LeBron James, who will make his ninth consecutive All-Star Game start on Sunday, is just 28 years old, which is all the more remarkable considering how many titles—not the National Basketball Association variety—he's held. It is a tale told by Sports Illustrated covers: He was the high school prodigy, then the herald of a new generation of NBA stars, the local boy made good, the basketball prophet, and, as 2009 drew to a close, the defining player of a decade. There seemed nowhere to go but up: GOAT.1
But then, in 2010, James made "The Decision" to sign with the Miami Heat, joining stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—whom many felt should be his rivals, not teammates—rather than remain, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the lone King of his home state. His image splintered. There followed LeBron the Patsy, used by his cynical teammate Wade; LeBron the Traitor and, relatedly, LeBron the Heel; LeBron the Failure, after the Heat didn't win the championship in his first season; LeBron the Matured; and, after last season, when the Heat did win it all, largely thanks to James's interstellar postseason play, LeBron the Transcendent. We are now left with LeBron the Complete Player and Sportsman of the Year. There is even a newly fan-friendly James who has cropped up in recent weeks—playing catch with a fan, and, most endearingly, gleefully jumping an ordinary schmo who made a halftime half-court shot for $75,000—as well as the LeBron who right now is in the midst of one of the most extraordinary hot streaks in NBA history.
But, believe it or not, there's a huge side to James that has received scant attention. Earlier this month, he told reporters that he knows he is underpaid. "I don't think my value on the floor can really be compensated for," he said, citing the salary cap imposed by the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA). He added, "If this was baseball, it'd be up, I mean way up there." (Major League Baseball has no salary cap.)
It can be jarring when an athlete speaks frankly about money. Fans are liable to see it as gauche, and perhaps worse than gauche, including when it comes from an athlete, like James, who is black and grew up underprivleged.2 It destroys the happy illusion, prevalent even in our jaded, Deadspin-ed culture, that these guys play mainly for the love of the game.
But we should get over any adolescent quibbles about "purity" and consider LeBron the Enlightened. "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," he said, famously, during his July 2010 Decision. The fact that he phrased it that way; that he said this during an hour-long ESPN special devoted solely to his announcement; and that he ended up ditching Cleveland made many observers, me included, see James as a petulant young man refusing to let us play with his toys. But the truth was quite the opposite: This was an amply advised adult, fully conscious that his "talents" were just that—his own, to take wherever he wished—making a wise business decision and outraging NBA owners (except the Heat's Micky Arison, of course) to such an extent that they proceeded to try to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. Leaving home for greater success, making more money than most people can fathom, and putting one over the bosses in the process? That sounds a lot like the American Dream.
James is right about being underpaid. The league's best player, he doesn't crack the top ten in NBA salaries; the $17.5 million he will earn as his base salary this year is more than $10 million lower than the NBA's highest (Kobe Bryant's is worth more than $27 million this year). James's lower pay partly reflects the fact that he has logged fewer years than many of his better remunerated colleagues. Even so, he has never taken a so-called maximum contract, which would pay him the most money allowed under the league-wide salary cap. In order to join Wade and Bosh in Miami, James agreed to less money than he could have gotten elsewhere.
However—and James surely understands this better than anyone else—in Miami he can make the market work for him, despite the salary cap. For James, salaries are a pittance. This year, he will make an estimated $40 million just from endorsements. The latter figure probably doesn't even count various other revenue streams, such as his cut in Dr. Dre's burgeoning Beats headphones empire. With all of this, who needs a guaranteed maximum deal?
Accounting for the full financial picture, it's almost certain that bolting for Miami offered James the highest financial return. In the summer of 2010, James had yet to win a title with the Cavaliers. His contract expiring, he had four main suitors: Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks, and the Heat. Any one of those choices would have continued to make him very rich, of course. But Miami, as a competently run team in a large market that isn't already famous for having been Michael Jordan's team, promised championships, total re-branding, and unparalleled stardom. In other words: the most overall money.3
This was an unprecedented display of a player's power, and it was followed, over the next season, by two stars, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, forcing trades from small-market teams to big-market ones.
Threatened by the simmering insurgency, the owners locked out the players after the 2011 season, eventually forcing a new CBA designed to prevent super-teams like the Heat. Mere days after the CBA was ratified, Commissioner David Stern—who works for the owners—vetoed a trade, in his dubious capacity as temporary "owner" of the New Orleans Hornets (which the league had purchased with the intent of finding a new owner), that would have sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the league's most valuable and successful teams.
Since then, the CBA, and especially its newly punitive luxury tax—which is levied when a franchise exceeds the salary cap—has naturally ruptured super-teams: Immediately after the new CBA went into effect, the Dallas Mavericks worked to blow up their championship squad by trading center Tyson Chandler rather than paying the high tax; just prior to this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away Olympian James Harden rather than pay a cap penalty, keeping stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; and earlier this month, the Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay for similar reasons.4 This state of affairs is not necessarily bad for the league as a whole: Spreading talent should increase team parity, and better competition benefits more fans. But this shift does represent the owners' renewed superiority in the never-ending thumb war between management and labor.
It is difficult to know whether James understood, back in 2010, that time was running out to take his talents to a place where he could fully leverage his superstardom. Certainly it was foreseeable that small-market owners, tired of struggling to break even, would force a lockout to demand a more equitable distribution of talent. Either way, The Decision was impeccably timed. As Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after the Rudy Gay trade, "The economics of the sport keep reaffirming that three's a crowd now, that James will have to choose a partnership with one superstar teammate"—as opposed to the two he currently plays with.5
LeBron the Savvy Agent of His Own Self-Interest isn't as catchy a title as those emblazoned on SI covers. But it feels more authentic, and somehow more agreeable. Watch again as he tackles that fan who made the half-court shot. It does not seem stage-acted for the television cameras: James looks genuinely thrilled that this average guy has just earned, as James subsequently (and redundantly) tweeted, "75k large!!!" James tackled him less because of the feat itself than because this guy, like James, had taken advantage of his situation to cash in. James, after all, understands the value of a buck. Rather than begrudge him this, as the underpaid media is wont to do, we ought to recognize him as an inspiration to all Americans who bristle under their bosses.
SI, in fact, has already run a cover asking if James is the best ever—way back in 2005, when he was 20.
See: the widespread disdain for the Yankees's Alex Rodriguez and boxer Floyd "Money" Mayweather, who are widely perceived to care more about paychecks than titles.
Also, unlike Ohio, New York, and Illinois, Florida has no personal income tax.
The only team that loaded up on ostentatious stardom this past offseason was the Lakers, an exception that proves the rule: Their aging cast more resembles The Expendables franchise than the Ocean's one, and they are currently a few games below .500.
This could mean the Heat dropping Bosh or Wade, likely after the 2013-14 season. Alternatively, Wojnarowski posits, James could leave in the summer of 2014 and go play with budding star Kyrie Irving, a point guard on ... the Cleveland Cavaliers.