It had to be Cleveland. That was why LeBron James had to escape the first time to Miami to finally play with two other stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Which stars in their primes would have left to join him in Northeast Ohio? No one signs up for that if they have other options. Throw in the fear of being stranded there if LeBron left, and it was simply too much for any top-shelf talent to bear.
LeBron leaving the first time allowed the Cavaliers to reload via the draft with two No. 1 picks. But they traded one of them (for Kevin Love), and the other (Kyrie Irving) decided he didn't want to deal with the LeBron limbo either. Looking at yet another relatively bare cupboard and knowing all too well the bleak prospects of filling it, LeBron bolted for a team and a town that sell themselves.
So now that he's in balmy Los Angeles on a four-year deal—the longest he's signed since he went to Miami—why have we seen and heard about more stars being reluctant to join forces than those eager to ride with the train conductor who has punched tickets to eight consecutive NBA Finals?
As it turns out, based on conversations with more than a dozen players, there are quite a few reasons. Most obvious, perhaps, is the fact that everyone, no matter how accomplished, becomes a role player next to LeBron.
"If you've got LeBron, you've got to make it all about LeBron," Tyson Chandler said a few days before he became LeBron's teammate in early November. "You've got to be able to [coexist] with that and fit with that. Who are you, where are you in your career, and how do you fit in? It's a sacrifice, but it's a sacrifice for winning."
That's perfectly fine for someone such as Chandler, a 36-year-old, rim-protecting veteran who jumped at the chance to escape Phoenix and take his curtain call with his hometown Lakers next to (arguably still) the most physically gifted player in the league, even as he's closing in on his 34th birthday.
When it comes to players in their primes, though, there have been more "no thank yous" than "sign me ups" to this point. Paul George opted to stay in Oklahoma City this summer after previously talking about how much he would love playing for the Lakers. Jimmy Butler, in his trade demand to the Minnesota Timberwolves before he was moved to the Philadelphia 76ers, reportedly had the Knicks, Nets and Clippers on his list—three of the four teams in New York or L.A. with potential maximum-salary cap room next season. Rumors are that Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, who similarly forced his way out of San Antonio and has allegedly professed a desire to play close to his boyhood home in Riverside, California, is more interested in the Clippers than in the Lakers.
If you've got LeBron, you've got to make it all about LeBron. You've got to be able to [coexist] with that and fit with that.
— Tyson Chandler
To be fair, when it became evident James intended to leave the Cavaliers a second time this summer, young stars such as 76ers center Joel Embiid posted social media pleas for him to join their teams. Was that Embiid simply being a jester—not for the first time—or showing respect, all the while knowing there wasn't any real chance of LeBron actually responding? Who knows? All that doesn't change the fact that one All-Star (George) who could have joined him didn't and at least one other (Butler) never so much as expressed an interest.
"It depends on what kind of player you are," Durant said. "If you're Kyle Korver, then it makes sense. Because Kyle Korver in Atlanta was the bulk of the offense, and he's not a No. 1 option at all, not even close. So his talents benefit more from a guy who can pass and penetrate and get him open.
"If you're a younger player like a Kawhi, trying to pair him with LeBron James doesn't really make sense. Kawhi enjoys having the ball in his hands, controlling the offense, dictating the tempo with his post-ups; it's how he plays the game. A lot of young players are developing that skill. They don't need another guy."
But LeBron may need that at this stage of his career. After Irving forced a trade to the Boston Celtics two summers ago, James dragged the Cavs to the Finals for a fourth straight time but was swept by the Warriors. If he hopes to compete with the Warriors again, it is clear he needs help, especially now being on the Golden State side of the bracket. The challenge of having to knock off a three-time champion, especially if the Warriors can keep their core mostly intact, also muddies the appeal for an incoming star. He would have to sacrifice his exalted status without even reasonable assurance he's going to be in the Finals, much less win a ring.
"If I was a free agent, I would have to consider everything," veteran swingman Trevor Ariza said. "But my role is different than PG and Kawhi. They ask them to do different things than they ask of me. Guys similar to [LeBron], why would they want to play with somebody who does all the same things? I can see why they would want to play elsewhere."
The Lakers structured their salary cap to make sure they would have space next summer for a maximum-salaried player—whether he comes via free agency or trade. League sources say that when James became convinced Irving couldn't be persuaded to stay in Cleveland, he suggested to the Cavs front office that it deal Irving to the Blazers for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. The Cavs never called the Blazers, but James' interest has led to speculation about the Lakers trading for Lillard.
"I love where I am," Lillard said. "I play for a great organization. I'm not looking for nothing. I think we'd complement each other well, but the only way that ever happens is if my team decides they don't want me no more. I'm trying to build something here."
Whether it's because newly minted stars such as Victor Oladipo and Jayson Tatum took LeBron to seven games or the Warriors swept him, the up-and-coming class of stars doesn't seem intimidated by him. They might respect him, but they don't fear him.
"A lot of people are going back to thinking, 'I can possibly be ... as good as him,'" Spurs veteran small forward Rudy Gay said. "And sometimes when people think of playing with someone like that, they feel it hinders them, maybe, from getting to that point because he takes up so much of [the] opportunities—and rightfully so, because he's been great for so many years."
Leonard has steadfastly refused to discuss what he might do if he becomes a free agent next summer, but he doesn't view James as some sort of measuring stick.
"What else do I have to prove?" he asks. "He beat me in the Finals; we came back and beat him." So you don't have anything else to prove? "Just when we do play him, try to win the game. That's it."
Other players at this point, though, may not be willing to trade their stardom for a chance to win a championship with LeBron because it would also mean winning one for LeBron. As one scout said, "Some stars are looking at it and saying, 'Why do I want to add to his legacy?'"
That is indeed the conundrum. None of the players approached for this story, both stars and supporting cast types, resented that James' stardom "sucks up all the oxygen in the room," as one Eastern Conference vice president put it. But there is little doubt they would have to transform themselves and accept lesser roles than they enjoy now if they joined the Lakers. Bosh and Love were established All-Stars before they hooked up with LeBron, but the perception of them shifted from franchise cornerstones to, at times, weak links in James' quests for another ring. They evolved into stretch 4s with far fewer shots and touches primarily to create space for James to operate. It earned them championships, but the perception remains they were the beneficiaries of being James' teammates.
"Kevin Love, he had to totally change his game to fit, to be a shooter," Durant said. "Which, I think, he deserves way more credit for switching his game. Bosh, same way. LeBron is a player that needs to play with guys that already know how they play the game—and shooters. Like, young players that are still developing, it's always going to be hard because he demands the ball so much, he demands control of the offense and he creates for everybody."
Durant also noted that the suffocating media attention around James doesn't help, either.
"So much hype comes from being around LeBron from other people," Durant said. "He has so many fanboys in the media. Even the beat writers just fawn over him. I'm like, we're playing basketball here, and it's not even about basketball at certain points. So I get why anyone wouldn't want to be in that environment because it's toxic. Especially when the attention is bullshit attention, fluff. It's not LeBron's fault at all; it's just the fact you have so many groupies in the media that love to hang on every word. Just get out of the way and let us play basketball."
What comes with that is the knowledge that if the team wins, it will be credited mostly to James; and if the team loses, it will be blamed on everyone around him.
"It's the LeBron Effect," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry says. "He puts a lot of pressure on you, but he takes a lot of pressure off of you, too. You know what you're getting. He's earned that, but he's human. If you're a strong enough personality, you can handle it."
I get why anyone wouldn't want to be in that environment because it's toxic.
— Kevin Durant on all of the attention that LeBron James and his teams receive
Ariza had another suggestion: "The media should change the narrative. Make that superstar be a superstar." In other words, don't automatically blame the supporting cast when a team falls short. Sometimes it's the superstar who fell short.
That type of scrutiny is amplified by being in L.A., said Spurs forward Pau Gasol, who won two championships with the Lakers.
"If you succeed with the Lakers, you will be loved forever," Gasol said. "But there's also tension and pressure and drama like nowhere else. There are dozens of media outlets that are constantly looking for a story. It depends on who you are and what you're made of. But if you succeed, it's sweet. There's nothing like it."
If. That seems to be the operative word. If a free-agent star pays the price for a seat on LeBron's coattails, will the ride take him where he wants to go? It's an if that's never been bigger. LeBron is now in the land where dreams come true. Just not all of them.