LeBron James already has three NBA titles and four regular-season MVPs and is on pace to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer in the next five years.
Yet when he retires, a big part of the James legacy will be how he impacted the game behind the game, how he put the “free’’ in free agency and gave players the power to have a big say in where and with whom they want to play.
For the third time in his 15 seasons, James has opted out of his contract with the intention of taking a hard look at playing elsewhere. For the third time, he has seized the offseason spotlight, turning the NBA free-agent signing period from a one- or two-day news story that mostly was confined to sports-talk radio into a drama-infused spectacle that you can bet on at almost every sports book and you can hear about on National Public Radio.
Though free agency has existed in some form since Oscar Robertson sued the league and forced its creation in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1988, with the advent of unrestricted free agency, that players really were allowed to change teams without being traded, as previous rules demanded that the team they left be heavily compensated.
For the next 22 years, it still was very uncommon for a superstar to voluntarily play for multiple franchises, with the most notable exception being Shaquille O’Neal’s decision to leave Orlando for the Lakers as a free agent in 1996.
James changed all that in 2010 with his announcement that he was leaving the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.
Yes, the optics of The Decision — announcing on television that he was taking his talents from his Rust Belt hometown to South Beach — was awkward at best. But almost everything else about the move was nothing short of revolutionary.
With his role in the formation of the Big Three — James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami — he wrested some degree of power from the front office and changed the format for team building. The fact that the super-team was formed from the players’ planning, not some general manager’s, replotted the road map for much of the league. It paved the way for the Knicks to try, and fail, to build a super-team with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. It also paved the way for Kevin Durant to decide to follow his dream and leave Oklahoma City.
James wielded the same kind of power again when he returned to Cleveland in 2014, leaning on the Cavaliers to make sure Kevin Love joined him. His execution was a bit more elegant this time, but he still was the one in control as he announced his decision in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated.
Now he’s set to do it again. James, 33, is coming off one of his finest seasons as a professional. He played all 82 games for the first time and averaged 27.5 points (his most since 2009-10), tied a career high with 8.6 rebounds per game and set a career high with 9.1 assists per game. He also shot 54.2 percent from the field.
He followed that by single-handedly carrying a very mediocre team to the NBA Finals, averaging 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9.0 assists and shooting 53.9 percent.
Whether or not super-teams have been good for the league can be debated for years to come, but there’s little doubt that they’ve been good for athletes. And good for those who need to feed their basketball jones in the offseason.
And so for weeks, since watching James’ team get swept by Golden State in the NBA Finals, the league has been holding its breath, waiting to see what James will do. And now teams will have to react in order to stay competitive.
It’s true that James Harden is the regular-season MVP and Durant is the MVP of the NBA Finals. But there’s little doubt that James is the Most Important Player, a player whose decision will impact the league for now and years to come.