With Fourth Ring, LeBron James Validates Yet Another Free-Agency Decision

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterOctober 13, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James celebrates during the second half in Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Miami Heat Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

LeBron James is one of the greatest athletes in American history, a four-time MVP and now a four-time NBA champion. Any franchise he joins immediately becomes a championship contender, and his forays into free agency have become some of the biggest spectacles in the sport over the past decade.

From avoiding confrontation to roster-gutting to making elaborate pitches and specially timed jersey retirements, teams have always gone above and beyond to keep James or convince him to join.

While James has received his share of flak for his free-agency decisions, a championship has always been the result of wherever he has traveled.

By the end of his first tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009-10, the team was afraid of losing its homegrown superstar to free agency.

Poor free-agency decisions (Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall), misses on draft picks (Luke Jackson, Shannon Brown) and quick-fix trades (Shaquille O'Neal) left James with a weak supporting cast, and head coach Mike Brown had reportedly stopped holding his star accountable.

As O'Neal noted in his book Shaq Uncut: My Story (h/t NBC Sports, via HoopsWorld), James stopped listening to Brown.

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"Our coach, Mike Brown, was a nice guy, but he had to live on edge because nobody was supposed to be confrontational with LeBron," he wrote. "Nobody wanted him to leave Cleveland, so he was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

When James hit free agency, he only wanted to meet with six teams: the Cavaliers, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.

James decided to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

Miami gave up four first-round picks in sign-and-trades for James and Bosh. Surrendering that kind of draft ammunition severely limited moves the Heat could make as they searched for an upgrade at center year after year. Of course, four straight Finals trips and two titles justified anything Miami had to give up.

In summer 2014, LeBron opted out of his deal with Miami and announced he was coming home to Cleveland. While the move surprised many around the NBA, the Cavs had been laying the groundwork for his return for a while.

There was the Zydrunas Ilgauskas jersey retirement in 2014 that fell on an off night for the Heat, who were in Chicago getting ready to play the Bulls the following day. James, a teammate of Ilgauskas for seven years in Cleveland and one in Miami, accepted an invitation to the ceremony.

The move indicated Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert might have smoothed things over with LeBron after he wrote an infamous letter criticizing James' decision to leave Cleveland in 2010.

The Cavaliers didn't even have the cap space to sign James in 2014, so they made room prior to his decision, completing a three-way trade with the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, with the Nets taking on the contracts of Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev.

In Cleveland, James led a young core that included 2011 top overall pick Kyrie Irving, took the Cavs to four straight Finals and claimed a championship in 2016.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

That title validated James' departure from a team that still had Wade and Bosh. Even more impressively, his Cavs beat the Golden State Warriors, who had won a league-record 73 games, and they were the first squad to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. Bringing Cleveland its first title in franchise history probably meant more than a third crown with the Heat ever would have.

Before James made his third big free-agency decision, leaving the Cavs for the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. did some early prep work as well.

The organization signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year deal in 2017, opening the lines of communication between general manager Rob Pelinka and Rich Paul, the agent of both James and Caldwell-Pope. Los Angeles also made a cap-space clearing move, sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland in February 2018 for the expiring contracts of Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas and a first-round pick.

While leaving a team that no longer had Kyrie wasn't a surprising move by James, moving to the Western Conference and closer to Kevin Durant and the Warriors was.

James' first year in L.A. consisted of a groin injury, a failed trade for Anthony Davis and his missing the playoff for the first time since 2005. His decision to join a young team looked very much like his first real free-agency mistake.

Now, just a year later, James has once again silenced all those who have doubted him.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

At 35 years old, James has proved he is still capable of carrying a team to a title, all while blending his style of play to fit his newest star teammate. Switching to the competitive West didn't matter.

James will make his next free-agency decision as early as next year, when he can choose to turn down a $41 million player option for 2021-22.

Whether he returns to the Lakers or looks for an opportunity elsewhere, hopefully we've learned by now to never doubt James' decisions.