As the evening’s stage-managed, celebrity-infused, oversaturated events were nearing their conclusion, James delivered an admission that justified all the pomp and circumstance.
“To accomplish what I really wanted to accomplish in this league — and that’s winning at the highest level — I needed him,” James said of Wade. “That’s why I made the jump.”
In James’s version of his life, whether broadcast in Nike commercials or HBO specials or postgame sound bites, he’s virtually always cast as the hero. He’s often the only character. Yet here was James acknowledging his limitations in Cleveland and crediting Wade with a central role in helping him achieve championship validation.
Two days later and nearly 2,000 miles away, another No. 23 was overwhelming opponents and doing battle with the limitations of his surroundings. Like James, New Orleans’s Anthony Davis is a franchise-changing No. 1 pick routinely disappointed by the team that was lucky enough to draft him.
On Wednesday, Davis torched the Thunder for 44 points and 18 rebounds — his league-leading fifth 40-point game of the season. He finished layups in traffic with triple-effort plays and reached over helpless defenders for lobs, including one that he redirected into the hoop with one hand while drawing a foul. He did the little things, too, reading the defense to find open shooters, laying out horizontally to save a possession and running the court in transition — all while logging 40-plus minutes for the ninth time this year.
His reward? A nail-biting 118-114 victory that featured a near-collapse at the end and improved the uneven Pelicans’ record to 15-15. This has been the tired story for much of Davis’s seven seasons in New Orleans: days spent turning in 40 minutes of greatness and nights spent dreaming of reaching .500.
For most of his career, he’s been the sport’s leading prodigy — a gifted and versatile big man who rode a high school growth spurt to uncharted anatomical and athletic territory. Believe it or not, Davis is already older than James was when he made “The Decision” to join Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010. Davis has reached the point of his career where he will be viewed — and judged — for what he is rather than what he might become.
No two situations are identical, but the parallels between James’s first tenure in Cleveland and Davis’s run in New Orleans are striking. Both players established themselves quickly as all-stars and, later, leading MVP candidates. Both have endured rotating casts of teammates, coaching changes and questionable front-office decisions. Both have tasted playoff success — James earlier and more often than Davis — before running into insurmountable superteams. If James felt he “needed” Wade to get past the late-2000s Celtics, then Davis surely must realize he needs another star — or two — to have any shot against the Golden State Warriors, who have eliminated him during both of his postseason trips.
Davis opened this season by declaring that he was “the best player in the game.” Since then, he’s backed up the talk by averaging numbers that rival Shaquille O’Neal’s peak production. Nevertheless, the team dynamic around him is so tenuous that the Pelicans and their fans are left counting down the days until the return of … Elfrid Payton? That’s an unhealthy way to live, and it’s no way to handle an all-timer’s legacy.
The question that will define Davis’s future is clear: Who will be his Dwyane Wade? Whom does he trust to welcome him to greener pastures, to maximize his fame, to make the most of his prime years and to boost his championship hopes? Could it be Kyrie Irving in Boston? Golden State’s constellation of talent? Or what about, in a tidy bit of role reversal, James in L.A.?
Davis isn’t keen to discuss such matters publicly, but his actions have spoken loudly for him. In September, he signed with James’s close friend, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, as he edges closer to becoming a free agent in July 2020.
Despite the many similarities between James and Davis, there is one crucial difference: Davis has the benefit of operating in a post-“Decision” reality. If he chooses to leave New Orleans, it could imperil the NBA’s future in the city. After all, New Orleans ranks 25th in home attendance and might rank dead last without him. That’s real pressure and a potential public-relations nightmare, but at least he’s witnessed James’s reputation survive burned jerseys and accusations of treason in Ohio.
If Davis decides he doesn’t want to remain patient until 2020, he will enjoy significant leverage in trade discussions next summer. Post-“Decision,” conventional wisdom now dictates that it’s in a franchise’s best interest to acquiesce to a star’s trade request than to watch him leave for nothing. And if Davis were to force his way to a superteam, he would undoubtedly face less backlash than James did, as fans have become increasingly conditioned to superstar team-ups and increasingly willing to hold teams accountable for their organizational shortcomings. James, in essence, has become a shield for stars looking to shine as brightly as possible.
“Some people say you shouldn’t be friends with your competitors,” James said Monday, referencing the criticism that he and Wade faced before, during and after their time together in Miami. “We didn’t care about the narrative or what people created before us, or what people said during, or what people are saying now. We did it our way. It was an unbelievable ride.”
That matter-of-fact pride and total satisfaction should be the lasting takeaway from the Staples Center spectacle. For Davis, like James before him, leaving the only NBA home he’s known is probably a scary thought. But there’s a far scarier proposition looming below the surface, one that peeked out when James admitted that he “needed” Wade to win a title and then again when he relished their shared success: What if he had never left?