LeBron's Title Odds Shrink as the Player Empowerment Movement He Started Grows

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJuly 6, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James stands on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets Friday, March 22, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Nets won 111-106. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

One of the most memorable and franchise-altering free-agent events in NBA history unfolded Friday night and into Saturday morning. The East Coast went to sleep with the constellations aligned a certain way and woke up in a universe that nobody recognized.

Least of all LeBron James.

When my head hit the pillow Friday night, I would have liked to have seen the Vegas odds on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard being Los Angeles Clippers teammates by the time I woke up.

Thunder fans are the biggest losers here after the modern era of player movement reached another, previously incomprehensible level. To review, OKC: You're a team in the bottom three in the NBA as far as market size. You lose Kevin Durant for nothing. Trade for Paul George. Convince George to stay. And then Leonard swoops in under cover of darkness and steals George from you?

CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 16: (L-R) Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church on February 16, 2019 in Charlotte
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Come on. Really? But an even bigger loser in this latest unforeseen twist of NBA free agency is the most prominent player on the planet: LeBron.

He's the one—the Chosen One, as it were—who invented the very tactic that resulted in him being thoroughly outmaneuvered Friday night.

There's an old saying that applies to sports, business and sports business, too: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

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And there's another saying: Copycats are the only true originals.

Soft-spoken, quiet, seemingly innocent Kawhi stole the concept that LeBron practically invented and used it against him.

"LeBron got totally outmaneuvered," a Western Conference executive told Bleacher Report. "They beat him at his own game."

What happened here takes us back a few years, but bear with me.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 14: Chris Bosh #1, LeBron James #6, and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat stand during the National Anthem before Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Brooklyn Nets during the 2014 NBA playoffs at American Airlines Are
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In July 2010, James starred in an ill-conceived television special in which he so infamously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. In doing so, he joined forces with two of his closest friends and contemporary stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, in Miami. They would go on to reach the NBA Finals four years in a row and win two championships together.

But in the midst of all that, something else happened: the 2011 lockout, with which I am intimately familiar.

The five-month work stoppage—which gave birth to what is now known as "NBA Twitter"—was initially part of the owners' backlash against the enormous power and control that James had exerted in creating his own superteam in a glamorous market like Miami. They set out to claw back the salary gains that players had earned while seeking ways to make it less likely for stars to congregate in big markets.

Today, eight years later? Durant and Kyrie Irving are in Brooklyn. LeBron and Anthony Davis are with the Lakers. Leonard and George are with the Clippers. For better or worse, James Harden and Chris Paul are in Houston.

The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors are picking up the pieces. The Golden State Warriors are licking their wounds, too.

The Milwaukee Bucks are still well positioned in the East, but nonetheless they have to be fretting over whether their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, will exercise the same power as all of those above and force his way to a new city with more glamorous teammates when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

That's the template now, from George and Leonard to Durant and Irving, to Davis and fill-in-the-blank. The next wave of superstars has taken James' power-play blueprint and turned it up a notch.

And in this case, two of them—Leonard and George—turned the tables on James and blocked what would've been a clear path to his fourth NBA title.

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MARCH 1:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs hugs Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers at the end of the game at AT&T Center on March 1, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by d
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Seriously, did anyone think Leonard had this in him?

"No," another Western Conference exec said. "But the quiet ones, you always worry about."

Based on the reporting—from Adrian Wojnarowski, Ramona Shelburne and others—this was a masterstroke by Leonard. He first reached out to Durant, according to Shelburne, to see if he'd be willing to join him with the Clippers. The answer was no. Unbowed, Leonard went after what he apparently perceived as the next-best option: George.

As has been speculated for nearly a year, Leonard wanted L.A. It seems like he just didn't want an L.A. with James, Davis and the Lakers. And ultimately, he pulled off a power play that struck right at the heart of the strategy that James and his agent, Rich Paul, basically invented—and used it at James' expense.

"Rich and LeBron are used to getting their way," a prominent agent told B/R. "They leveraged, leveraged, leveraged and got AD. If they had gotten Kawhi, that's a superteam; maybe the greatest team ever. And in the end, they got screwed in the most significant way possible.

They got screwed in a way they never imagined."

They got screwed in a way that none of us imagined, least of all the player who invented this strategy in the first place.