When LeBron James finally retires, his career will look less complicated than most of us anticipated in the moment, while we were deconstructing his every move. That career will consist of four separate chapters. We just concluded the third chapter.
I don't say with certainty or arrogance or as personal advice to him that James will leave Cleveland. I only assume he will for the specific reason that he will be given almost universal permission to do so. The only people who would dare criticize him for leaving in free agency either were never going to support anything he does in the first place, or love the city of Cleveland to the point that they don’t even go on vacations.
And while LeBron James certainly doesn't need the equally unimportant validation of me, a person who writes about basketball, or you, a person who reads about basketball, the years worth of scrutiny has to have been, at the very least, an annoying weight on his shoulders he’s become accustomed to bearing. And the earned good will from the masses to take loyalty out of the narrative is a very rare thing afforded to few professional athletes. Why wouldn’t he take advantage? It’d be like not going to the park on the nicest day of the year; you certainly don’t have to, but don’t you deserve it?
Three is a traditionally cleaner number when it comes to arbitrary colloquial conversations. No one prefaces a photograph with, “On the count of four…” So, it’s an easy assumption that James went to Cleveland with expectation of it being his third and final chapter.
With the benefit of hindsight, his initial return to Cleveland was fraught with a handful of miscalculations, incorrect assumptions, and unfortunate timing. Those factors resulted in the need for a fourth chapter, but what will surely get brushed over in our constant forward-seeking narratives is how compelling and unique they made that third chapter.
James had a “Big 3” in Miami during his second chapter. He tried to form one in Cleveland for chapter three, but it never really was what he wanted it to be. In fact, chapter two of James’ career will be looked back at as the “Big 3 Chapter” and that’s because it was better than his Cleveland trio. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were key characters whose arcs didn’t play out like James had hoped.
Even if it’s a bit unfair to call the Kevin Love trade a mistake, it was certainly made with expectations that Love would continue to be a top-20 player in the NBA, rather than immediately and consistently becoming a top-40 player post trade. The decline of his value—whether it was because of a deterioration of his skills or a sudden evolution of the NBA right past his skillset—wasn’t something James and the Cavaliers were planning on when they traded Andrew Wiggins to get him. And that’s not necessarily to criticize a productive player who contributed to a championship. It’s only to state that Kevin Love as second-best player isn’t a viable option for James going forward. Love was meant to be great, and instead he was fine in way that reestablished how great Chris Bosh really was back in chapter two.
Love is James’ best teammate because the James/Irving relationship devolved into a forced trade to one of James’ biggest rivals just as Irving was entering the prime of his career. It was just starting to look like it might soon rival James’ on-court partnership with Dwyane Wade. But Irving wanted his own book, and James misplayed his role as big brother.
But the most fundamentally unfortunate part of James’ third chapter is that it began as Steve Kerr was figuring out how valuable Draymond Green could become, as Steph Curry made the leap to video game player who starts every game on fire, and as the Warriors dynasty came to be. James withstood all of this, and still managed to beat the Warriors for a championship, only for that same team to add Kevin Durant and functionally double up the Cavs in accumulative talent.
So this chapter likely ends after four years, which Cleveland fans understandably don’t want to hear.
But they should take some solace in the fact that it still might be the most significant chapter in NBA history. It was the chapter when the “We Are All Witnesses” Nike campaign went from hyperbolic marketing to a legitimate descriptor of James’ career. He returned to his hometown and delivered a championship against a team that won 73 games. He mitigated the failed potential of his “Big 3” by elevating his game to a level of singular dominance.
“Greatest” is a loaded word to throw around, but I feel confident that the Warriors are the most difficult team to beat in NBA history. Yet they entered four straight finals appearances knowing that, if they weren’t careful, James would singlehandedly beat them.
It’s hard to process that only one championship came out of a four-year stretch of such transcendent basketball. But it’s also hard to win one championship or dominate the Eastern Conference for four straight years. The final unexpected twist of this chapter is that James is still operating at this level, as the best player in basketball.
We all celebrated and set expectations for James in the Introduction Chapter. We reckoned with him and his weird in-the-moment legacy during the Big 3 Chapter. It’s impossible to say what comes next. He’ll likely enter the Final Chapter. Or maybe the Cavaliers will somehow manage to keep him in Cleveland extending this one.
Either way. Chapter three was the Chapter When LeBron James Became Undeniable.