Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to a Game Theorist

LeBron James, a chess piece.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images and WestLight/Thinkstock.

On July 1, LeBron James becomes a free agent. NBA insiders are tapping their sources to determine where LeBron might land next season, and James’ every move will be heavily scrutinized all summer. We’d hate to be left out of the fun, which is why we’re running a series titled, “Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to Someone I Called on the Phone.” For this installment, I spoke to Lara Buchak, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Buchak specializes in game theory and is the author of Risk and Rationality, a book about rational decision-making. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Nick Greene: One of your research fields is game theory. I hear that term a lot these days but don’t really know what it means. Can you explain it to me, a dumb person?


Lara Buchak: Game theory is the study of what happens when two rational people interact with each other. Game theorists try to build models of how people make decisions in those circumstances to see what people will do, and also what they should do. My particular field is decision theory, which is about individual decision-making. So if you don’t know what is going to happen, but maybe you have some beliefs of what might happen, then what should you do?

So you are an expert in making decisions?


I’m an expert in studying decisions. I don’t know if I’m very good at making them.

Are you a basketball fan?

I am. I don’t have much time to watch the regular-season games, but I try to catch the playoffs and the finals.

Are you aware of or did you watch LeBron James’ fateful TV special The Decision eight years ago?

I did not.

[I explain The Decision and the ensuing backlash to Buchak. It takes me 45 seconds and she says, “Uh-huh” once near the beginning of my explanation.]

When you think about making decisions, do you take into account how one announces that decision?


That’s not the kind of thing I study.


Do you think the fact that LeBron hadn’t won an NBA championship after seven years in Cleveland made it a good decision for him to move to Miami?

According to decision theory, what matters is whether you made a good decision given your information at the time, and not how it turned out. So if it was the right decision then, it would still be the right decision even if it goes poorly. When you think about decision-making, basically there are three things you have to figure out. The first is what things you value. Other people’s reactions to your decision might be something you care a lot about, and if that’s right, then you should take that into account. If he knew that announcement was going to cause so much consternation, then he must have really wanted to go despite that. The second factor in decision-making is how likely you think different choices are to get you what you value, and the third is how much you like to take risks versus play it safe.


Have you been keeping up with LeBron’s current free agency decision?


I just did a little bit of Google research on it. Am I correct in thinking that the Cavaliers, the 76ers, and the Lakers are currently considered the top options?

That’s what the reports seem to be indicating, but theoretically, he could go to any team in the NBA.


He’s back in Cleveland now, so he’s already done this twice. How much should his previous decisions weigh on this decision?

Previous decisions can tell us a lot about what he values. So, maybe you’re wondering, does he value money? Then he might want to go to a place that pays him the most. He might value winning championships, so he might go to the place that looks like it has the highest odds of winning. Or he might value personal acclaim, so he might want to go the place where, if he wins, he’ll get a lot of credit.


If you’ve accomplished what you’ve wanted with your previous decisions, are you more likely to want to try something new or to keep reinforcing the things that have already gone well?

It depends on what kind of person you are. If you are a risk-taker, you might want to explore something new and meet some other goal. If you’re not much of a risk-taker, then you might want to stick with the kind of accomplishment you know you can do. I suppose we can look at his behavior on the basketball court to see whether he makes risky decisions.


If what qualifies as a good decision is what’s right in the moment, then how might LeBron make a bad decision?


Maybe LeBron thinks he wants to just win and be on a superteam, but he might realize later that wasn’t what he wanted. Or he could go wrong in his beliefs. He could think, hey, joining the Lakers will make them really likely to win, but he may just be wrong about that.

As a decision expert, where do you think he should go?

I’m a biased decision expert because my hometown is Philadelphia. But no, let me think about this objectively. I think what he should value is the opportunity to do something unique. Would you say he’s a risk-taker on the basketball court?

Everybody says he always makes the right decisions, but he still gets criticized. Like when he gives the ball to an open shooter who misses, people say he should have taken the shot himself.


That sounds a little more like playing cautiously to me. If he’s more of a by-the-book person who just wants to go for the guaranteed good move, I think he’s going to stay in Cleveland.

Very logical. I think he could benefit from reading this. 

Well, if he’s reading this, then I change my answer to Philadelphia.

Previously in Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to Someone I Called on the Phone:

Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to a Wine Critic

Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to a Theoretical Astrophysicist