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LeBron James’ changing shape of NBA greatness

An illustration showing LeBron James' progression through four stages of his career - from prodigy, to superstar, leader and creator
James has evolved off the court, too; he is a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter and campaigns for social change

It was another unscripted moment of genius, another masterful flourish from a man approaching 20 years at the very top of his game.

LeBron James picked up possession in the corner during a mid-January meeting with the Houston Rockets. He looked to shoot – a three-pointer. As he did so, his Los Angeles Lakers team-mate Dennis Schroder teased from the bench behind: “Bet you won’t make it.”

“To make a bet official you gotta look a man in the eye,” James later said. And that’s exactly what he did; releasing the ball on its arc towards the net before quickly turning to face up the wager, his back to the court as the net rippled and bedlam broke loose.

James, in his 18th NBA season, had turned 36 two weeks earlier. Yet he appears to be having more fun than ever, and is still inflicting misery on the rest of the league.

Here, former coaches, team-mates and opponents chart the rise of this remarkable player; from teenage prodigy to fully fledged superstar and beyond.

Their analysis helps frame the ways in which this unique sportsperson has evolved through the years to remain not only relevant and successful but ahead of the pack.

The Prodigy – 2003-2010

In the summer of 2003, James was putting in extra work before his rookie season. Aged only 18, he had long been regarded as basketball’s next great hope.

He was the cover star of the prestigious Sports Illustrated magazine while still a junior in high school. For years it had been predicted he would be the number one pick in the 2003 NBA draft – and sure enough he was. Selected by his hometown team the Cleveland Cavaliers, rarely has a teenager carried such high expectations into their professional debut.

Throughout that summer, James travelled to the Cavaliers’ practice facility – a 40-minute drive from where he grew up in Akron, Ohio – for intense one-to-one training with Bob Donewald Jnr, one of the team’s assistant coaches.

After one session, coach and superstar-in-waiting chatted during a cool-down routine. “I wasn’t great today,” James said. “It wasn’t a great workout.”

“You were alright. It’s been a long week,” replied Donewald, who had pushed the teenager hard across consecutive days of gruelling work in preparation for the 82-game season. “LeBron, I just want you to be great. That’s why I’m pushing you.”

“I am great,” James responded, a flat, serious expression washing over his face. “If you want me to be the greatest ever, I’m with that.”

No-one was more aware of the future that had been written for him than James himself. No-one better appreciated the work required to fulfil that promise.

“Every cut, every shot, every move he made – you’d have thought it was a Game 7 finals, the intensity with which he went,” Donewald remembers of those early one-to-one sessions. “I’m trying to crush this kid in a workout just to teach him a lesson, and he is bringing it and bringing it.

“Everybody was hard on him too – the players, head coach Paul Silas. They were friendly, but they weren’t going to hand it to this kid, and he didn’t want it handed to him.”

James also understood the highest echelons of superstardom are only attained when the pageantry of elite sport is embraced; that you create your own myth before selling it to the world.

LeBron James
An 18-year-old James playing in the Jordan Capital Classic of 2003

At half-time in a pre-season intra-squad scrimmage, some of the Cleveland players decided to do battle in an impromptu slam dunk contest. James watched from the sidelines while established players entertained the crowd with an array of athletic jams. But those who’d stuffed the arena to capacity were really there to see one man.

“He looks at me and grins ear to ear,” Donewald says of the moment James decided to take centre stage. “He says, ‘watch this’. I said, ‘are you going to take over this place?’ He said, ‘I’m about to take over this place’.”

James proceeded to run through a sequence of stunning slam dunks. Showcasing his once-in-a-generation athleticism, he rose higher than any of his team-mates, his head above the rim as he stuffed the ball through the basket. He passed the ball between his legs and around his back as he ascended. The crowd had got what they came for.

“The place went wild,” Donewald says. “In the second half, he came out and just torched it. And from then on in practices, it was some next-level stuff.”

When it came time to dub the rookie with a nickname, the NBA’s new showman chose appropriately.

“I already have a nickname,” James explained. “The King.”

“Young buck, I ain’t calling you King,” Donewald objected. “I’m an Elvis Presley fan, and The King is Elvis Presley.”

“OK, then,” James said. “Call me Elvis.”

LeBron James plays with his 'King James' wrist bands as he sits on the bench against the Portland Trail Blazers on 17 January, 2006
Within three years of arriving on the NBA scene, James was already highly marketable

James’ debut arrived on 29 October 2003. The Cavaliers travelled to face the Sacramento Kings for their season opener. Expectations were high, but the teenager still had more than his share of doubters. After all, he had skipped a step on the traditional route to the NBA, going professional straight out of high school – prep to pro – rather than using college basketball as a stepping stone.

On the cross-country flight to California, coach Silas turned to Donewald and asked: “This fella gonna deliver? He is a rookie.”

“Yeah,” Donewald replied confidently. “I think he is.”

“I think he will, too,” Silas smiled.

Cleveland lost the game 106-92, The King outdone by the Kings, but James could hardly have impressed more in defeat. His 25 points set a record for a prep-to-pro player on debut, bettering the exalted company of Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant.

“The expectations were just incredible,” Donewald says. “We weren’t talking about ‘he needs to be a good player’. We were talking about ‘he needs to be one of the best rookies ever’.

“Everywhere we went, there were crowds. Instead of going in the front door of the hotel, now we’ve got to go in the back door. Tickets are now hard to come by. Friends and cousins you haven’t heard from in a while want to come to games.

“It was nuts. It was everywhere we went, because of him, and he just handled it. Nothing ever fazed him in that way, which was just so strange to me. This was an 18-year-old kid. A kid who’d just got out of high school.”

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19 : LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Washington Wizards on November 19, 2003 at the MCI Center in Washington DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
James was the first Cavaliers player to be named the NBA’s rookie of the year

James became the first player in Cavaliers history to be named NBA rookie of the year at the end of his maiden season. His per-game averages of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists were the bare stats of one of the all-time great debut campaigns.

There was one area of criticism: his jump shot.

In the final two seconds of his debut against the Kings, James launched a three-point attempt, the confidence of a sublime overall display coursing through him. But the ball sailed past the rim and the backboard, straight out of play.

James finished his breakout 2003-04 season with just a 41.7% success rate on field goal attempts, an average which plummeted further to just 29% on shots from beyond the three-point arc. Both figures were short of the league-wide averages of 43.9% and 34.7% respectively.

Again, James got to work.

“Usually it’s the coach having to teach the kid that, but not this one,” says Donewald.

“He just wanted to work on it. Practice is at 10? Hey, let’s meet at nine. Let’s work. Let’s work.

“Confidence in his shot was the biggest improvement. Not that he couldn’t shoot – that was the biggest misconception. I thought he could shoot even then. It was just learning how to get into the shot and get his feet down. He had the jump shot, but he had to get the feet right. During the year, he developed that pretty quickly.”

The following season, James shot 47% from the field and 35% from three-point range. His field goal accuracy never again dropped below 47% in the rest of his career, reaching the 50% mark in the 2009-10 campaign when he was crowned the league’s Most Valuable Player.

By that stage, James had taken Cleveland to a NBA Finals (losing to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007), established himself as one of the league’s most dominant scorers – averaging over 30 points per game in 2005-06 and 2007-08 – and its best all-round player.

Without a championship, though, he could not claim to have delivered on his potential.

The Superstar – 2010-2014

Donewald was on his way out of London’s Olympic Stadium when he was tackled to the ground by “what I thought was a bear”.

As coach of the Chinese basketball team for the 2012 Games, he’d led a procession around the track for the opening ceremony. As his players made their exit through the tunnel, Team USA were about to enter.

“Elvis!” Donewald shouted, recognising the six-foot-nine ‘bear’ that had wrestled him to the deck.

“We did it! We did it!” James was shouting.

A month earlier, James had claimed his first NBA title and was named Finals MVP as the Miami Heat overcame the Oklahoma City Thunder by four games to one. He’d also been named regular-season MVP for the third time.

James’ move to Miami in 2010 was tinged with controversy. Many fans and league insiders felt announcing which team he’d join in free agency via a live television special, entitled The Decision, was in bad taste.

“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” James said on the air, paraphrasing a teenage Kobe Bryant’s announcement that he was skipping college to join the NBA in 1996. Cavaliers fans were crushed.

But James’ decision – if not The Decision – was vindicated by his success in Florida, where he linked up with fellow perennial All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to create one of the most-feared ‘super teams’ the NBA has ever seen.

MIAMI - JULY 09: Fans cheer as (L-R) Dwyane Wade #3, Chris Bosh #1 and LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat are introduced during a welcome party at American Airlines Arena on July 9, 2010 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
(L-R) Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and James were a potent combination in Miami

The Heat reached four straight Finals, winning twice – in 2012 and 2013 – and James took his MVP haul to four, just two shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record of six, and one behind Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.

James turned 28 midway through the Heat’s 2012-13 championship-winning season. He was at his peak; the full realisation of his teenage promise.

Orlando Johnson was part of the Indiana Pacers team that faced James and the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals that year. A rotation player in the same position, Johnson knew the task of stopping the unstoppable would fall to him in the minutes he saw.

“He sees the court like no other and he could do it all,” Johnson says. “He could hit the mid-range; that’s when his three-ball was really starting to take off. Just how strong he was; I think he might have been a little bit bigger then – 270, 280 pounds maybe. His passing ability, and just his speed. His speed was off the charts.

“Trying to keep this guy in front, it was like, man, this is a different beast. During that time especially, he might have been at peak athleticism.

“I think what I respected in him the most was the way he could lock in on a game when it’s go-time. You hear about his Game 7 performances throughout his career. He doesn’t really lose those games.”

LeBron James
James’ once-in-a generation athleticism helped Heat to four successive NBA Finals

The series had been close, but the deciding game was a blowout. The Heat won by 13 points and James led all scorers with 32 while also contributing eight rebounds and a team-high four assists. They would face the Spurs in the Finals, and James would claim revenge for 2007’s heartbreak thanks to a series-best 25.3 points per game in another 4-3 victory.

“We saw the levels he could take it to,” Johnson adds. “At that time, I don’t think any of us could reach it. When he locked in and took it to another level, it was different.

“A guy like him, he’s going to go down as one of the greatest to ever play the game.”

The Leader – 2014-2018

In 2014, James decided to reverse The Decision and take his talents back to Cleveland. In the Heat’s fourth consecutive Finals appearance, just a few months before, they’d lost in five games to the Spurs. James opted out of his contract and returned to the Cavaliers as a free agent.

In the four years he’d been away, Cleveland had compiled the worst overall win-loss record (97-215) in the NBA. They finished 10th in the Eastern Conference for 2013-14.

In Miami, James was the centrepiece of a superstar ensemble. Continuing his quest for championships in Cleveland – who had no NBA titles to their name – would require an effort of leadership as much as skill.

Cleveland fans pictured queuing on James' return to the Cavaliers
James’ return propelled the Cavaliers to a maiden NBA championship

With gifted young point guard Kyrie Irving already on the roster and All-Star power forward Kevin Love acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, James’ Cavaliers were not without talent, but the group would need inspiration and winning nous.

“I think it’s the balance of knowing how good you are and at the same time respecting your team-mates and knowing you need them to win,” says Jose Calderon, who played for the Cavaliers during the 2017-18 season.

“Some guys forget about that. He doesn’t. He’s a great team-mate. He was amazing. He was the first one there, and he worked every day. There were no days off.”

James led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in each of the four years of his second spell in Cleveland, taking his personal tally of consecutive Finals appearances to eight. Those around him noticed how he once again elevated his game during the playoffs, year after year.

“He was so ready for that,” Calderon says. “For some players, it’s difficult to turn it on and off, but you could see he had one more level that was 1,000 times more of everything. More focused. More rest. More rehab. More of anything he needed to do to be ready.”

Had they not coincided with the Golden State Warriors team of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and, from 2016, Kevin Durant, the Cavaliers might have collected more championship rings. The one they did win, though, will be forever remembered among the greatest NBA upsets.

LeBron James holding aloft the NBA Championship trophy in 2016
The King got his hands on the big prize again in 2016

Trailing the Warriors 3-1 for the 2016 title, Cleveland fought back to claim a miraculous 4-3 triumph – a comeback on that scale had never been pulled off before in Finals history.

“Cleveland, this is for you!” an emotional James screamed at the end of his post-game interview on the court. He had delivered the city’s first professional sports title. All was forgiven for his years in Miami.

Alongside Irving’s winning shot in Game 7, James’ chase-down block on Andre Iguodala – sprinting to leap and swat away a lay-up attempt – was the iconic play of the series.

It is telling that a signature play in the career of one of basketball’s greatest and most complete offensive talents is a hustle effort on defence to snuff out what seemed a certain score for the opposition.

“That just showed the commitment,” says Neal Meyer, an NBA executive who served as a video co-ordinator for the Cavaliers in 2009-10. “Giving a little bit extra effort to get there and make that block, which changed everything.”

Calderon says: “When people ask me about LeBron, I always say: he’s maybe not the best scorer; he’s maybe not the best rebounder; he’s maybe not the best with assists. But all around, I think he’s the best player. He’s the most complete player.

“He can play defence. He can see the floor; he can see his team-mates. He knows what he wants in every moment of the game. I think that’s what sets him apart.

“They can’t do what he can do on the court.”

The Creator – 2018-present

When his contract in Cleveland expired, at the end of the 2017-18 season, James decided to move on once again, albeit this time in less controversial fashion. At the age of 33, he signed with the LA Lakers.

One of the NBA’s storied franchises, the Lakers boast some of the game’s most illustrious names among their club legends and have won 17 championships – but they hadn’t posted a winning record since the 2012-13 season.

Returning the Lakers to their former glories would be a difficult task even for James, but one that would cement his legacy if he achieved it.

“He was still a leader, incredibly team-oriented,” says Clay Moser, a former assistant coach on the Lakers who’d previously worked with James at the Cavaliers in 2010.

“Quite frankly, that’s the way he’s been since he was a young man, probably before he even hit double digits as a person. He’s obviously ageing, but his skill-sets are all still incredible. He works like no other. He’s an early riser, keeps himself in impeccable condition.

“He’s all about winning. And he’s all about working to make sure you’re in a position to win.”

In 2018-19, a groin injury meant James played only 55 of the Lakers’ 82 regular-season games, the most he’d had to sit out in his career. LA finished with a 37-45 record. James missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

“I remember the game he got hurt,” Moser says. “It was Christmas Day and we were at Golden State. I was close enough that I heard his groin pop a little bit, and he heard it too. He knew he was hurt bad. But, in classic fashion, he worked hard at his rehab, he worked hard at his therapy, and he came back as quickly as he could. Unfortunately for us, it was a little bit too late.”

Street mural depicting LeBron James in Los Angeles
James has morphed into an assist king to get the most from Anthony Davis – and get the Lakers winning

Before the next season, 2019-20, the Lakers completed a crucial trade to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. LA gave up three young talents and a handful of future draft picks to acquire one of the most talented forwards in the game.

With an elite scorer now on his side, James adapted his game. While still averaging a healthy 25.3 points – rising to 27.6 in the playoffs – he became more of a facilitator, posting a league-high and career-best average of 10.2 assists per game.

James withdrew into the backcourt, effectively acting as the Lakers’ point guard for the majority of possessions. He would instigate moves from deep, spring fast breaks with arrow-like passes or draw the attention of defenders before offloading to an open team-mate.

“I think he probably could’ve led the league in assists any year he wanted to,” Moser says. “But when they got Davis and they retooled the team in the manner they did, I think he set his mind to the fact Davis is going to be the primary go-to guy. LeBron was going to make sure everybody got easy looks at the basket, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, 2019-20 ended with the final regular-season rounds and all of the playoffs taking place in a fan-less ‘bubble’ at Disney World, Florida.

It also ended with the Lakers collecting their first championship in a decade. It was a fourth ring for James and a fourth Finals MVP crown.

LeBron James
Having turned the Cavaliers and Heat into winners, James did the same for the Lakers

Powered by James and Davis, the Lakers are favourites to repeat their ‘bubble’ success in 2021. James is now 36 but showing no signs of slowing. With the care he has paid to his physical shape and wellbeing throughout his career, and with Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record in his sights – 35,171 to the leader’s 38,387 – he is as motivated as ever.

“He’s still one of the best players in the world,” Moser says.

“He doesn’t have these ups and downs in terms of his conditioning. He’s always in great shape. He’s always ready to go. He’s incredibly strong – like, incredibly strong. He’s got north-south quickness. He’s got great hand-eye coordination. All those sorts of things.

“If he is declining, I’d hate to see guys that really are.”

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