The N.B.A.’s Decider: How LeBron James Controls Fortunes

LeBron James guided the Cleveland Cavaliers to the N.B.A. finals last season. He has been named the league’s most valuable player four times.

LeBron James reportedly informed the Cleveland Cavaliers, his current employer, on Friday that he was exercising his option to become a free agent rather than remaining under his current contract for another year.

The decision vigorously revived an annual phenomenon in the N.B.A. that is unknown to every other sports league: One person grabs hold of the collective psyche of fans, team officials and even civic leaders, single-handedly in control of their fortunes.

If James decides to join your team, you are instantly an N.B.A. title contender, and your city feels the lift. If James decides to leave your team, you are the Jackson 5 after Michael left the band, or “The West Wing” after Aaron Sorkin’s departure — looked up to fondly with nostalgia but otherwise obsolete.

James, 33, has successfully turned the high-stakes drama of free agency into his own reality show. He is the N.B.A.’s best player and its most captivating presence. He is also one of its savviest power brokers, and he has developed a summer ritual of holding the rest of the N.B.A. and entire metropolitan areas in a state of expectancy as he weighs his options every July.

“This one guy not only controls the league, but part of our economy, too,” said Jason Herron, 45, a longtime Cavaliers season ticket-holder and the general manager of a car dealership.

Herron said he recently talked to a bar owner in downtown Cleveland who told Herron that he might have to lay off part of his staff next winter if James leaves town.

“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Herron said. “We just don’t want it to end.”

James chose to enter free agency — which officially begins Sunday at 12:01 a.m. Eastern — rather than exercise his $35.6 million option to stay under his current contract for another year. He can re-sign with the Cavaliers, but he also has a host of suitors, headlined by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Basketball is different from other team sports. The Los Angeles Angels can have Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, and still be thoroughly mediocre because he gets only four or five at-bats a game. An N.F.L. team can sign a star quarterback and still fall short of making the playoffs because he cannot throw the ball to himself, and he won’t be on the field to play defense.

But when free-agent maneuvers involve the very top tier of N.B.A. players, those players’ decisions can have an outsize impact on individual teams, the league more broadly and even entire cities.

Kevin Durant is one of the more famous examples. Since he jumped to Golden State in 2016, the Warriors have won two straight championships. Without him, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team he departed, have not won a playoff series.

Players like James, Durant and precious few others forge title contenders — which means higher ticket and merchandise sales, higher TV ratings, more tourists coming to see the show, more international media exposure for the city.

It is technically the off-season for the N.B.A., which means that all the players have dispersed for the summer. No practices, and no games. But the superstar sweepstakes of free agency create a strange rhythm for the league, which finds out in the summer which teams are going to be world-beaters next season — and which ones will be sent spiraling into competitive oblivion for the foreseeable future.

When that superstar sweepstakes involves James, a four-time most valuable player who is capable of dominating games — and who has continually kept the pressure on the Cavaliers to upgrade their roster in recent seasons by signing a series of short contracts — the effect is multiplied many times over.

A team with James is an instant title contender. A team without James — well, you better have a collection of All-Stars already on the roster.

Cleveland is uniquely familiar with both sides of this equation. James, who grew up just outside the city in Akron, spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Cavaliers and led them deep into the playoffs his final five seasons. But in a made-for-TV spectacle known as “The Decision,” James announced that he was joining the Miami Heat in 2010. This was the first Summer of LeBron — the first time he was capable of holding sway over the league as a free agent, and it quickly became clear just how much power he wielded.

With James, the Heat went on to win two championships. Without him, the Cavaliers were left in ruins, a perennial resident of the draft lottery as one of the worst teams in the league.

The Cavaliers’ fortunes dramatically reversed course when James returned in 2014. Four straight trips to the finals followed, including the franchise’s first and only championship in 2016. For three of those seasons, James teamed with Kyrie Irving, a perennial All-Star, to form one of the league’s most fearsome duos.

But the dynamics changed last summer when Irving asked for a trade — in part so he could escape James’s shadow. The Cavaliers sent Irving to the Boston Celtics.

In his absence, the Cavaliers labored last season to find their footing, even as James played some of his finest basketball. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists a game while shooting 54.2 percent from the field. He also played in all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career.

But the Cavaliers had to shuffle new personnel in and out of the lineup — experiments that often fell flat. The result was a hodgepodge season that James assessed as one of the most challenging of his career. There were many moments when he did not appear to be enjoying himself. And still — still! — James managed to haul the Cavaliers into the finals, which might have been one of his most miraculous feats to date. The only problem was that they got swept by the Warriors, and James appeared to be mulling free agency before the series even ended.

“Every G.M. and every president and every coaching staff is trying to figure out how they can make up the right matchups to compete for a championship,” he said at the time.

He might as well have included himself. Nobody in the league is capable of exerting greater influence on teams — and the moves they make, either directly or indirectly — than James, who recently decamped with his family to Anguilla, a British territory in the Caribbean. For all the agita swirling around him, James has seemed very chill. On Thursday night, he shared a video clip of himself on his Instagram account, which has nearly 40 million followers: He was jumping off a cliff, presumably into a warm body of water below.

For the breathless masses who are curious about James’s future — and those masses include friends and rivals, coaches and executives, fans and haters — the clip has been parsed with forensic detail: What does it mean? Was he offering some sort of coded message? A metaphor about taking the plunge with a new team?

Or maybe he just wanted to go for a swim. The real news will come soon enough, and James, as usual, will be the one making it.

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