LeBron James will almost certainly not be a Dallas Maverick. It was a fun day, when news broke that Kyrie Irving had reached out to James to recruit him to Dallas, akin to getting a vague sign that your high school crush knows you exist, but I can’t imagine it happening. Here’s the thing I keep coming back to though — just how much sense it makes for LeBron himself.
Sure, there’s his attachments to Los Angeles. There’s the fact the Mavericks don’t have much to trade. There’s the complication of the new CBA, and the way that would make team building around three max contracts difficult and costly. There is also the history of a player obsessed with his legacy. A player whose career path has always been a matter of prying open new title windows and leaving closed ones behind. LeBron is Basketball Kendall Roy, assured greatness was his destiny even as he cut corners to get there. Looking back, winning and time softened our perception of the more craven aspects of player empowerment. Bill Simmons, going into the fateful 2010 offseason, took stock of Lebron’s choices.
“It’s one of the greatest sports decisions I can remember: LeBron can choose winning (Chicago), loyalty (Cleveland) or a chance at immortality (New York).”
After “The Decision” was made, Simmons said he “never thought Lebron would choose ‘Help!’” By the time he returned to Cleveland to save his fledgling hometown franchise, then helped restore the Lakers to contention, he’d become shrewd about his power plays; both were narrativized as altruistic moves. Really, Cleveland had just won the number one pick in the lottery and had Kyrie. The Lakers weren’t just rumored to get Anthony Davis, but Paul George too. LeBron did manage to give one city the title it starved for and gave the other one that it thought belonged to them like a birthright. He sees the chessboard of the modern NBA’s intersection of money, connections, and narrative as well as anyone not named Pat Riley (well, maybe Rich Paul, but who knows where Klutch ends and LeBron begins). Now that player empowerment is part of the league’s fabric, it’s almost a data point toward his greatness.
Enter Luka Doncic. LeBron’s “favorite player” who says LeBron is his idol, with the same point-forward game. There’s a built-in narrative of LeBron handing off the torch to a player he endorses, catalyzing him with LeBron’s own basketball rigor. LeBron would be coattail-riding by joining Steph Curry, Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Luka still has a hump to get over, and there’s an allure to helping him get over it. Luka gets in shape? It’s LeBron’s lessons. Luka’s issues with the refs? I’ve rooted against LeBron enough to know he’s a ref whisperer. Even Luka’s lack of composure mirrors LeBron’s early fear of the moment (which was real, just find any piece of media after LeBron lost in the playoffs before his first ring.)
Dallas doesn’t have a ready-made narrative as a franchise, and Mark Cuban is no beloved figurehead, at least not as much as he was when he first became owner. The Mavericks are not, objectively, cool. Still, LeBron could double up on the Jedi Master routine with Kyrie. It’s not like Kyrie hasn’t been in the basketball wilderness, and it’s not like anyone believes he’ll turn it around. LeBron’s positive influence on him would hit the same way. The Prodigal Son, and The Chosen Euro Prince (when I put it that way, I realize this would blow-up after one year, but still!) Maybe, finally, with those two as his teammates, LeBron would be comfortable as the villain like he never was a decade ago.
As for his role on the court, LeBron doesn’t need to be the best player on a team to add to his legacy. He’s smart enough to realize if he is that he’s not getting a title. He’s still capable of so much physically but burdened by being the top primary option at such a late age. It’s stamina more than athletic capability that keeps him subdued. LeBron has had so many versions of himself, evolved so much, that version 10.0 would only help his legend. A third-option LeBron can be a small-ball big, run dribble handoffs, be an elite short roller or grab a board and start a break all while hovering around 20 points per game. The intersection of physical dimensions and intelligence he has left lends itself better to such a player. I think the retirement idea was partly a leverage play, but any genuineness in it came across as ”I can’t keep doing it this particular way.”
This last part, about what LeBron looks like fading into an elite role player, is what interests me the most. I’ve always been a LeBron hater, but I also love basketball too much to deny his genius, and I enjoy my stars respecting a link to history. LeBron may not get “winning the right way”, but he does get that it’s all about winning. Watching him shapeshift, spout wisdom, and make heady plays is a better final stage than withering away carrying a team. If he chose Miami for help, his next stop would be for aging gracefully.
It’s still unlikely. The new CBA would make it perilous just to field a rotation. Pay-cuts might be in order, bridges burned, and Jae Crowder’s carcass might have to start at the wing (though it might anyway!) For a player who I’ve always rooted against, it’s not the Mavericks angle that has me obsessed. I find myself thinking hard about how his denouement would play to the masses, and how the legacy of The King still seems like a movie in search of an ending. Maybe it’s a kind of best-of-your-era Stockholm syndrome. I mean, I practically grew up with the guy.
Or maybe it’s just not the modern NBA without Machiavelli at work.