You can only look so far ahead of the moment you’re in. Some might even say planning for the future is a futile endeavor, or, as Outkast put it, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.”
Eventually the future comes, and when it doesn’t look quite like you envisioned it, you’re left with two options: continue the cycle of looking ahead or live in the moment to the best of your ability.
I believe Lebron James came back to Cleveland with intentions of retiring there. I think he loved the narrative he created for himself; the notion that bringing even one championship to his title-starved hometown would bring him a legacy no other athlete could boast, at least not to such a degree.
I think he organized Kevin Love’s arrival there. He saw Kyrie Irving’s potential. He saw a world where, over the years, more players—perhaps some of his many talented friends—would complement or replace Love and Irving. He left himself open to changing positions or adapting in his late-thirties. He saw the Spurs’ coming decline. He envisioned an NBA where he would quite simply compete every single year, an NBA where he’d undoubtedly have somewhere between a 30 and 60 percent chance of winning a championship until he officially played his last game.
Quite simply, he came back to Cleveland and pictured a world where life would be good, and basketball would be fun.
But those plans were made before the Warriors’ dynasty had come to be, and certainly before Kevin Durant decided to solidify it. James wasn’t trying to guarantee championships. He just assumed he’d always be pretty close to winning them by the simple nature of being Lebron James.
The Warriors ruined those plans. They created a world where anything short of a super team will get trounced in a playoff series. And that is why we are once again talking about James’ future.
James has been bit by the humbling reality of the things that he cannot control.
But something he’s rarely given credit for is the relentless nature to which he manages that which he can control. His otherworldly athleticism and injury avoidance isn’t just God-given; it’s the result of extremely disciplined body maintenance. His ability to elevate his teammates comes from season-length study and self-education of their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. His ability to peak in the postseason is a product of careful management of how he approaches the regular season.
Soon, the trade deadline will pass, and James will have an honest assessment of what is in front of him, of what is within his control. Then he’ll act on that, and whether or not we take a break from goofy narratives or future hypotheticals to acknowledge it, what he does next will likely be remarkable. Because what Lebron James has control over is precisely how to utilize the fact that he might simultaneously be the most athletic, skilled, and intelligent basketball player in history.
What James does in the Eastern Conference playoffs is going to showcase the mastery required to achieve an outcome that isn’t guaranteed. What he expected for his career from a championship perspective has been scaled down only a bit. He’ll take the court against little-brother-turned-little-rival Irving and the Celtics dead-set on proving that that the real problem with choosing not to play with Lebron James is inevitably having to face Lebron James. He’ll see a hungry Raptors team that he has historically dominated, and he’ll be eager to subject them to history as no different than Bulls and Hawks teams that he historically dominated through their entire primes. He’ll see a younger version of himself in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and quickly establish the young superstar as an underdog, because when two superstars face off and one of them is Lebron James, the other one ends up applauded in his losing effort.
It’s always a simple analogy to treat off-court NBA decision making like a game of chess. It’s not incorrect by any means. Chess is a game in which you have to be one step ahead to come away with the advantage needed for victory.
But basketball is also a game, and it also takes premeditation and strategy. And it’s considerably more fun to watch than chess.
When James likely makes it out of the East to face the Warriors, he’ll be confronted with the team that ruined his career plans. They’re the team that a few weeks later will probably have him redefining and rethinking his own future. But they’re also the team that will force him to elevate his game to a place we’ve never even come close to seeing from a 15-year veteran.
We usually talk around the simple truths that even slightly contradict the most universally accepted truth on a subject. We all agree that the Warriors may very well be unbeatable. But it would be foolish to argue that there’s a team in the NBA, Warriors included, that can stop Lebron James from getting to the rim and finishing.
And James will force the Warriors to reckon with that truth, because, until July, it’s all that’s within his control.