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LeBron James’s ‘Decision’ defined a decade of player movement

LeBron James appeared in “The Decision” on July 8, 2010. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group)
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When LeBron James announced July 8, 2010, that he was “taking my talents to South Beach” to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Miami Heat seemed poised for a decade of dominance.

What could go wrong? The team had three all-stars in their primes, including the rising face of the NBA. A trendy, warm-weather market and no state income tax. A committed ownership group, a decorated front office and a well-respected coach. A relatively easy path to the Finals through the Eastern Conference. Its top-end talent intimidated opponents, infuriated critics and led the 25-year-old James to famously predict “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” rings in Miami.

The 10th anniversary of “The Decision” is Wednesday — a reminder that the Heat’s staying power didn’t match its overwhelming early buzz. James still lords over the NBA, but he has changed Zip codes twice. Wade and Bosh are retired, and the Heat has won just one playoff series since James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. The “Heatles” claimed two titles and made four straight Finals, satisfying the massive expectations they helped stoked in 2010. Yet the dynasty that James foresaw didn’t last, and his nationally televised move to Miami is now best remembered for the off-court changes it wrought.

Start with the stunning economic impact: The NBA’s $109 million salary cap this season is nearly double its $58 million cap 10 years ago, while James’s $37 million salary in 2010 dwarfs his $16 million salary in 2010. Those sharp rises can be traced to a nine-year, $24 billion media rights deal signed in October 2014, months after Miami’s ratings-juicing run ended.

While the Heat was engrossing to watch, it was even more fun to yell about and obsess over. The trio’s polarizing decision to team up carried talking-head shows and social media debates for years, and the team’s sheer star power attracted unprecedented saturation coverage. Major outlets assembled teams of writers to cover the Heat’s every move like a reality show, a process that repeated with Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors and James’s Los Angeles Lakers.

Stories that had once been local — such as a three-game losing streak in November — were suddenly globalized by ESPN, TNT and Twitter. Endless trade rumors, detailed speculation about possible superteams and extended free agency recruiting wars became the new normal.

In his quest for titles, wealth and reach, James leaned into the attention when he took center stage in Greenwich, Conn., with more than 13 million watching. One wonders, though, whether he anticipated how deeply “The Decision” would resonate with his fellow players. James took immense criticism for leaving Cleveland before winning a title, a move painted as treasonous to his home state and as an “easy way out” compared with the Michael Jordan blueprint.

Once James came out the other side more popular than ever, the player empowerment era unfolded: One by one, Carmelo Anthony left Denver, Chris Paul left New Orleans, Deron Williams left Utah, Dwight Howard left Orlando, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, Paul George left Indiana, and Kawhi Leonard left San Antonio. All enjoyed public relations cover from James’s league-shaking power play as they moved from small markets to greener pastures.

James benefited from the new landscape, wooing Kevin Love to Cleveland and Anthony Davis to Los Angeles. Rich Paul, his close friend, became one of the league’s most prominent agents as the head of Klutch Sports. Together, they fundamentally flipped the power balance between stars and their organizations, encouraging a cycle of accelerated player movement.

Ironically, James has also been a victim of his success. Durant’s 2016 move to Golden State led to two Warriors titles over James’s Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving’s growing discontent in Cleveland led to a trade with Boston, leaving James to play out the string in 2018 with an undermanned supporting cast. Then Leonard and George formed a tag team on the Los Angeles Clippers this past offseason, thereby creating a formidable rival for James’s Lakers.

Back in 2010, no one could have guessed that the “Big 3” Heat would only last four years, or that its accomplishments would be overshadowed so quickly by Curry, Durant and the Warriors. If any organization was going to win 73 games, claim three titles, make five straight Finals, dictate a new style of play for the league and emerge as the team of the decade, all signs pointed to Miami.

But the Warriors’ reign would have played out differently without Durant, whom they recruited after losing to James’s Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. Their acquisition was made possible by a major jump in the salary cap that summer, when the money from the new media rights deal kicked in.

If James hadn’t dumped Cleveland in 2010, perhaps Durant wouldn't have risked the blowback for leaving Oklahoma City, where he was a beloved icon. If the Warriors hadn’t seen the Heat put together three all-stars, perhaps they wouldn't have painstakingly plotted to put together four. If James’s Heat hadn’t driven up viewership interest, perhaps the 2016 cap wouldn't have spiked high enough to allow the Warriors to entice Durant.

Basketball historians will look back at the 2010s and conclude Golden State beat Miami at its own game. They should also note that the Warriors did it playing by the rules written by James on that television set 10 years ago.

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