LeBron James wields more power than any athlete we've ever seen, and with it he has chosen to build things. In 2010, James opted for the unprecedented. His joint signing with two other star free agents reimagined the superteam as something players could fashion for themselves. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh signed to a roster that had been stripped bare, and promptly took Miami to two titles and four straight Finals.
In 2014, James left the defending Eastern Conference champions to sign with the Cavs, who had won just 33 games the season prior. His return to the team that drafted him spoke to a creative impulse. "My patience will get tested," James told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins in announcing his decision. "I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go."
And now, despite better basketball options, LeBron James will become a Laker, agreeing to a four-year, $154 million contract.
As has always been the case, LeBron's free agency is an exercise in imagination. Where we saw Andrew Wiggins, he saw the centerpiece of a trade for Kevin Love. Prospects like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma represent more than their literal basketball talents. Each could be a part of the next great Lakers team or a catalyst for its formation. LeBron's decision is less a statement of what a team is than what it could become. And with a little maneuvering, L.A. could add LeBron, preserve its means to re-sign Julius Randle, and still have cap room to play with. Kawhi Leonard looms large.
Both before and after signing, James has the political capital to spur a potential trade. His word carries weight. Love doesn't become a Cavalier without his blessing. J.R. Smith wouldn't be a champion if James hadn't vouched for him. Perhaps Kyrie Irving would still be in Cleveland had LeBron intervened. Maybe they both would. The most telling choices made by those with power are so often the cases where they do not use it.
If James says nothing, the Lakers' preference to keep Ingram may win out. If he tells the Lakers to push harder for Leonard, then Ingram might be traded for a star just as Wiggins was. If anything, the current need for such a trade seems all the more pressing. Love was a finishing piece for a team that already had James and a promising young scorer in Irving. Leonard would be a different sort of teammate—a superstar, when healthy, who is six years LeBron's junior. Whatever the Lakers are building, they will need youth to sustain it.
For that reason, this could be the most fascinating construction project of LeBron's career. It can be trying to acclimate a young team to the demands of winning basketball, as James found out first-hand in Cleveland. There's so much for developing players to learn and so little room for error on any team held to LeBron's standard.
That said, James is 33 years old. He remains the best player in basketball for the time being, but he now shares a conference and division with an all-time great opponent—the very same that bested his Cavs in three of four meetings in the NBA Finals. His response to that predicament (and to his own basketball mortality) was to join the most incomplete team he’s ever chosen to join on the longest deal he’s signed since 2010.
This is the lot LeBron has chosen. Not only does he champion player agency, but lives it; every contract option and pointed comment serves to reinforce his authority. Behind his historic string of Finals appearances is the soft power to shape his circumstances. To do things that no other star does and that no other star could.