Would anyone really want to be LeBron’s newest teammate?
You get the King, but you also get drama, media spotlight and all the blame if your team doesn’t win
Where will LeBron go?
As we all mull over that question, an unspoken notion, that any NBA player should want to play with LeBron James, steers how the overall discussion will unfold. We just assume that Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, James Harden, Paul George and others should consider themselves lucky if they become his teammate next season. I want to challenge this assumption because I think there are some reasons that star players should steer clear of playing with him.
For one, wherever he goes, drama follows. The constant media attention, the relentless reports of turmoil, the incessant rumors of internal strife with players and the coaching staff — that stuff wears on guys. I get the sense that most NBA players just want to ball and the other stuff that comes along with it, unfair scrutiny from media and dealing with ginned-up controversies, sucks the fun out of playing the game.
On a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Kyrie Irving gave breath to that claim. Speaking about the mental toll of playing alongside LeBron, Irving said, “You’re being tested in the biggest stage in front of everyone, all the time. I mean, like, there was not a time where it was like the eyes weren’t on me, on ‘Bron, on [Kevin] Love, our team, our organization. I went from being in Cleveland to having half the fans show up to now ‘Bron shows up and now every night is packed, every road game is like a home game for us. You think of the media attention that comes with all of that and the elevated pressure of ‘now it’s championship or you fail.’ And then you gotta figure out how you fit within the system. Basketball is a systemic game. How do you build that strategy, and how do you fit in with that? And it was tough.”
If a central goal of an NBA player is partly to enjoy the finite years of a career, playing with LeBron might not be the best experience for many.
Any player instantly becomes a sidekick. The discussion about whichever team LeBron chooses will devolve into one question: Does he have enough help? Help? How many players should welcome the opportunity to become “the help”?
If the sports world concludes that LeBron lacks the requisite help, then those players deemed not good enough — i.e., the rest of the team — will face criticism. Their every flaw will be magnified. And no one will be safe.
Take George, for instance. When the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated by the Utah Jazz, George, one of the players linked to play with James should he go to the Lakers, went 2-of-16 from the field for a total of five points. He encountered a sprinkle of castigation. Some folks mocked the “Playoff P” nickname and wondered aloud how he could score only five points in an elimination game. But imagine if he did that while playing with LeBron? He’d get killed in the media. Why invite that sort of judgment?
But if LeBron has enough help, typically defined as if he wins the NBA title, the other players aren’t given their due respect. They become the help that was just helpful enough.
Love, an NBA champion, receives none of the deference a five-time All-Star with a ring typically enjoys. And Chris Bosh? Some people seriously debate whether he is a Hall of Fame player. These men tasted the pinnacle of winning in the NBA, but they aren’t dining on the same meal that other champions savored.
Lastly, no matter where LeBron goes, he will be the player. He is the sun. The rest of the players on the team are the planets that revolve around him. I think James Harden was getting at that when he said after winning his MVP award, “I don’t think there’s a piece we need to bring in or take away. We’re great with what we have. Our main focus is getting better, getting healthier, and then doing what we do.” He knows he can’t maximize his talents playing in LeBron’s shadow. He likely wants no part of that, and such an outlook is reasonable.
I don’t think Simmons should want to play with LeBron. For him to reach his zenith, he needs the ball in his hands. Simmons can’t grow as a player watching LeBron make the plays he should be making. And even though Joel Embiid has publicly vied for LeBron to come to the Sixers, LeBron has never played with a dominant post player. Embiid needs to enhance his game on the block, devise his own version of Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake, to see how good he can become. Playing alongside LeBron will turn him into Bosh, a player who plays around the 3-point line, allowing LeBron to have space to work his magic.
This is reportedly one of the reasons that Irving left. He wanted to see what heights he could reach absent LeBron. I want to see how good Simmons and Embiid can become too.
They can only do it without LeBron.