Lakers, Cavaliers or Heat? LeBron James’ NBA career won’t be defined by a single team or title

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LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. Then he went home to Cleveland. Now, he made the trip that always seemed destined to Los Angeles and won the ring that his purple-and-gold legacy depended on.


Four rings. Three teams. James didn’t do it like Michael Jordan, who won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, or like Magic Johnson, who won five titles with the Lakers. James more readily split his career — joining the Miami Heat to prove he could win a championship (or two); returning to the Cavaliers to be the true savior from Akron, Ohio; and heading west to L.A. to join the historic annals of the franchise with the most championships in NBA history. 


Unlike Jordan, or Magic, or Kobe Bryant, or even across sports like Derek Jeter or Tom Brady, James won’t be remembered as a one-team athlete. That’s not to say LeBron is selfish, or greedy, or a ring-chaser. Instead, it’s to wonder what the memory of James will be for NBA fans a decade or two from now.


Whose jersey will you picture him wearing in the highlight reel of your mind?


There aren’t any wrong answers here — just three correct ones.


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The early Cavaliers days


It seemed too perfect, almost. The Cavaliers got the No. 1 pick the same year that the best high-school player since Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was eligible for the draft? And he played ball in Akron, Ohio, less than an hour away from downtown Cleveland? No one in Cleveland was going to complain.


James joined a team almost entirely devoid of talent. The Cavs couldn’t get over .500 in that first season. But then 42-40, 50-32 twice, 45-37 and two 60-win seasons followed. James wasn’t quite the savior, not yet. But he’d turned a city used to losing into a winner.


There was the Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinals game against the heavily favored Pistons in 2006. James scored the final 25 Cleveland points to secure a double-overtime win. There was the buzzer-beating 3 over the outstretched arm of Hedo Turkoglu in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, when James watched the ball fall through before sprinting to the other end of the floor. And there was the lone Finals appearance, in 2007, when James teaming with Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn’t enough to beat a top-of-their-powers Spurs team.


James earned temporary haters in Cleveland for the way he left town, for the pomp and circumstance of The Decision. They burned his jersey. Dan Gilbert publicly criticized the hometown star. But James had to leave, to find an organization that could show him he was good enough to win a title. 


MORE: 5 things you may not know about ‘The Decision’


‘Not one, not two…’


The pomp and circumstance didn’t end with The Decision. James and his new superstar teammates in Miami, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, had a pep rally-style introduction where James said the Heat would win “not one, not two… but seven titles.”


They didn’t quite win seven, and they couldn’t even win one in the first year of this new “Big Three” experiment that in part took after the Boston Celtics’ success with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Much of the criticism about how clutch James is came out of that first season, when he struggled shooting against the Dallas Mavericks in a 2011 NBA Finals loss.


James had the best answer he could give his critics the next two seasons, as the Heat went back-to-back. James was Finals MVP both seasons, averaging double-doubles with more than 25 points and 10 rebounds both times. He couldn’t complete a three-peat in his final year in Miami, though. The Spurs had Kawhi Leonard now and were back to knock James out once again.


Some of James’ most memorable NBA highlights came in a Heat uniform, none more memorable than the lob from Wade to James in which Wade is holding out his arms underneath the basket as James tomahawks a slam through behind him. And after coming up short in Cleveland, James had proven he could win. It was time to go home.


MORE:  What a championship with Lakers would mean for LeBron James’ legacy


‘Cleveland, this is for you!’


When James had left Cleveland, he’d actually unwittingly set his return up. The Cavs were terrible after James left, as would be expected. They earned two No. 1 picks. With one, they picked Kyrie Irving, a dynamic scoring point guard to build a team around. With the other, they selected Andrew Wiggins. 


Wiggins came in handy when James decided he wanted to come home. The Cavs packaged the small forward to the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire Kevin Love and give James a new Big Three to work with. The only problem was that waiting out of the Western Conference was one of the greatest teams ever assembled, the Golden State Warriors. 


James and the Cavs couldn’t beat the Warriors the first time around, in 2015, when injuries to Irving and Love tanked the Cavs’ chances. Then it looked to be more of the same in 2016, with the Cavs trailing 3-1 to Golden State. James wouldn’t go down again, though. 


In Game 5, James scored 41 points with 16 rebounds and seven assists. He scored another 41 points, this time with 11 assists, in Game 6. And he had the most consequential block in NBA history in Game 7, pinning Andre Iguodala’s shot to the backboard after running from nearly half the court away, to set up Irving for the game-winning 3-pointer. 


That’s the win that spurred that memorable scream on national television, “Cleveland! This is for you!” It didn’t matter that the Warriors added Kevin Durant and beat James the next two seasons. He’d accomplished his mission of going home, and Cleveland came to terms with the fact that if James left again, he’d have their blessing this time.


Purple and gold


James wasn’t the first superstar transplant to join the Lakers. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Shaquille O’Neal all did it, too. They all went to L.A. expecting to win titles, and they all did so. James already had a house in L.A., and he’d already made inroads into Hollywood. It made sense for him to join the Lakers.


The team James signed on with was young and unproven. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram had promise but weren’t sure things to ever lift James to a title. They instead became trade bait, the two key pieces that headed to New Orleans to acquire Anthony Davis ahead of the 2019-20 season. A failed pursuit of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George that saw them wind up across town with the Clippers didn’t stop James and Davis.


The Lakers didn’t hit home runs on their other personnel acquisitions. Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were fine, but not the third part of a Big Three by any means. Kyle Kuzma didn’t emerge into that role, either. Instead of three, it was two, James and Davis to dominate teams to oblivion.


And on a run through the Western Conference playoffs, James knocked off a Damian Lillard who couldn’t miss, a James Harden in the midst of a historic scoring season and a young duo in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray who had already upset the Clippers with a 3-1 comeback.


James himself, already one of the greatest passers the game has seen, emerged in that facet even more in 2020, leading the league in assists for the first time. He became comfortable deferring to Davis at times, including on a game-winning shot against the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. But James remained a constant triple-double threat even at 35 years old, so invested in winning a title in the altered season’s bubble that he said after Game 4 that he wouldn’t sleep until the Lakers won.


James should probably take a nap now.


What team will LeBron James be remembered for?


If James finishes his career with the Lakers, he could have another ring or two in his future. Davis is still one of the league’s top players, and James keeps finding ways to stay dominant as he ages. The Lakers will certainly open as betting favorites for the 2021 NBA Finals.


But whether he wins another ring or two in L.A. or not, James will never be Bryant. He won’t be Magic. He won’t go down in history simply as a “Lakers legend.” He’ll be a “hometown hero” for what he accomplished in Cleveland. He’ll have his number retired in Miami, too, the best player on teams that made it to four straight Finals and won two. And yes, his time with the Lakers could wind up being the shortest, but he’ll be able to add “Lakers legend” to his resume, too.


Fans best identify with players who remain with one team their whole career. Maybe it’s your favorite team, and you love them. Maybe it’s your rival, and you hate them. But at least sticking with one team makes it easy. James has made it difficult. He’s been the face of the NBA in three different uniforms, and he won’t ever be singularly defined by just one of those identities.


Sometimes, though, the best things in life don’t need defining. James doesn’t need to be remembered for one team over the other. He can just be remembered as LeBron.


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