”

James is the ultimate player in a player-driven league. He’s influenced countless decisions in the NBA, ranging from how players structure their contracts to the league adjusting its regular-season schedule to other teams building teams in an attempt to thwart his efforts. He’s played in Cleveland and Miami and is about to set forth on a phase in Los Angeles. Just as he has recited specific sequences in games played, James can list off the names of the streets he had to walk to get to school as a fourth-grader as if he just left the city yesterday.

Storybook Ending(?)

Phil Long/Associated Press

There is a road less traveled metaphor buried somewhere in this story, but it’s clear be it through his representation or from the man himself that LeBron James believes he is above the scrutiny as his all-encompassing career extends further and further beyond the basketball court.

After opening an urban public school that’s completely furnished and provides food for the family of his foundation’s kids, all with his own money, it’s the “more than basketball” thing come to life in the form of a pristine brick expanse covered in motivational phrases and imagery of James and other African American leaders who rose from tribulation to triumph.

Four years earlier, James said, “I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there—I just didn’t know when.” When asked about Cavaliers team owner Dan Gilbert mentioning the retirement of James’ No. 23 to the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena, James was unaware of these plans.

He also did not count out a third chapter in this storied—and highly scrutinized—career.

“Listen, I don’t close the chapter on anything or close the book on anything,” James told the Associated Press. “But hopefully I can sit there one day and watch my jersey go up into the rafters, that’s for sure.”

Mark your calendars: Only 1,063 days until James’ next free-agency decision.

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