“Whatever team decides to pick me on June 26, 2003, I won’t let them down. I'm just coming in looking to be a leader on a team that's just trying to get better from season to season.” —LeBron James, April 2003
You would laugh at this notion now, but when LeBron James was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, there were a lot of questions about whether he was even worth the hype. His high school games with St. Vincent-St. Mary were broadcast on ESPN. James landed on the cover of some of the most influential magazines in sports, from SLAM to Sports Illustrated.
He was touted as a once-in-a-generation player, but people had heard this before. And after all, first overall picks were a crapshoot. You could end up with Kwame Brown. Or you could end up with Tim Duncan. A team might bank its hopes on Michael Olowokandi, or it could add Shaquille O’Neal to their squad. Your franchise might select Allen Iverson, or decide to start over with Anthony Bennett.
James was the next one, and against all odds, he somehow exceeded the hype that surrounded him. In his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he became their franchise player and emerged as the face of the league. He authored remarkable performances like The 48-Special against the Detroit Pistons. He led the Cavs back to the NBA Finals.
Back in July 2010, at the start of this decade, James found himself heading to free agency still without a championship. As he sat across from reporter Jim Gray at the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, preparing to make the biggest decision of his career, James was about to chart the course of the NBA for the next decade.
On that night, when James announced he was leaving Cleveland to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he ushered in the player empowerment era that we are in today. Hours after his announcement, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert released his now-infamous Comic Sans letter, calling James narcissistic and framing his departure as a “cowardly betrayal.” It helped set the stage for what would be a significant shift in power from the owners of the league to the players.
Forgotten about The Decision (aside from the fact that Kanye West was somehow present for the announcement) is that James actually used the event to raise more than $3 million for the Boys & Girls Club. That evening would turn out to be the worst PR blunder of his basketball career so far. From there, James used his public platform and voice to amplify social issues, and his power to continue fighting for a more profitable future for basketball players at every level.
Oh, and there is the basketball part. The Decision kickstarted a streak of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances, which yielded three championships for James, ending all of his early narratives and silencing doubters who questioned his incomplete resume and ability to deliver in the clutch. (Not all the doubters were silenced, though; here’s guessing you’ve been reminded that James is 3-6 in the Finals in his career by someone online.)
This was the decade of LeBron James. He wasn’t only the defining story of the NBA, but he is arguably the most important athlete in North American sports, and still, in his 17th season, and turning 35 in December, the best player in the game. It’s crazy to think his story is still not over.
“It basically turned me into somebody I wasn’t. You start to hear ‘the villain,’ now you have to be the villain, you know, and I started to buy into it. I started to play the game of basketball at a level, or at a mind state, that I’ve never played at before ... meaning, angry. And that’s mentally. That’s not the way I play the game of basketball.” —LeBron James, December 2011
Every NBA season felt like it started and ended with LeBron James, because, well, it pretty much did. Between the Heat and the Cavaliers, James led his teams to eight consecutive Finals appearances this decade and, along the way, had many defining playoff moments that will belong on all-time lists for years to come.
James’ first season in Miami ended disastrously as the Heat were upset by the Dallas Mavericks in six games in the NBA Finals. James had an underwhelming series, his lowlight coming in a Game 4 loss, with him finishing with just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. It brought back memories from the previous season, when James’ tenure with the Cavs ended with a second-round defeat by the Boston Celtics.
The Finals loss could have defined James, but instead he let go of the villain role the following season and authored one of his many memorable individual playoff runs this decade. In leading the Heat to the championship and winning his first NBA title in 2012, James erased every single narrative about his ability to deliver when it mattered. In every crisis moment of that playoff run, James delivered. His monumental run of playoff success this decade kicked off in the Eastern Conference finals, trailing 3-2 and facing elimination on the road against the Celtics. James was staring at yet another disappointing playoff finish, and at the prospect of confronting all of the same questions about his inability to carry his team to the finish line.
Instead, James arrived at TD Garden, the same place where his Cavs career ended in disappointment, and left no doubt as to who the best player in the world was, scoring 45 points, grabbing 15 rebounds, and handing out five assists in a convincing win. The Heat would win Game 7, and in the Finals James had no such shortcomings this time around. He averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. The Heat beat the Thunder in five games. James was the Finals MVP.
And finally: an NBA champion.
“That one right there made me the greatest player of all time… Everybody was just talking—how the Warriors were the greatest team of all time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. And for us to come back, you know, the way we came back in that fashion, I was like, ‘You did, you did something special.’ That’s probably one of the only times in my career I felt like, oh, shit, like you did something special. I haven’t had, really had time, to really, like, sit back and think, but that, that was a moment.” —LeBron James, December 2018
What comes after championships? For a select few players: It is to consider their legacy and place among the all-time greats. This decade was also about James making a case as the greatest of all time. The four seasons in Miami felt like the prime of his career, but when he chose to return to Cleveland in 2014, James continued to run, and has continued to defy expectations and a decline in age for the rest of this decade. In 2016, James put himself into the GOAT conversation.
Trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven series against the Golden State Warriors, a team that won a league record 73 games in the regular season, James did the following: 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and three blocks in Game 5; 41 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists, four steals, and three blocks in Game 6; and 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals, and three blocks in Game 7, culminating in his block on Andre Iguodala late in the fourth quarter.
The Cavs won all three games, completing the greatest comeback in Finals history. Over the course of the Finals, James reclaimed his throne as best player in the game, which had been passed temporarily to Steph Curry. This was also the playoff run that in James’ own mind put him into the all-time discussion.
The Cavs won all three games, completing the greatest comeback in Finals history. Over the course of the Finals, James reclaimed his throne as best player in the game
Picking a favorite LeBron James playoff run of this decade is like asking friends to choose their favorite JAY-Z song. There’s so much in the catalog it would be hard to reach a consensus. There’s a strong argument to be made that even though the Cavs were defeated in five games during the Finals in 2017 by the Warriors (who by now had added Kevin Durant), James had his greatest playoff run ever.
With Kyrie Irving in Boston and an aging Cavs roster that went through a significant transformation at the trade deadline, James single-handedly carried the team back to the Finals for a fourth-straight year. Among the highlights: averaging 34.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 7.7 assists in the first round against the Pacers; and shooting fadeaways of increasing difficulty in the fourth quarter of a playoff game against the Raptors, the No. 1 seed, who were swept away by James, who had a buzzer-beater in a Game 3 home win.
People might prefer one of James’ other classic hits, but his best performance might have been Game 1 of the Finals that season, when he scored 51 points and added eight rebounds and eight assists and controlled the game on a strong against the Warriors, until J.R. Smith’s blunder at the buzzer overshadowed James as the main story afterwards.
Nearing the end of the decade, the most remarkable part of James’ basketball story is that he has shown no signs of slowing down. James is once again reminding everyone why he is in the greatest-of-all-time discussion, nearly averaging a triple double (23.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 11.1 assists) while leading the Lakers to the top of the West standings early in the season.
This decade, LeBron James has made a very strong case for being the greatest of all time.
“I do know what five-star athletes bring to a campus, both in basketball and football. I know how much these college coaches get paid. I know how much these colleges are gaining off these kids. ... I’ve always heard the narrative that they get a free education, but you guys are not bringing me on campus to get an education, you guys are bringing me on it to help you get to a Final Four or to a national championship.” —LeBron James, February 2018
LeBron James isn’t just a basketball story. His influence can be seen at every level of basketball. While the NBA has always been a players’ league, dating back to Magic and Bird, the Bad Boy Pistons, and Michael Jordan and the Bulls, over the course of this decade, James has led the way in defining and expanding the influence of those who step on the court in the player empowerment era.
His decision to leave Cleveland and sign with Miami started a domino effect of players increasingly leaving behind the team that drafted them for better situations, and for more movement in free agency, at a great volume each summer. When Durant signed with the Warriors in free agency, he credited James’ decision with paving the way for him.
Power doesn’t just rest in exerting control over the team you play for. James has also continue to influence issues at different levels of the game, like advocating for college players to be paid. James recently invited California governor Gavin Newsom onto his HBO show, The Shop, to sign SB 206, known as the Fair Play to Play Act, which will allow college athletes to be compensated for their names, images, and likenesses by 2023. James has publicly criticized the NCAA for their rules against student-athletes getting paid. Recently, he pointed out flaws in the AAU system and blamed certain coaches and leagues for overtaxing teenagers hoping to become professional basketball players.
James has also set an example in how players can take more control of their financial situations in the NBA through his relationship with Klutch Sports, and helped set up his own inner circle to be part of the cash flow of his earnings, while creating job opportunities for Blacks at executive levels on the agency side. His agent and close friend Rich Paul now owns a list of clients that includes Anthony Davis, Eric Bledsoe, John Wall, Ben Simmons, and Draymond Green.
James has also shown other NBA players how they can establish presences off the court and use their public figures to get into other creative spaces. This decade has seen James continue to expand his media portfolio. With Uninterrupted, he has ventured into the production of several television shows, including The Shop and Survivor’s Remorse, with Space Jam 2 on its way for a 2021 release. In 2015, James signed a lifetime deal with Nike. His signature sneaker line has been part of collaborations with some of today’s best-known designers, from Ronnie Fieg to John Elliott, which has helped get James’ sneakers into the competitive high fashion space.
This has been the decade of LeBron James, and when I think of his highlights from these 10 years, the thing I remember most isn’t anything he did on the court. It is James, standing at the podium in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, in the summer of 2018, to introduce I Promise School, which helps provide education to the underprivileged.
The school removes some of the burden for these families and allows them to consider their future and careers without feeling like they have to sacrifice everything else in their lives. I will remember him calling this his most important accomplishment ever.
This is the legacy of James this decade, too. He influenced lives and started the dialogue on social issues. James organized a tribute to Trayvon Martin with the Heat. He took the stage at the ESPYs with Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony, and spoke out about gun violence in America and asked athletes to use their platforms to speak on issues they care about.
This might be James’ greatest influence, in that he will inspire the next generation of players who end up in his position to use their voice and platform for what they believe in. On and off the court, James’ narrative is far from finished. With the Lakers looking like a title contender early on, another championship is not out of the question for The King.
There’s no telling when his story will end, but one thing is certain: This decade belonged to LeBron James.
Complex is celebrating the best in music, pop culture, style, sneakers, and sports this decade. Check out the rest of our 2010s series here.