Did LeBron take his eye off the ‘main thing’?

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles reacts during a preseason game against the Denver Nuggets at Valley View Casino Center on September 30, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Although he would be lambasted after The Decision, with people in his hometown of Cleveland so scorned they’d burn his Cavaliers jersey, history has proven that LeBron James made the right call that summer of 2010 by opting to join the Miami Heat. How he went about announcing it may have been all wrong — his old girlfriend that was Cleveland finding out the same way and time as everyone else that he was leaving them for someone else, on a primetime TV special — but why he took his talents to South Beach was dead right.

A week earlier in a small hotel conference room in downtown Cleveland, Pat Riley, once the coach of the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers but by this point the president of the 2006 world champions Miami Heat, made his opening pitch to the most-sought free agent in world sport. “We want you to understand that we are going to make sure the main thing remains the main thing.”

James initially shot a quizzical look, but his agent and schoolboy friend Maverick Carter smiled, recognising the term from the business speaker Stephen Covey. Riley instantly did the translation for Carter’s client. “The main thing with us is winning championships.”

To prove his point, Riley had brought along a prop, a closed bag which James found as intriguing as anyone who encountered Jules Winnfield going around Riley’s old stomping ground of LA with a briefcase. James tried to peer in. Is that what I think it is?

Riley was less guarded than Marcellus Wallace’s faithful henchman, dropping the bag on the table. Have a look for yourself. James spilled its contents onto the table, then began to play with them. After the Heat’s 2006 championship win, the ring manufacturers Jostens had created a half-dozen models. Riley had kept all the prototypes and thrown in for good measure the six championship rings he had won as a player and as a coach. Rings. Riley could help deliver James rings.

Walking out, Riley flashed his killer smile passing the delegation from the awaiting LA Clippers. Instantly their general manager, Neil Oshley, sensed they were wasting their time. “They [Miami] had him,” he’d tell the writer Ian Thomsen for the book The Soul of Basketball. “I saw it.”

The previous day, the New York Knicks had also had an audience with James, detailing how James could earn $1 billion playing in New York. And, as Thomsen would observe, “That was their mistake. They had undervalued LeBron’s integrity.” Hoops and rings, not the proximity and opportunity of Madison Avenue, were the main things for him. Exactly eight years to the day after Riley’s rings and smile had dazzled James and Oshley, James opened the door of his mansion in Brentwood to welcome in a fellow all-time NBA great, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, now president of the Lakers.

Within 48 hours James announced he was once again leaving Cleveland, only this time having won a ring in his latest stint there to go with the two he’d won in Miami, and this time to join the Lakers.

Eight months on and with James set to miss out on the NBA playoffs for the first time since his rookie season back in 2003-4, you’d have to wonder about the wisdom of his 2018 decision and if this time winning rings was the main thing.

In James’s and Johnson’s defence is that if James had not injured his groin during a Christmas Day win over reigning champions Golden State Warriors and missed the Lakers’ following 18 games, the Lakers would be playoff-bound for the first time since 2013. But the reality is he did get injured. He’s 34 now, the same age Kobe Bryant was when he somehow picked himself up off the ground after doing his cruciate to sink two free-throws to seal the Lakers a spot in those 2013 playoffs, then hobbled off and never returned as the same player.

Watching the basketball Bryant served up in his maniacal push to make that 2013 post-season — playing more minutes than anyone else in the NBA at the time, and averaging 27 points a game, the third-best in the whole league — and watching the masterful play of James at 33 throughout last year’s playoffs, it’s easy to believe such exceptional and dedicated craftsmen can continue to serve up such art and defy father time forever. But they can’t. James’ play since his return from injury fees like a window into his inevitable decline. The popular assumption that he’d remain the best player in the world for most of his four-year contract in LA has been mistaken.

Since signing James, Johnson has made a string of errors as team president. He allowed centre Brook Lopez go for free to the Milwaukee Bucks, who now have the best record in the NBA. Instead he assembled the most bizarre collection of veterans to play alongside James and the team’s promising young players — Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart. A few games into the season he publicly censured and thus undermined Luke Walton who ever since has been a lame duck head coach. Then before the trade deadline he was willing to trading virtually his entire roster bar James in exchange for the New Orleans Pelicans’ want-away-superstar, Anthony Davis.

Johnson would try to downplay the unsettling effect the trade rumours had on his young players, insinuating the media were treating them like kids rather than hardened pros who understood the business nature of the league. It rang hollow: Kuzma for one admitted all the speculation was “definitely tough” while the effort levels of some of his colleagues since have been typical of players who have suddenly felt disposable and without a common purpose.

What makes the situation all the more awkward for the Lakers is that the same agent who demanded a trade for Davis is James’ own agent and schoolboy friend, Rich Paul. As Bill Simmons quipped, it’s hard to be friends with someone whose best friend wanted them all traded. Clearly, the chemistry is off, just like the culture was off before James arrived in La La Land.

A fortnight before free agency opened last summer, Ball cut a rap record dissing Kuzma. While Johnson could play it off as kids just being kids these days, it’s hard to imagine Klay Thompson and Steph Curry carrying on the same way at that age — or the Warriors’ culture allowing it.

Maybe it will still work out for James in LA. 2019-2020 was always going to be his defining season there. Maybe this summer the Lakers do work out a trade to secure Davis and land another top free agent.

But the chances are the Lakers won’t secure a Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or Kyrie Irving: that at this point in theirs and LeBron’s careers, the Clippers and Knicks are more attractive destinations where they can create a winning tradition rather than follow in one.

One name wasn’t anywhere near the trading block in last month’s strained talks between the Pelicans and Lakers: James’s. But what was just the other week completely blasphemous could now be possible, even logical, for all concerned. Davis is still only 25. The core of the Lakers’ current roster is even younger. Together they could be given sufficient time to mature and then contend for a title instead of the rushed, artificial timeframe that having an aging great likes James involves. Involve a third team in the trade and James could team up with a win-now contender.

James’s legacy as an all-time top-three player is already as secure as being the GOAT over Jordan is unattainable, but that doesn’t mean he had nothing more to prove when suiting up in the purple and gold.

If he wanted to set up life for after basketball and be closer to Hollywood, moving to LA was perfectly fine, but then go to the Clippers where even reaching a conference finals would qualify as a landmark success for a franchise without a winning tradition.

But, as his inspiration and rival Bryant almost gleefully likes to remind everyone, the Lakers don’t hang banners for winning divisional or even conference championships. They’re all about the rings.

Without one in Laker Nation, Bryant casts a shadow over James as large as Jordan’s.

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