Starting around lunchtime on Thursday, just a few hours before the NBA’s trade deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers front office began doing its best impression of a drunk and stoned college student set loose in a gas station convenience store. In an unprecedented attempt at an in-season instantaneous teardown-and-rebuild the Cavs shipped out literally half their roster, replacing the outgoing talent with a hodgepodge of veteran journeymen and unproven up-and-comers. It was a wild, enormously risky torrent of deals that frayed the wits and nerves of NBA Twitter and may or may not actually make the Cavs better. All we can be certain of is that the Cavs sent half their team packing as both a bulwark and a hedge against the still-unknown travel plans of their franchise-defining megastar. It was a frantic, desperate heave, a fast-twitch burst of insanity that served as a microcosm of the Cavs’—and the entire NBA’s—relationship to the league’s best player. On this and most every other day, LeBron James is a man standing in the middle of a world desperately contorting itself around him, seemingly pulling all the strings while actually touching none of them.
The Cavs have hit a midseason rocky patch every year since LeBron James’ return to Cleveland in 2014, and yet every year they’ve made it to the NBA Finals. In 2016, you might recall, they upset the 73-win Golden State Warriors (who blew a 3–1 lead) to bring the city its first title. This season, however, has felt direr than others: Their star forward Kevin Love is out for two months with a broken hand, while their marquee offseason acquisition, Isaiah Thomas, lasted a little over a month on the court before being exiled to the Lakers via trade. The team’s coaching staff seems miserable and disoriented, while its defense—never a particular strong suit—is among the very worst in the league. The Cavs are 31–22 but have gone just 7–13 in their last 20 games, and for the season they have a point differential of -0.7 per game. That means that, on average, the Cavs score fewer points than their opponents, which is a good way to lose basketball games.
Their season hit a new low on Tuesday night when the Cavs turned a 21-point lead into an 18-point loss to the lowly Orlando Magic, who outscored Cleveland 65–31 in the second half. I watched the fourth quarter of that game, and it was like stumbling into the third act of an incompetently performed Lars Von Trier film. The level of defensive indifference was extraordinary even by the Cavs’ standards, and James in particular looked dejected and tuned-out. LeBron was back to his old tricks 24 hours later, when, for the oh-who-can-even-keep-track-anymore time in his career, he won a game more or less singlehandedly, making no fewer than three game-changing and increasingly difficult plays in the last 30 seconds of overtime to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves. LeBron giveth, and giveth, and giveth. The Cavs’ front office has now attempted to giveth back, in wild-eyed hopes he won’t once again taketh away. It’s both an untenable existence and a precondition to living in the world he’s made.
LeBron James is, at worst, the second-best basketball player of all time, and the most influential team sports athlete of his era. Michael Jordan bent the game to his will and rewrote the possibilities of athlete marketing, but James has fundamentally altered the way his entire sport does business. No player has ever wielded more power, thanks to his reliance on short-term contracts and shrewd weaponization of free agency as well as his deep connections to Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports, now one of the league’s premier agencies. Jordan used his talents to win titles and earn himself previously unthinkable amounts of money; LeBron has used his to do both those things while also becoming a labor revolutionary, collapsing the boundaries between employee and management in profound and irreversible ways.
The inane talk-radio critique of LeBron has always been that he puts his own interests over those of his team, a laughable claim to make about a player who’s now dragged two franchises to a record seven consecutive NBA Finals and shown a remarkable commitment to improving the financial fortunes of his teammates while doing so. It’s more accurate to say LeBron puts the interests of his career over the interests of the organization he plays for—that he’s more invested in his own legacy than that of his team’s ownership group.
The current Cleveland crisis must be seen as part of a long-running saga of mutual resentments between James and the Cavs’ owner, Dan “Comic Sans” Gilbert. Gilbert wants James to be a loyal employee and company man; James wants to be treated like what he is, the single most valuable resource in his sport. Last summer, the Cavs jettisoned GM David Griffin and traded star point guard Kyrie Irving, both reportedly against James’ wishes. James lobbied hard for Griffin to be re-signed, while Gilbert, believed to be resentful of the credit Griffin received for the 2016 championship, deemed his contract demands too expensive. As for the Irving saga, the specifics may never be fully known; the Athletic recently reported that, while James urged the Cavs to keep Irving and allow the two to mend their relationship, Irving was dead set on leaving. But it’s also been reported that Irving’s alienation from the team hardened when he found out the Cleveland front office had tried to trade him to Phoenix in June, around the time of Griffin’s firing, a timeline that would indicate the deterioration of the Irving era was as much a product of front-office dysfunction as interpersonal strife with James.
The Irving trade has been disastrous for Cleveland, a reality that’s even more stark after Thursday’s flurry of deals. Prior to the deadline, the most valuable asset Cleveland acquired in the trade, the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick, had festered into its most divisive commodity. There was rampant speculation about whether the team would trade the pick for another star to help LeBron this season, or whether it would hold on to it as an investment in the all-too-uncertain seasons to come. That decision, of course, was freighted with implications. By trading the pick to win now, you’d be mortgaging the future to placate a superstar who might leave anyway. By holding on to the pick, you’re probably both nudging that superstar out the door and giving him a ready-made explanation for why he left.
If James departs this summer, Gilbert will be widely vilified, and understandably so. He is a singularly unsympathetic figure, a vain and petty man who has twice alienated the greatest player of his generation and has shown little aptitude for management outside of a propensity for luck. And yet I’m not sure it was ever going to end any other way. The qualities that have made James such an epochal force—and the power he has come to wield—are incommensurate with the illusions of power of those who surround him. That goes for Dan Gilbert, Pat Riley (recall that James’ departure from Miami was less than totally amicable), Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, and probably Kevin Love and Dwyane Wade as well. James has long been dogged by the impression that he creates drama wherever he goes, but how could he not? Even if James didn’t demand that teams structure their entire operational worldview around his talents and desires, they would make every effort to do so in the hope of pleasing him.
The Cavs aren’t dead yet, even if they’re newly Frankenstein-ed, and may have another run in them. If LeBron does manage to drag this team to the NBA Finals, it’ll be one of the greatest achievements in a career overflowing with them. And this summer, when James will likely take his talents elsewhere, some other team will rearrange its entire universe around his particular wishes, acquiring the greatest player of his generation as he makes however many more runs toward immortality. What sort of tears that relationship will end in is yet to be seen, but the greatest revolutions are rarely bloodless.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus