It hasn’t stopped being a pretty marvelous thing to watch LeBron James flex his muscles, exercise his power and be the man in control.
He still is doing all of those things on the basketball court, still top-tier elite and great as ever, even at age 33.
Yet it somehow is even more impressive to watch as he continues to be in charge of his own career and future with a cunning that is almost Machiavellian — but not unscrupulous, just brilliant. He has spent half of his life in the unblinking public eye, famous as any athlete, loved and hated, but always shaping his business and his brand just the way he wants.
We just saw it again as his subtle-and-often-not public dissatisfaction with his team caused the Cleveland Cavaliers to make a massive NBA trade deadline deal to placate him.
One of the beneficiaries: the Miami Heat and Heat fans. Because Dwyane Wade would not have been one of the six Cavs traded — would not be back in Miami in his familiar No. 3 jersey — if King James had not knighted the move. James and Wade are best friends, BFFs, legit. The timing was right for a Wade/Heat reunion; interest was mutual. James knew it, knew where Wade’s heart was. He would have stepped in had the Cavs wanted to trade Wade to a team not of his liking. Heat fans have mixed feelings about James. Loved him for the four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships. Loved him not so much for then bolting back to Cleveland in the summer of ‘15.
But if South Florida is happy to have Wade back, it might as well have come with a two-word message from LeBron: “You’re welcome.”
Doing right by Wade was only a bonus byproduct of the trade James forced, of course.
The Cavs had lost 13 of the past 19 games before the deal. They were looking up at Boston and Toronto in the East standings. James’ extraordinary run of seven consecutive Finals appearances was in peril. James was in the middle of a team that didn’t play defense and had awful locker room chemistry. Isaiah Thomas was not fitting in.
Cleveland, trying desperately to keep James and not have him leave, again, in free agency this summer, had to do something to make the big guy happy.
And so it did.
The Cavs traded six players, the most in an NBA deadline-day deal in 30 years. Those six average 31 years old, and the four they got in return average 27. They are more athletic now and hugely better defensively in addition to younger. Thomas is a lousy defender. The new point guard replacing him, George Hill, is the opposite. As if to underline that the deal was a good one for Cleveland, the new-look Cavs on Sunday routed the Celtics, in Boston, 121-99, holding the losers to 40 percent shooting. And newcomers Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Hill combined for 49 points.
It was a statement win that alerted Boston and Toronto that their dalliance as East front-runners is short-lived because James and Cleveland are back.
“It was a good start,” said a pleased James. “It’s almost like the new guys had been here.”
It also was a brilliant move by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert because A) it gives Cleveland a fighting chance to keep LeBron by giving him a supporting cast he likes much more than the old one, and B) even if LeBron does depart, it leaves the Cavs younger and better moving forward. Cleveland also managed to make this major trade while holding onto a likely high pick in the 2018 NBA draft (obtained from Brooklyn), which enhances both the A and the B in our equation. Oh, and injured Kevin Love should be back by the playoffs.
The biggest winner in all of this, of course, is whom you would expect: LeBron gets the complete team makeover he wanted to give him a great shot to get back to the Finals. He gets to make his best friend happy with Wade’s Heat homecoming. He gets two or three months to gauge if his new-look team is enough to make him stay. And then he gets to ultimately decide. In full control, as usual.
Greg Cote is a columnist for the Miami Herald.