Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James is inching toward passing Michael Jordan on the all-time NBA scoring leader list. A big accomplishment among many from his decorated career.
But, he may have to move forward through the rest of his career without star teammates. A big disappointment that could limit his ability to win another title.
LeBron has watched big-name player after big-name player repel the invitation to play alongside him. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler each opted for alternative routes after their names became trade fodder. Kyrie Irving infamously asked to be traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2017 after growing tired of the James circus. For Irving, being the Alpha and Omega, as he was pre-James, was more fitting.
New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis is the only player who has openly shown interest in playing alongside James. But, those trade talks that consumed the first part of February fell through, and it is likely Davis was most intrigued by the big market Los Angeles presents for his career.
In theory, who wouldn’t want to play with James? A guaranteed path to the NBA playoffs ensues, and a star player would certainly have his game elevated under James’ direction. Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade were already star players pre-James, but they should certainly thank James for the extra jewelry they own (Wade of course already won a ring before James, too.)
But, star players are more territorial than ever about their brands and space. When James joined Miami in 2010 and Cleveland in 2014, it was before NBA players probably considered themselves brands via social media, at least the way they do now. The world has evolved since then, and NBA players are conscious of their perception on social media platforms. Simply put, players like being the center of attention. And, being the center of attention means the storyline drives through them.
If a star player decides to play with James, that will not be the case. As we’ve seen with celebrities such as the late Michael Jackson and currently Kanye West, James loves the narrative to circle back to him. With any James-led team, the credit will almost certainly be given to him if the team succeeds. Because of his worldly talents, it’s hard to credit it to anyone else.
As Kevin Love and Irving found out in Cleveland, and Wade and Chris Bosh saw in Miami, tough times for James-led teams lead to a lot of criticism. Love and Irving were routinely seen as scapegoats, and Bosh and Wade were seen as not enough help for James in their final season together.
If a James-led team wins, James gets the credit. If a James-led team loses, his team gets the blame.
With that said, NBA stars aren’t interested in individual-driven narratives that are not their own. George was linked to James in the summer of 2018 but ultimately elected to stay in Oklahoma City. If Oklahoma City falters, the blame will be placed on George and Russell Westbrook. Perhaps George can live with that type of criticism.
Leonard was trade bait for the Lakers, too, once James signed on. But, Leonard rejected that idea and was promptly traded to the Toronto Raptors from San Antonio. The Raptors currently sit one game back from the Milwaukee Bucks for first place in the East. There is little debate on who is the driving force behind their success.
Lastly, Butler’s name was brought up while he was a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. At the time, he expressed his desire to play for the either Knicks, Nets, or the Clippers. The common denominator? He would be the face of the franchise. Besides, could we see Butler and James co-existing after Butler’s debacle in Minnesota? While both are competitors, it’s hard to see Butler giving up so much autonomy to someone of James’ caliber.
With James, there will be no face of the franchise luxury. Instead, players will be shifted to being a member of All the King’s men. Given how players are careful about their image and their egos, playing alongside James could be a hard pill to follow. Going from the center of the universe to just a variable would be a major adjustment.
Not to mention how stars have to change their games alongside James, possibly the other half of the battle. James notoriously made Bosh and Love stretch four’s while taking the ball out of Wade and Irving’s hands. James’ talent as a scorer and passer elevates pressure on his teammates and coaches. In turn, coaches are less hands-on and guards primarily stand around waiting for James to pass them the ball.
George fought the good fight with Westbrook and has evidently won that battle. With James, that probably would not have happened. Leonard and Butler play the same position as James, but they probably don’t want to wait around for James to give them the ball.
This entire ordeal has made James a walking paradox. How can a man who is willing to pass the ball not have stars knocking at his door?
Because frankly, like a spoiled child, James shares items on his terms and his way. In an NBA that’s becoming more and more star-centric, other players would rather go to a team-first dynamic (Durant to the Warriors) or be the face of a franchise (Irving to Boston.) With James, there is no team-first dynamic or being the face of the franchise. It’s all about James, and it always will be.
Truthfully, there isn’t anything wrong with this, and James has been successful because of it. It’s hard to debate someone’s status for G.O.A.T. arguments with four MVPs and three rings. But in the end, what comes with playing with James isn’t attractive to other big-name free agents anymore. And, at this stage of James’ career, there’s a good chance he’s fine with that.