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How LeBron James put the ‘free’ in free agency

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LeBron has always done things his way. Now, everyone else is taking his cue.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers pool photo-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday’s NBA Awards show, held six days before the beginning of free agency, Oscar Robertson took home the Lifetime Achievement Award. Alongside being the original triple-double king, he was the president of the NBA Players Association from 1965 to 1974. In 1970, he took the NBA to court, resulting in a six-year case that eventually led to the demise of the option clause, which then allowed a team to keep a players rights for as long as the team wanted.

It’s fitting that the league chose to honor Robertson this year. The NBA can kowtow about parity all they want. They can introduce a super-duper-max contract in the next CBA. But nearly five decades after the trial, even the league understands how important free agency has been for its success.

And nobody has fueled the spectacle that’s turned the NBA into a 12-month season more than Robertson’s spiritual torch-bearer, LeBron James.

James was conspicuously absent on Monday, perhaps tending to his own upcoming free agency, emphasis on ‘free’. He rarely cedes control, wielding one-year deals and opt-out clauses like a blunt instrument, and has seized the basketball world’s total attention in the three instances he considered potential suitors. LeBron believes his greatness, correctly leveraged, gives him the ability to win on his own terms, and he’s willing to shake up the status quo to achieve his desires.

Early-career peers like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Paul Pierce were of another time, and they could summon the institutional memory of their alumni when things got awry. Spending the first seven years of his career in Cleveland shielded LeBron from the tutelage of all-timers. He would have to weave his own path. Eventually, he build up the audacity to demand all the power and privileges his considerable talent can extract.

LeBron’s first free agency is best known for the infamous ESPN special in which he reduced a well-considered move into a three-second sound-bite: “taking my talents to South Beach.” The medium was as controversial as the message, and LeBron was pilloried: He’s a spoiled fraud. Not a real leader. Not a real winner.

The 2016 ESPYS - Show Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The public wasn’t ready to accept LeBron as an independent actor, but he unapologetically -- even arrogantly -- did what he wanted anyway. Even at his lowest point, LeBron had no issue reminding everyone else that they aren’t, in fact, LeBron. His response to the criticism of the time — ‘Jordan and Kobe would never do that’ — has become refined over the years. For a man who always set out to do things differently, the contrast was a compliment.

LeBron dubbed his stint in Miami as a “college” experience, an acknowledgement that he needed guidance to win. President of Basketball Operations and coaching legend Pat Riley, championship rings smackdab on the table, answered the call.

In Miami, LeBron lost and he learned. He refined his post-game, expanded his jumper, and became a defensive lynchpin. He took off the headband. He built a system. He became a system. He gained full command of his talent. He learned that many organizations don’t just fire the coach because you nudge them to. He ceded control to an all-timer at the head of a strict institution and in return he received the education of a lifetime.

But four years in, LeBron decided he was done making concessions. He broke the rules again, rejecting the teachings of the fraternity of legendary players, those who believed — often after learning the hard way — that winning was the product of sacrifice, of tempering one’s own skills to allow others to shine. Even if Michael Jordan didn’t believe he needed Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, it would be hard to imagine him leaving the Bulls just to prove it.

LeBron believed he could win anywhere, even Cleveland. And he did, fulfilling the promise of his career and bringing his story full circle.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron doesn’t bend the rules. He rewrites them. As one of the world’s most famous athletes, everything LeBron does automatically redefines the scope of acceptable behavior for his peers.

And by rejecting the old roadmap, he has redefined what it means to be a star. Consider: A decade ago, the notion of a legend voluntarily wearing multiple jerseys in his career was sacrilegious. Today, it’s the status quo. With Kawhi Leonard demanding a trade, Stephen Curry might be the only top-five player in the league to spend his entire career with the same team.

Player movement has become a revelation on celebrity, how these maniacally driven athletes measure ambition, legacy and desire.

When Kyrie Irving asked to be traded from the Cavaliers, he laid bare his most carnal basketball itch: to be the lone wolf not only for its own sake, but to serve the quest for constant self-improvement. Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors didn’t just reveal a part of himself, but his own desire to find himself. Free agency as self-discovery: Imagine that 15 years ago. When the dust settles, Kawhi’s destination will inevitably pull some of his character out of the shadows.

Constant movement has given staying a new meaning. Russell Westbrook’s supermax deal with the Thunder told us he was satisfied with the triple double show, that he found value in being a showman and hero for his adopted city.

The anthem of his famous Jordan Brand commercial, “Now I do what I want,” now applies to everyone.

More LeBron James free agency coverage from SB Nation NBA

Help us decide LeBron’s future with this free agency game

By SB Nation staff

Another title in LA? A Twitter war with teammate Joel Embiid? Keeping that standing Applebee’s res at the nice Cleveland location? We imagined six completely fake news outcomes (with definite notes of truth) for LeBron James’ prospective NBA destinations.

A tentative case for LeBron James to stay in Cleveland

By Paul Flannery

And yet, there’s some potential to revamp the roster and maintain LeBron’s future flexibility. Would a rumored trade for Charlotte’s Kemba Walker be enough to entice LeBron to stick around for another season with yet another player option attached? That would put him back in play next season when his options may be considerably enhanced if Leonard plays out this season without a new contract.

It’s not perfect, but then neither is anything else. Remember that LeBron has never faltered in free agency. This summer will test his ability to bend the league to his will.

LeBron James’ 2014 letter has clues for his 2018 decision

By Tom Ziller

Basketball reasons might push LeBron out of Cleveland to Philadelphia or Houston. Wanting the best development opportunity for his son or to be closer to his many Hollywood projects might push LeBron to Los Angeles. But helping kids like him in Northeastern Ohio is where LeBron’s heart and energy really seems to be, and that’s highlighted in the 2014 piece explaining why he returned home.

Why LeBron James actually limits his options by opting out
By Mike Prada

Thanks to a variety of circumstances, this year’s opt-out decision is different. What James decides to do by midnight on June 29 will have a significant effect on this season’s chase. It could either narrow the field significantly, or potentially resolve the offseason’s biggest question before it even begins.

Unless you’re a 76ers, Lakers, or Cavaliers fan, you should hope LeBron opts in, not out.