Seven long years ago, LeBron James made the infamous decision to leave his hometown Cavaliers and team up with his friends and fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to build a modern dynasty. This choice sent ripples through the NBA that are still felt to this day, both as it pertains to criticism of LeBron and the culture of NBA fandom as a whole.
This year, King James and the defending NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Finals against what is considered the 2017 version of LeBron’s Heat team: Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors and Durant have been criticized this year for taking what people see as the easy way out; a 73-win team that failed to capture the gold after being up 3-1 in the Finals signing a former MVP and multiple time scoring champion, and said former MVP signing with the team that beat him in the Western Conference Finals that very same postseason. This criticism is more times than not met with mention of LeBron’s four seasons in Miami, and the implication that the three-time Champion brought it on himself by leaving Cleveland the first time around. This is unfair to all involved parties, the Warriors included, for two reasons: the first being the difference in LeBron and Durant’s situations, and the fact that so-called “superteams” like the 2011 Heat and 2017 Warriors have always and will always exist.
When LeBron made his decision to go play in South Beach, it was after seven seasons in a Cavaliers jersey and effectively putting that franchise on his back. With 22-year old James at the helm, the Cavs got their first taste of the Finals since their inception in 1970, falling in four quick games to the San Antonio Spurs. In that series, James lead both teams in total minutes played and assists per game, with 42.6 and 6.8 respectively, and only trailed Finals MVP Tony Parker in terms of points per game, averaging 22 points to the Frenchman’s 24.5. The most help on the offensive end LeBron had in that series came in the form of Drew Gooden’s 12.8 points a night and defensively the load was largely split between James, Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskus, averaging 7, 8, and 10 rebounds each.
The following season, the Cavs acquired Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace, and Delonte West in a three-team trade involving the Bulls and Sonics, but lost Gooden in the process, and wound up losing to the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics in a seven game Conference Semifinal series. Again, James carried the load in scoring for Cleveland, leading the entire game in scoring in 6 of the 7 games in that series. The 2008–09 and 2009–10 seasons more of the same, as the Cavs would finish 1st in the Eastern Conference every time before falling to Boston, and the most help obtained for their franchise player in this span being Shaquille O’Neal at the tail end of his career. Amidst all this came the controversy surrounding Cavaliers guard Delonte West and his rumored illicit relationship with Gloria James, LeBron’s mother. So when LeBron’s contract came due at the end of the 2009–10 season, it wasn’t a matter of if he was leaving Cleveland, it was a matter of where he would end up, and who could blame him? After dragging the Cavs from being a lottery team every season to a top seed in the East four years running, and coming up short time after time and having to deal with the stress of one of his teammates alleging to be sleeping with his mother, why wouldn’t James get out of dodge to go win a title with players that were 1) leagues better than his old team and 2) NOT SLEEPING WITH HIS MOTHER?
Kevin Durant’s path to his “superteam” is much less dramatic than LeBron’s but equally storied, with him winning his first scoring title in only his third season in the league, just under a year younger than LeBron was when he took the Cavs to the Finals the first time. He would combine with Oklahoma City draftees Russell Westbrook and James Harden and the three took the franchise to their first trip to the Finals since departing Seattle in KD’s sophomore season, ironically enough falling to James, Wade and Bosh in the 2012 Finals. After that season though, the Thunder traded Harden away to the Houston Rockets, in what may have been a large misstep for OKC. With Harden gone, the responsibility of scoring for the Thunder would fall squarely between Westbrook and Durant: responsibility that would lead to Durant’s fourth scoring title and first MVP season. Impressive scoring wouldn’t be enough for the duo to overcome the San Antonio Spurs en route to their Finals run in 2014, or the Golden State Warriors on their way to back to back trips in 2015 and 2016.
Prior to this season, Durant had been a fantastic player on the very cusp of NBA immortality time after time, only breaking out of the West one time in six trips, in what was a shorter season due to the lockout and having to face a stacked Heat team with something to prove at the end of that road. The Warriors, interestingly enough, had already been to the big stage twice, defeating LeBron and the Cavs the first go-round in 2015, and losing to them in an epic Game 7 in 2016 — a loss that would prompt Warriors star Draymond Green to reach out to the soon-to-be free agent Durant to convince him to join forces with them this season. For Durant, it was a hard proposition to say no to; the opportunity to go back to the Finals and likely face LeBron again and avenge his 2012 loss, to finally etch his name in history as an NBA Champion and as it turns out, to be the Finals MVP.
Basketball is a team sport, and there has never been a player capable of winning a championship on his own. LeBron James and Kevin Durant both went as far as they could with their team and allowing the executives in charge of them to take care of business, just playing the game to the best of their ability before electing to take matters into their own hands and going to where they felt they would be in the best position to win a title, and honestly, that’s a good thing. Players should be able to pick wherever they want to play, and as long as the teams have the ability to sign them, they should. GMs and owners have been picking and choosing for players where they’ll play for years, using trades and free agency to build “superteams” in their own way — after all, the “Showtime” Lakers and the 72-win 1996 Bulls didn’t come together through draft picks alone. Would it have destroyed the NBA the same way people claim LeBron and Durant have done if Scottie Pippen had been the one to reach out to Dennis Rodman and convince him to come to Chicago and win those three titles? Or if Wilt Chamberlain had just decided to go to link up with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on the Lakers of his own volition instead of being traded in ‘68? Is it so bad for players to want what’s best for them and their careers and to decide for themselves what that is, instead of waiting for an executive to do that for them, and conversely, is it so bad for executives to sign players that want to come to their team, especially MVP-caliber players like James and Durant?