LeBron James isn’t texting you back. You explain your thinking to him, keep him abreast of what’s happening and what might—as you should—but in response you’re getting only read receipts. Not even the little gray ellipsis-pocketing cloud appears. He’s not failing to respond because he doesn’t have anything to add or because he can’t find the right words to express himself. He’s silent as a matter of personal policy. The implication is he’s not going to do your job for you. Of course he’s already made his preferences known, if not explicitly. You proceed with your work. You make a few more phone calls, scrawl some names and salary numbers on a legal pad. You text LeBron again. Your one-way correspondence with him is a record of what you need to say and he doesn’t.
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The letter was flattering and high-minded and all, but it took LeBron three games to start acting out. He spent long stretches of a Tuesday night in Portland standing twenty-five feet from the basket flat-footed, with his arms at his side, as Kyrie Irving dribbled down the shot clock. He may have done a camera take at one point. The Cavs lost by nineteen and afterward, he said some pointedly passive-aggressive stuff to reporters about all the bad habits Cleveland had acquired while he was in Miami competing for titles and his former team was discovering what a mistake Anthony Bennett was.
From there, it’s been four years of melodrama and Finals trips. LeBron took a two-week January sabbatical in the middle of that first season back with Cleveland, in part to get his body right—he had dropped some weight over the summer and wasn’t looking like himself—but also because he was fed up with the new teammates he had chosen. At the time, the Cavs were much more miserable than their 18-and-12 record suggested. LeBron returned in MVP form, and the team improved from there, but he still took time in February to grumblingly subtweet about Kevin Love’s loner vibes. He ignored and occasionally outright undermined David Blatt, who lasted a year-and-a-half before getting axed for losing a locker room he never commanded in the first place. LeBron won a championship, playing the best basketball of his career, maybe the best basketball anyone has ever played. And then he spent the next season complaining about Cleveland passing on minimum free agent scrubs like Ray Felton and Michael Beasley, fretting about not having an end-of-the-bench enforcer, unfollowing the Cavs on Twitter and acting nonplussed when asked about it. He shouted out David Griffin after the team let him walk this past summer. He annoyed and alienated Kyrie Irving. He became disenchanted with a gimpy, diminished Isaiah Thomas after—come to think of it, about three games.
In sum, LeBron’s return stint in Cleveland has been a success, but it has also been red-assed, volatile, and extra. You get the impression from his behavior that LeBron didn’t actually read all those business management books he probably placed lovingly onto the lower tier of his coffee table and then never thought about again. There’s this thing that many very talented and/or powerful people do, where they drive over other people’s feelings like a monster truck over a Saab and make impossible demands of subordinates and nobody around them says anything because there’s some unwritten universal law that stars are allowed to be ridiculous and cruel. See: the way big-time directors run their sets, the dehumanizing bro-Hades of working on Wall Street, Norman Mailer’s entire adult life.
LeBron is no monster, but his chronic impatience and his refusal to ever meet his lessers—which include not only a loutish paycheck endorser like Dan Gilbert, but teammates and coaches—halfway makes him an imperfect leader. There are tasks he won’t lower himself to and punches he won’t pull. So he makes his frustrations with Kevin Love public. He doesn’t pick up the phone when he hears that Kyrie Irving wants to leave Cleveland. He’s not an accommodating guy, and it sometimes appears that he’s choosing to be difficult only to remind everyone else who’s in charge. That’s a hard-won privilege, but he often harms his own interests by exercising it.
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He was elated on Sunday afternoon, hopping on the balls of his feet in between plays, bigging up teammates he had met just a couple days previous. LeBron was being somewhat performatively welcoming, and it was easy for him to be in a good mood as the Cavs were demolishing the Celtics by the end of the first half, but he was also genuinely pleased to be surrounded by a bunch of springy twentysomethings who defended with gusto and were content to play off the ball on offense. As George Hill, who at thirty-one is the lone old-ish fellow Cleveland traded for at the deadline, said upon his arrival, the Cavs got to be all Robins to LeBron’s Batman. Kyrie Irving lost interest in that after a while. Isaiah Thomas didn’t want any part of it. But what is Jordan Clarkson going to do? He doesn’t have the juice to be anything other than compliant. He’ll accept his nightly allotment of wide open jumpers and like it.
Given the choice, anybody would take even a disgruntled Kyrie over what the Cavs have now, though it’s not clear that was an option. All the variously valenced noise coming out of Cleveland over the past month has suggested that everybody involved except Irving knows they screwed up. Sources that sound like Cavs management claim the point guard was totally done with LeBron and threatened to have surgery and slow-walk his rehab to avoid playing with him. LeBron’s media wranglers say he told the Cavs to bring Kyrie to training camp and they would sort out their differences there, and that LeBron was blindsided by the franchise pulling the trigger so quickly on the Boston deal. It’s also been reiterated recently that Dan Gilbert forced the trade through even after Cleveland learned that Isaiah Thomas’s hip was in worse condition than they initially thought. There’s an excess of recrimination flying in every direction, which is a predictable outcome considering LeBron, the Cavs’ front office, and Gilbert each contributed to a twenty-five-year-old who might be the best pure scorer in the league joining a direct rival by not doing everything they possibly could have done to keep him around. Whether it would have helped or not—maybe Kyrie really was dead-set on leaving—they definitely could have tried harder.
For the first time since he was on his way out of Cleveland in 2010, LeBron has no established sidekick. Love is a good player who has never been at his best with the Cavs. Rodney Hood is having a breakout season, but he’s not quite a star. Then there are a bunch of useful role players: Hill, Larry Nance, Tristan Thompson, et al. It’s an interesting team and LeBron will make the newcomers a little bit better than they were elsewhere with his transcendent passing. We’ll learn over the next few weeks if the Cavs are once again favorites to win the Eastern Conference, but they’re guaranteed to improve on their dour first fifty games of the season. Not for nothing, they’ll at least be a lot more fun to watch. As far as their ceiling: who really cares, when the Warriors persist as they do? LeBron averaged a triple-double in last year’s Finals. Kyrie scored nearly thirty a game. The Cavs lost in five. This team would likely get swept. Whatever.
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LeBron makes it a point to emphasize that you are dealing with him, as opposed to the inverse, or as opposed to operating in an equal partnership. In his late twenties, he didn’t stop caring about what people think—if there’s a crucial difference between him and Jordan, it’s that he conspicuously constructs his mythology in a way that Jordan simply seemed to live his—but he came into a much fuller control of his own narrative. Some of this is that he won titles in Miami, and with his play and accomplishments damn near unimpeachable, it became easier for him to deflect criticisms. But he also realized that he is the most powerful person in the NBA, and while he can’t control everything that’s said about him, he can control how he’s treated by everyone he works with.
He left the Heat because the team was getting old, the Cavs were young and had valuable assets, and because he felt like he had unfinished business in Cleveland, but Pat Riley publicly calling him out in a presser didn’t help Miami’s case. Riley thought he could play on LeBron’s insecurities by challenging his manhood, and LeBron essentially responded by saying he didn’t owe Riley anything, and that he can be a great man anywhere he wants to. Before he rejoined the Cavs, LeBron instructed them to clear out cap space for him. Cleveland wanted a commitment, so they didn’t trade away players and picks only to get left hanging. LeBron rebuffed them: do as I ask first; then I’ll commit. When he officially returned to Cleveland, the news wasn’t broken by Adrian Wojnarowski or Marc Stein. He delivered it, in something like his own words, to Lee Jenkins in a proto-Players’ Tribune piece, and he signed, not a long-term contract, but a one-year deal with a player option for another season, to keep a smidgen of extra pressure on Cavs management. As soon as it was legal to do so, the team sent Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love, at LeBron’s request.
Ironically, LeBron hasn’t ever appeared to particularly like playing with Love. Cleveland has shopped him around for the past two summers. It wouldn’t be surprising if they moved him this offseason, perhaps packaged with the Brooklyn Nets’ first-rounder, to bring in a more suitable running mate for LeBron, who will spend June and early July with his phone blowing up with Cavs developments he won’t comment on, about trades they’re trying to swing and money they’re willing to spend. There will be pitches from a bunch of other teams, too. Because LeBron gets what he wants, if not always what he needs. This is being in business with him: you live in the reality he creates or disappear beyond its bounds. You make a few more phone calls. You think you might have something that will satisfy him. You text him again. Nothing on the other end. You don’t know it, and he won’t tell you, but you hope like hell you’re doing enough.