Heading into the offseason, critics had a field day lambasting LeBron James for his desire to see where he could best land in free agency. Even a seemingly proper move as assessing his options — which everybody else in his position has sought to do — was viewed through lenses that fit the “He’s chasing rings” narrative. He’s supposedly getting in touch with other marquee names and convincing them to form a superteam with him. Forget about the absence of corroboration and confirmation; rumors were being spread as verified news. And forget about the fact that, even if true, he would simply have been exercising his right as a free agent.
Well, guess what? James chose the Lakers. Was he really desperate for hardware, as naysayers insist, he should have opted in and forced a trade to the Rockets, or even opted out and moved to the Sixers. Instead, he’s prepping to wear the purple and gold, the one jersey that will most guarantee intense scrutiny. Win, and he’ll just be accomplished enough to emerge from the shadows cast by the franchise’s greats. Lose, and he’ll be a bust.
As currently constructed, the Lakers are little better than the Cavaliers James left in his wake. They’re younger, yes, and boast of more potential. The flipside is that they’re in the West, where competition is much stiffer and they’re pegged to last until the second round. And they’ll ultimately be up against the powerhouse Warriors, overwhelming favorites following the return of newly minted Finals Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant and the arrival of four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins.
Clearly, James is no longer running after ghosts he cannot catch. He knows his legacy is secure. He has gone to nine Finals in 15 years, the last eight consecutively. His squads were favored in a mere two of those nine appearances, and only once (against the Mavericks in 2011) did he fail to meet expectations. He gave Cleveland its first championship in any sport over the last half century, and against the 2016 Warriors, identified by advanced analytics as the best-constructed team of all time by far; to top it off, he did so in dramatic fashion, leading a comeback never before seen in he annals of pro hoops.
James is now after more important matters outside the court. Sure, he’ll still aim to succeed; there are, after all, no limits to excellence. Nonetheless, he is setting up his pursuits in the here and now for the there and then. It’s why he agreed to a four-year contract with the Lakers. No more one-and-one or two-and-one deals that marked his second stint with the Cavaliers. He’s keen on playing the long game, and it’s no coincidence that when he becomes a free agent anew, he will have the opportunity to play alongside his son.
The critics will never be silenced. James has long been aware of the fact that he cuts a polarizing figure, and it doesn’t help that he occasionally places himself in avoidable situations that feed the beast. There was once a time when he fretted over all the negative feedback. That time is long past. He already realizes his place in history, and figures it’s about time for him to be, well, simply happy.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.