In July 2010, LeBron James made his first seismic free agency decision by conducting a made-for-television thirty minute special to plunge the knife into the back of Cavs fans, taking his talents to South Beach (his exact words). In July 2014, his return to Cleveland was significantly more subdued, penning a letter to his fans that ran in Sports Illustrated.
Sunday night, seemingly out of nowhere, LeBron made his third league-shaping decision in free agency, and did it in the most low key way yet, with his representation sending out this tweet:
So LeBron will become a Laker. Needless to say, there is plenty to unpack from this announcement. I'll leave the ripple effects on the league to others. Back here in Houston, let me say that James Harden should be glad that LeBron chose not to come to the Houston Rockets.
Yeah, I know, it would not have been a clean "choice" per se. If LeBron had expressed a desire to come to Houston (and there have been no accounts that he expressed such desire), Daryl Morey would then have then had to move heaven, earth, and Ryan Anderson's boat anchor of a contract to make it happen. But I never doubt Morey, and if work would have had to be done to make LeBron a Rocket, Morey would have sacrificed days of sleep to do it. Of that, I am confident.
However, it never seemed to get that far, not publicly, at least. The other thing that never happened publicly? James Harden advocating for LeBron James to come to Houston. Any time Harden was asked about next season, in particular after he officially won the 2017-2018 MVP award last week, Harden said that the Rockets have the team to win a title already (assuming the returns of Chris Paul and Clint Capela). Fast forward to the 11:15 mark below:
Of course, I don't expect Harden, in a press conference, to publicly recruit or even mention LeBron James, who was under contract to the Cavaliers last Monday night when that presser took place. However, I think Harden's feelings about the Rockets core group are sincere, and I think it's the proper mindset. As the alpha on this team, Harden SHOULDN'T want LeBron James here.
I know the majority of you reading this right now are having a conniption fit — "But Sean, LeBron basically locks up a title for the Rockets! Why wouldn't Harden want a ring, at any cost?" Good question. Here's why — because once you've won an MVP, you're viewed differently. You're viewed as a player who should be LEADING teams to a title, not deferring to a second star full time, and certainly not someone who should need LeBron James to go win you a title.
Using practical examples for a moment, there's a reason Paul George can choose to go fart around in Oklahoma City on a four year max deal and no one says anything about his competitive fire and thirst for a title. It's because Paul George is an All-Star, but he's not a SUPERSTAR. He's not an MVP. Using recent title examples, nobody was counting the number of titles Chris Bosh piled up, but they keep a count on LeBron James. Nobody is counting how many titles Pau Gasol won as a Laker, but everyone knows Kobe won five.
I can go back and find more examples — Dirk Nowitzki's redemption in 2011 to the good, Steve Nash's never making an NBA Finals to the bad — but you get my point. Not all All-stars are created equally. That's why the MVP award exists. It denotes a higher plane, a greater destiny. On Monday, James Harden went from a great player to a player who will now be judged against other basketball immortals by whether or not HE is the best player on a title team, not whether or not he is merely ON a title winner.
This stuff matters in basketball debates. Ask Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, former MVPs who are routinely brought up, first and foremost, for their inability to close the deal at the highest of their powers. Would a Rocket title for Barkley in 1997, or a Laker title for Malone in 2004 changed the legacy narrative on either guy? Probably not. At the very least, arguing that both were true championship greats would have been met with "Yeah, BUT..." And it should be.
James Harden doesn't need a ring that comes with a "Yeah, BUT..." Sure, the party would be great, the parade would be fun, but once the confetti settled, Harden would have had a glass ceiling firmly affixed over his legacy. There's WINNING a title, and there is CONTRIBUTING to a title. LeBron's coming to Houston would have made every title won here a LeBron title, not a James Harden title. Ask Kevin Durant about this phenomenon — he's been the Finals MVP two years in a row, and his championship mettle is viewed differently because he needed to gang up with a two time regular season MVP (who already had a title) just to break through.
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Also, I know some of you are waving madly at your computer screens right now screaming "But Sean! CHRIS PAUL! CHRIS PAUL! HARDEN NEEDS CHRIS PAUL!" As great as Paul is, and as valuable as he is to this team, it's still Harden's team. I mean... he is the MVP, for God's sakes. Paul at age 33 is a star, but not to the level that it usurps Harden in legacy debates. I view Paul to Harden the way I view Wade to LeBron in Miami. Those were LeBron's titles, but he unapologetically needed Wade, badly at times.
People still lazily question Harden's love for basketball and thirst for winning, and they do so based almost solely on his easy-going demeanor. Make no mistake, those folks would be the first to line up and bash Harden if it took LeBron coming here to win a championship. Harden can do nothing to please those folks.
I, on the other hand, think stuff like legacy and winning a title without using a virtual cheat code matter to Harden, even if some think nothing really matters to him.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.