Here we are again. LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, is a free agent. His current team, the Miami Heat, remain confident in their ability to re-sign him (sound familiar, Cavs fans?) while a half dozen teams are openly salivating at the prospect of signing one of the top 10 greatest NBA players of all time. James’ basketball legacy can no longer be called into question; he cannot be labeled a loser, choke artist, or anything less than a champion and MVP. That being said, his legacy as a professional athlete, celebrity, and teammate can certainly continue to grow, or become badly tarnished, as it was in 2010/2011 — before the championships.
There are several factors aside from money and basketball, primarily related to his marketability, which will weigh heavy on James and his agent’s minds in coming days and weeks:
1. He won’t leave Miami, yet. Sorry Miami, while you certainly love your LeBron James, your passion for professional sports certainly ranks towards the bottom of those in large markets. Your reputation remains a sad video of Miami fans fleeing the AmericanAirlines Arena at the end of Game 6 of the 2013 Finalsthinking the series-ending loss was minutes away, only to miss one of the most historic comebacks in NBA Finals history. That being said, no sports team deserves to have its heart ripped out publicly (other than the Cowboys), especially when its efforts to do right by the player could never be called into question.
Following ‘The Decision’ public relations debacle when he promoted and executed a total body slamming of Cleveland on national TV, it took years to rebuild the brand equity and improve the public perception of James. If he chooses to leave Miami after one contract, he runs the risk of infuriating yet another major city. Additionally, while James’ free agency period has lacked the theatrics of 2010, fans around the country will still see a departure from Miami in the same light.
2. He wants to avoid comparisons. James has made it very clear that he does not compare himself individually to all-time greats like Jordan, Bird and Kobe. The media and the public do that for him — read any article on James, scroll to the bottom, and find the Average Joe gleefully stating “he’s no Jordan.” This social media maven is most likely unaware that he’s complimenting James — what professional wouldn’t want to be compared to the greatest of all time in his or her industry? However, James should walk a fine line. Going to Chicago will only intensify these comparisons to MJ, as would a commitment to the LA Lakers would do the same with Kobe.
Additionally, hopping teams seeking a better landscape is only going to draw comparisons to the greats listed above, and others, as something they didn’tneed to do to win. James will never distance himself from the comparisons, but he can do his best to let his brand stand alone by not giving the media, and Facebook trolls, any unnecessary ammo.
3. He has no better option. Let’s cross the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers off the list for the reason listed above, James’ brand needs its own city to grow within and dominate, and he just doesn’t have the same marketability as Jordan or Bryant if he enters their markets. But wait a minute; there are two teams in LA! Eh, I’m not buying it. Thanks to Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers are literally the one team that many sponsors won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Heading to ‘Lob City’ will only bring controversy, which James already has enough of. The NY Knicks are too ego-driven and theatrical, the Cleveland Cavaliers are owned by a man who publicly assailed James for leaving four years ago, and joining Dwight Howard, a man with his own horde of detractors, in Houston just doesn’t seem feasible.
4. The bond with his teammates is too strong. Yes, Dwayne Wade appeared to be a shadow of his former self in the Finals, Chris ‘Corner 3’ Bosh struggled at times, and the rest of the Miami Heat cast unraveled quickly. However, James formed very strong bonds with those players as teammates and friends, and I just can’t see him leaving them now. The ‘Big 3’ as they are known, have unfinished business (although four Finals appearances in four years is nothing short of great), and I believe they, along with Pat Riley, will sacrifice what’s needed to make another run. If LeBron can lead his team through the ‘hardships’ (funny word choice following a Finals appearance), he can cement his legacy without tarnishing his brand.
Eric Fischgrund is an entrepreneur, writer, sports fan, music-lover, and founder and CEO of FischTank Marketing and PR, a marketing and communications firm based in NYC.