Unable on his own to topple the late 2000s Boston Celtics — a contender forged by trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007 — LeBron left the Cavs in 2010 to replicate a super-team blueprint alongside incumbent Dwyane Wade and fellow newcomer Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.
Technically, the Cavs traded James to the Heat, as the Toronto Raptors did with Bosh, if only to salvage something out of the wreckage, but for all intents and purposes they arrived in Miami via free agency. LeBron’s “Decision” was a monumental deviation from tradition, made more of a spectacle by the television and light shows that accompanied his promises of an inordinate amount of championships.
James was the first ex-MVP to so voluntarily change teams in his prime since Moses Malone joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982, and even then the Houston Rockets opted not to match Moses’ salary. In other words, what LeBron did was unprecedented and remained so until Durant did the same in 2016.
LeBron’s Heat vanquished an aging Celtics core on their way to a pair of titles, and when his Miami squadron had similarly run its course, he returned to the Cavs and constructed another super-team — thanks to the three No. 1 picks in his four years away that turned into Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
After the Cavs exacted championship payback in the 2016 Finals, the Warriors — a team built through the draft — took a page out of LeBron’s playbook, convincing Durant that untold titles awaited once he took his talents to the Bay Area during free agency last summer. If you’re not following this narrative, allow the league’s 2014 MVP to explain, via the latest column from Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:
Though Durant says he did not consider James’ precedent, he readily admits, “He paved the way.”
That’s right. LeBron’s Decision “paved the way” for Durant to join the Warriors. If KD wanted to know how a free-agent turn to Golden State would affect his legacy, all he had to do was follow James’ career arc over the past seven years — from the kid who could never come through in the clutch to villainous traitor to two-time champion to homecoming savior to maybe the Greatest of All Time.
Durant didn’t have to consider James’ jump from Cleveland to Miami and back to The Land when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the team that beat them in the 2016 Western Conference finals. It was already in the ether, an accepted part of the modern NBA culture. Of the 26 players selected to the 2016 All-Star Game, only half of them have played their entire careers for the same franchise.
So, while the viewing public outside Miami and the Bay Area generally despised the Decision and looked upon Durant’s choice with disdain, it should come as no surprise KD sees this development as a positive step forward — a free-market economy trading on personal well-being for capital gain:
“As time goes on, and the changes start to become normal, people will start looking at it as normal,” Durant told B/R Mag. “I hope and pray that they make a decision that’s best for them, and nobody else.”
“That’s what free agency is about—doing what you want to do. I commend LeBron. I commend LaMarcus Aldridge. I commend guys that stay, because they did what they wanted to do. That’s the power of free agency.”
And Durant is absolutely right. NBA players should do what’s best for them. That doesn’t mean fans have to like it. And it doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite them. Just ask LeBron, who made the free-agency manufactured super-team bed and is now laying in a 2-0 Finals hole to Durant’s Warriors.
LeBron can’t complain about the NBA’s tidal change, because he’s got three rings to show for it. Fans watching the wave from home will just have to hope the next super-team rides through their city. In the meantime, we’ll just have to take satisfaction from watching the game’s greats make history.
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