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How LeBron James’ constant evolution has kept him on top

Seerat Sohi

Lakerland is like a snowglobe. Everyone else stares into it with wonder. The inhabitants care for very little outside their world.

Lakers fans are never just happy to be here. LeBron James, who took home his fourth Finals MVP on Sunday night after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, learned that the hard way last year, when L.A.’s failures made fans clamor for Kobe Bryant, inspiring some to paint Bryant over murals of James.

“Laker faithful don't give a damn what you've done before,” James said last week. “Until you become a Laker, you've got to do it with them, as well. They don't care about your résumé at all.”

The Lakers traffic in writing NBA history, but so does LeBron. The camera and pen have followed him everywhere, from high school to Cleveland to Miami back to Cleveland to Los Angeles. All lenses follow him — eventually, inevitably — to the top, usually at the apex of a one-handed dunk, a silhouette so familiar it’s etched permanently in the brains of NBA fans. He was there in the third quarter of Game 6, his strong, ceaseless, somehow graceful body floating above the rim, back on top of the basketball universe.

The world looks so different since James signed with the Lakers over two years ago. In the aftermath of Bryant’s death in January, the murals of his likeness mean an entirely different thing than they did in 2018. A pandemic tore through our lives. A civil rights movement took center stage. The NBA season paused and restarted on a campus at Disney World. James, at the podium after the Lakers won the championship Sunday night, did something most of us have done a lot this year. He forgot what day it was for a moment. “Our ballclub got here July 9,” he said. “It's October … what? I don't even ... October 11 now.”

LeBron James celebrates with his teammates after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
LeBron James celebrates with his teammates after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“So,” he continued, “this was very challenging and difficult. It played with your mind. It played with your body. You're away from some of the things that you're so accustomed to, to make you be the professional that you are.” And yet: LeBron. The one constant, evolving to stay on top.

How does he roll with every punch?

If change is the only constant, it’s also the great equalizer. The world changed — and changes — relentlessly, in manners big and small. It does not ask permission or give warnings. No one, even James, can hope to stay ahead of the curve. But he can work to stay ahead of his contemporaries, who are also at the mercy of its unpredictable whims.

The Finals were full of familiar faces, faces who understand this. There was the Miami Heat, with head coach Erik Spoestra and team president Pat Riley. Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy and Heat forward Andre Iguodala made their sixth straight Finals appearances. And of course, there was James and the Lakers. Together, the group has had a hand in every title since 2011.

James has invited change, switching teams more than any superstar in the history of the NBA. He is known for imposing his identity on teams, but in Miami, he became a student. The Heat tutored him in discipline, in winning habits, in the costs of victory. If there is an enduring lesson of #HeatCulture, it’s that hard work is how you learn to move in flow with the world instead of fearing where it’ll take you.

“The only thing that I think I’ve learned on a regular basis to be able to deal with in the league is change, over the 52 years that I’ve been involved as a player, as a traveling secretary, as a video guy, as a head coach,” said Riley last October on the eve of Miami’s opening night. “Every five or six years there really is dramatic and constant change. Over the past 20 years, the changes have been even more dramatic — more cultural, more generational — but you have to adapt.”

James learned to post up after the Dallas Mavericks’ zone beat him in the 2011 NBA Finals. Six years after they packed the paint in his first Finals appearance in 2007, James met the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 Finals armed with 40 percent 3-point shooting. The Heat won in seven games.

The scouting report forced James’ postup game to evolve from blunt force backdowns to face-ups to driving hooks to that perfect, interminable lefty baseline jumper.

Against the Heat, James stood at that elbow, the place he has mastered, and picked apart the zone that got them to the Finals.

“Thirty-five-year-old LeBron would tell the 27-year-old that you don’t even know your game,” James told ESPN after Game 6 on Sunday night. “You haven’t even scratched the surface. You have no idea what you’re capable of. I think if you line 27-year-old LeBron up with 35-year-old LeBron, [the elder] would dominate him.”

Defeat has always helped James tinker with his formula.

Iguodala, who has guarded James as well as anyone when he was a member of the Golden State Warriors, hadn’t faced off against him in the playoffs for over two years before Game 1 of these Finals. James may not jump as high anymore — although it’s hard to tell sometimes — but he’s added guile and strength. He also has a superstar teammate to occupy Iguodala and the Heat’s treasure trove of physical, determined defenders, from Bam Adebayo to Jimmy Butler to Jae Crowder.

After going down 3-0 against the Warriors in 2018, James suggested the key to beating them was matching their basketball IQ. But intelligence can only be sharpened by reps and encouragement. Dynamism, like any muscle, atrophies without use. And James, in Cleveland, despite (and because of) his many gifts, flattened out the ability of his teammates. Kyrie Irving wanted out even after winning a championship. Even Kevin Love became a glorified spot-up shooter. If James wanted to play with smarter teammates, he’d also have to trust them to be smart.

When James first signed with Los Angeles, the Lakers didn’t look like a contender. Their lofty goals seemed to hinge on hubris. But they knew things we didn’t. They knew Lakers exceptionalism was the byproduct of a kind of mysticism that had the gravitational force to attract greatness, to pull into its orbit men who wanted to live in history. It attracted James, who attracted Anthony Davis.

The Lakers’ pursuit of Davis was relentless, even arrogant — an entitlement that suggested the best deserved the best, contract obligations and team chemistry and alternative trade offers be damned.

When the Lakers secured Davis, James empowered him to run the offense. Their bond, James says, is unexplainable. “There's just certain things you just know. Any type of relationship, you kind of just feel, you know that vibe. You have that respect. You have that drive. Sometimes you can't explain what links you with somebody, and then it's that organic. The first thing I think about is the respect, the no ego, the challenging each other. We want each other to be better than actually ourselves. I want AD to be better than me. AD wants me to be better than him.”

James is 35, turning 36 in December. The old formula of surrounding him with shooters was becoming obsolete, and it didn’t make sense to burden him with that much playmaking responsibility. At the same time, he’d slowly become bigger. If the Lakers could move him off the ball, they could leverage his strength near the paint. So they signed Rajon Rondo, a super computer who can spell James’ passing ability for brief stretches. More importantly, James trusted him, just like he trusted Davis. That freed the duo, as well as a cabal of big rim-runners in Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, to pummel opponents in the paint.

The primary conceit of the pace-and-space revolution is that the 3-pointer, ideally, is a gimmick that helps get the ball closer to the rim. The Lakers realized they didn’t need to go outside-in, instead drilling right where the X marks the spot of the gold. Davis played the best basketball of his life right at the moment the NBA became too small to counter the onslaught.

The pursuit of victory is a process of constant requirement. In the NBA, consistent dominance belongs only to those who steam over every new blemish. The process is cleansing. In Miami, LeBron learned to do what he never learned in Cleveland. In Los Angeles, he did what he never did in Cleveland: He let go. And so, as ever, he’s on top.

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