On July 8, 2010, ESPN aired The Decision to 13 million salivating viewers, as Lebron James announced he was — you know — taking his talents to South Beach. Backlash ensued, highlighted by owner Dan Gilbert, who penned a letter calling Lebron a “narcissist” and “coward.” Today, the antonyms of such words; altruistic, heroic, better define The Decision. Why? Because this generation of NBA stars has borrowed pages from Lebron’s book of decision making.
In the Summer of 2018, LeBron declined his player option, making him an unrestricted free agency for the third time in 16 years. Each time he declined his player option, he joined a new team, symbolizing the freedom players have and how movement can affect the league. LeBron has zigged while others have zagged, signing for shortened deals so that he could enter unrestricted free agency right as the CBA peaked.
Each time LeBron James enters unrestricted free agency, he captivates the audience with the question: “Where is he headed next?” Single-handedly, LeBron has turned free agency — and specifically, The Decision — into a juicy episode of Jersey Shore.
The Decision was technically one hour. But it was televised for 1/4 of the day — three hours before and for two hours more. It was early morning news long enough to become a late night talk show. All in all, LeBron turned 7 simple words — “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” — into $5 million donated to charity.
The Decision: How the Impact is still Felt
The idea that the event was seen as selfish and cowardly in 2010 is laughable now. LeBron normalized The Decision as a new marketing tactic. The show spurred new platforms for players to discuss their feelings before the media altered them; the Player’s Tribune and Uninterrupted.
The Decision also set a new precedent for stars. After The Decision, Stars are empowered to proudly flaunt their talents to respective suitors regardless of the inevitable backlash. Look at Paul George’s three-part series last Summer — it was like a tree falling in a forest. It didn’t even make a sound.
Past generations of stars, on the other hand, told us stars were supposed to have a killer instinct on and off the court. Kobe Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, was an alpha dog, concealing his true identity so his image remained unscathed. For him, and other past stars, success could be quantified in wins and losses. Everything else was a flimsy appetizer to the main course.
Don’t believe me? Here’s proof of the ‘team-first, me-second’ attitude. Bryant shot a free-throw on a torn Achilles. Pierce played a full season after being nearly stabbed to death. Nowitzki played through the Flu in game 4 of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Health was the sacrificial lamb for team success. Simply put, stars of the past laid their bodies on the line so their teams would have better odds at winning.
Jordan, at the time, came out of his cave to deliver disapproval, “ There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry, called up Magic, and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team.’ In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”
The Impact on Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard
Kyrie Irving is evidence of the LeBron James mindset.
Rewind to the 2015 Finals, when LeBron and Kyrie Irving took turns inflicting damage into the armor of the 73-win Warriors until finally, they cracked it. Irving buried what would become the game-winning shot. It marked the first championship for the city of Cleveland since 1964. Irving was at the pinnacle of success in sports and was only 25. His future, tethered to Cleveland’s for the next three years, was ostensibly bright.
Until Cleveland went full Cleveland again. (PS: never go full Cleveland.)
Irving was upset. He expressed disdain for his ‘second-star role’ ever since LeBron returned to Cleveland, and that feeling never dissipated. So he demanded a trade and hand-picked three teams; (according to Brian Windhorst); the LA Clippers, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves. On those teams, he’d be handling the ball and shooting the ball more.
Stick with me here: Kyrie Irving is the Yoda of the NBA — constantly calibrating for self-balance and self-improvement. The Jedi, Irving would rather be. Not the padawan to LeBron. Simply put, he wanted to be the first-option and LeBron blockaded his path of doing so.
In many ways, Kawhi’s situation with the San Antonio Spurs was unique, but still taught us similar lessons of self-exploration. Lebron wasn’t afraid to be himself, which paved the path for Kawhi to revel in his unique attitude and personality, no matter the stubbornness he exuded to the dismay of fans.
Leonard had one-year remaining on his contract but leveraged his introverted personality to control his own destiny. He was willing to sit out a whole year at the Spurs’ expense and management was forced to accommodate to that line of thinking.
Gregg Popovich, known for his problem-solving ability, couldn’t crack the code. And if Popovich wasn’t able to convince him to stay, no one was. After all, the long-time Spurs coach corralled Stephen Jackson, mended the tricky Tony Parker-Brent Barry relationship, and dissuaded LaMarcus Aldridge from being traded.
Next Summer could ultimately tell us more about Kawhi’s personality. He is an unrestricted free agent and could sign back with Toronto, where depth is aplenty. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, is the possibility of being ‘Pippen to Lebron’s Jordan’ role.
If Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving were the union workers protesting for a better working situation, Kevin Durant was the assistant CEO having a midlife crisis.
Kevin Durant: My Third Chapter
The connection between LeBron and Kevin Durant is obvious. When LeBron joined Miami to play with Wade and Bosh, he made superteams the latest fad. So Kevin Durant chose to team up with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
And now LeBron joining a 26-win Lakers team last Summer could be foreshadowing of Durant’s move to a lowly Knicks team. LeBron could have chosen Philly or Houston, both teams with two stars, but he chose a 26-win Laker team. With that, he chose off the court success over on the court.
To add, Durant is emboldened to join his third team because LeBron transformed ‘team-jumping’ into a prideful maturation process. He likened his four years in Miami to “college,” where he studied under the tutelage of Pat Riley. The Akron Native learned from that devastating 4-2 Finals loss to Dallas, and the backlash which followed, and contrasted him with prior generations: Doesn’t have the killer instinct like Jordan. For Durant, basketball is also an educational experience, and he acknowledged, “nobody wants to be in school that long” and that he was going to be, “ready to graduate.”
In LA, LeBron brazenly powered to the twilight of his career to quickly accomplish his goals. He opened his own school in late July. He’s directing his own TV show, “The Shop,” starring Drake. He’s set to be the star of Space Jam 2. Like LeBron after winning the elusive championship, Durant may leave a comfortable situation to search for and accomplish new goals.
Thus, Durant now can choose between on the court and off the court success. Reports indicate Durant could retire as early as 35, as he wants to go out on his own terms. LA and New York are catalysts for a possible movie career. Washington is his hometown and could set him up for a burgeoning political career.
If he goes the basketball route, New York stands as the best option, as Kristaps Porzingis is the most versatile second-option of any suitor. The Clippers is a close second, as Tobias Harris has risen the ranks and is now an acceptable second star. In Washington, turmoil has permeated the premises, but Bradley Beal still oozes potential and John Wall is a top-35 player when he doesn’t force the issue.
Durant has struggled most with being second-fiddle. Being second-best is a bug that bit at him ever since high school. So it’s very possible the Warriors three-peat this year and Durant itches to control his own team — as Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook have kept him from unleashing full reign.
Who knows, Durant could be clad in the Wizards’ blue and red this time next year while Kawhi is a Laker, and Kyrie is starring as Yoda in the next Star Wars.
It’s hard to imagine, but not impossible. After all, Lebron has made anything possible.