He's played hero and villain. He's come up short in the clutch and thrived when the going gets toughest. He's helped his team by getting into the lane at will, dominating the ball as a point-forward, making an emphasis to get into the post to play with his back to the basket and so much more.
He's been a lockdown defender who can guard any player for a short while, and he's exerted all of his energy on the offensive end when his team needs it most.
LeBron is certainly a versatile superstar, but which version of the four-time MVP are the Cleveland Cavaliers getting now that he's returning to his hometown squad?
Offense: Cleveland LeBron James, 2.0
During his first stint with the Cavaliers, LeBron had to do just about everything. Surrounded by a roster that lacked elite talent and a quality supporting cast, he was forced to carry the offense, taking on an inordinate amount of responsibility throughout the season.
The ball was almost always in his hands, and he morphed into both the leading scorer and one of the team's primary distributors.
That's why, even if his efficiency numbers increased dramatically when he took his talents to South Beach, he was able to post the best per-game numbers of his career when he was still in Cleveland.
Remember when he led the league in scoring with 30 points per game during the 2007-08 season? Remember how he also posted 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per contest that year?
During his final season in Cleveland, King James actually managed to record 29.7 points, 7.3 boards and 8.6 assists during the average outing. If you combine his best marks from his four-year tenure with the Miami Heat, LeBron's per-game averages would be 27.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists.
That's a fairly significant difference, and it speaks to his level of involvement in the respective offenses.
Well, get ready to see a new version of the player known as "Cleveland LeBron." That's the moniker the media tended to give him whenever he was shouldering a large load for the Heat, making up for lackluster performances from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
LeBron is now a smarter player, so he's not going to lose the efficiency he gained in Miami. But he's also surrounded by far more offensive talent than he played with during his first go-round with the Cavs. Kyrie Irving is a capable No. 1 scorer, and he'll be joined by either Andrew Wiggins or Kevin Love, along with Dion Waiters and—hopefully—an improved Tristan Thompson.
No longer will he have to be Cleveland LeBron, doing everything for his team. But he'll still look like that type of player, as he'll be operating in new head coach David Blatt's modified Princeton offense.
That style of play limits the meaning of positions, and it requires constant ball and player movement. Backdoor cuts are increasingly prevalent, and it's quite helpful when every player on the floor can capably handle and distribute the rock.
You can view a fantastic breakdown of Blatt's offensive stylings up above, but just think about what this flexibility does for a player like LeBron.
The four-time MVP is capable of dominating in the post. He can run an offense and rack up double-digit assists with some of the best passing chops ever seen in the NBA. He can excel as an individual scorer, thriving with his unstoppable bursts to the rim. More so than ever before, he can function as a spot-up shooter capable of spacing out a defense.
How many players can do it all on offense? Not many.
LeBron is certainly one of the few, and that will allow him to put up one of the most well-rounded lines of his career. Chances are, his scoring will dip while playing alongside Irving and trying to get the ball moving in that Blatt offense. But if there were ever a chance for a player to match Oscar Robertson and become the second member of the triple-double club...
That's probably going a bit too far (though doubting LeBron is often a recipe for disaster), as LeBron has never played next to a ball-dominating floor general like Irving. Nonetheless, expect smaller scoring numbers, a bit of everything and a career-high in trip-dubs—previous high is seven during the 2008-09 season)—as LeBron becomes the league's premier Swiss army knife.
Defense: Middle linebacker
Playing in a movement-heavy offense might sound tiring, but it's actually going to be easier on LeBron. After all, he won't take as much of a physical pounding while driving to the hoop, and the focus of the defense can't center around him when everyone is involved at all times.
Where does that extra energy go? Defense, of course.
With this team, one that features a sieve at point guard and a pair of frontcourt players—yes, this applies to either the Anderson Varejao-Tristan Thompson pairing or the Varejao-Kevin Love one—that can't protect the rim at a high level, LeBron will have to play with more defensive intensity than ever before.
During the 2013-14 season, the two-time champion was slow on the less glamorous end. He didn't close out shooters as effectively, and his reactions weren't as quick and finely tuned as they'd been in seasons prior. At times, he actually seemed disengaged.
This has to change.
As Tom Reed explains for the Northeast Ohio Media Group, former NBA coaches expect this end of the court to be where James makes a particularly large impact:
James announced his decision to return to Cleveland on Friday and the former coaches think he will bring a defensive mentality to a team that's struggled in that area since his 2010 departure.
'I think James will have a real impact on Kyrie Irving and Love – if he goes there,' said Van Gundy, an ESPN analyst. 'You need a real commitment to defense if you're going to win (a title). I think James knew that from his time in Cleveland and he certainly knew it from his time in Miami. He will bring that experience and defensive mindset back to Cleveland.'
If James is going to be a Swiss army knife on offense, he's going to be an even more toolsy one on this end of the floor. A middle linebacker, if you will, reading defenses and reacting in whatever way helps his team most.
Expect Blatt to emphasize switching when James is on the court, knowing that he can capably guard so many positions. If Andrew Wiggins is on the court with him, then that only increases the positionless feel of the wing defenders.
Ideally, James is given free rein.
If he feels like he should stray from his man and help off Irving's, he should be allowed to do exactly that. If he wants to cheat over and provide a block from the weak side, that's what he needs to do. If he thinks it's best to switch with someone else's man, by all means.
"I'm not a real big guy for names for positions," Blatt told CBS Sports' Matt Moore in Las Vegas. "You know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or point guard and shooting guard and small forward and power forward. You've got to be a basketball player and he's a basketball player."
That statement applied to the newest No. 1 pick, but it can also apply to the oldest one on the roster.
Off the Floor: Veteran Leader
This will ultimately be LeBron's most important role.
After all, he's no longer a precocious kid with insane levels of talent. He's gone through what he described in his announcement on Sports Illustrated as his college years with the Miami Heat, and there's now no doubt he's both a grown man and a veteran leader. It's a role he's well aware of, as he made clear during that letter:
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.
It's strange to think of the superhuman James as an "old head," but he's reached that stage of his career, especially after showcasing an increasing level of maturity over the last few seasons—and this offseason, with the hype and frenzy surrounding his free-agency decision a creation of the media, not the silent man at the heart of the drama.
"When James begins organizing team workouts before training camps begin, he's going to be the obvious leader and elder statesmen on a young team," writes USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "James has more combined NBA seasons (11) than Irving, Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters combined (nine)."
You can throw Wiggins into that mix as well.
Cleveland desperately needed leadership during the 2013-14 season, a campaign that was marred by internal clashes and a terrifying level of dysfunction when the losses were piling up. Winning will surely be a panacea, but there are still some personalities that have been—emphasis on the past tense—toxic.
As Deng recently told one close friend, 'the stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess.'
Deng was brought in to help clean it up when he arrived in a deal for Andrew Bynum on Jan. 7. But since then, he’s seen players get thrown out of practice, take off their uniform tops at halftime and threaten not to play, mouth off to Brown and generally act like spoiled brats. Entering Saturday’s game at Houston, the Cavs had lost seven of their last 11 games since the Deng trade.
There is no accountability, as Dion Waiters found out when he was kicked out of practice last week but still got his usual minutes against the Knicks. Brown isn’t getting much help from GM Chris Grant, who is expected to be fired at season’s end because of the losing and problems in the locker room.
That's the kind of stuff that LeBron can help prevent. He can be a steadying force in the locker room from day one, helping to mentor the young standouts both on and off the court. There will be accountability. There will be hard work.
Above all else, there will be a winning atmosphere and environment.
LeBron has reached the phase of his career in which he can impact every part of a basketball organization.
Offensively, his role will be an amalgamation of his Cleveland and Miami days, taking what he's learned with the Heat and filling a role more similar to the earlier portion of his superstardom. On defense, he'll be responsible for leading a big turnaround by doing a middle linebacker imitation and wreaking havoc in all areas.
But despite his massive on-court impact, the biggest difference of all will come off the court. If LeBron has his way, the young kids on the Cavaliers with plenty of upside will develop more quickly while thriving outside that 94-foot space.