The End of the Lebron Era: Why Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers need Lavar Ball (and Big Baller Brand) Part II

The Lebron Era: The Emergence of Small Market Basketball

This is a the second part of a series around Lavar Ball, Big Baller Brand, and the changing landscape of professional basketball.

This second section describes the Lebron James and the rise of smaller market basketball teams.

Post I Summary:

  • The Lakers and other large market cities have seen recent struggles on the basketball court.
  • While the Lakers were handling operational problems internally, the league was beginning to change around them, making them obsolete.
  • The next generation of NBA fan welcomes King James as he ushers in the “Lebron Era”

The Decision

In 2010 the sports world waited with baited breath: Lebron James was an unrestricted free agent.

With too man unsuccessful championship runs with the Cleveland Cavaliers, everyone wanted to know.

Was he staying, or was he going?

A primetime special, ESPN, Lebron James and Jim Gray put together an hour long show which discussed his thought process around his free agency.

The world waited for the shocking announcement.

He was taking his talents to South Beach.

Lebron’s decision to join the NBA’s Miami Heat — a midmarket team which featured Pat Riley and NBA Supserstar Dwayne Wade — ultimately changed the modern NBA as we knew it.

Wade and Riley would also go on to recruit Chris Bosh.

The decision generated $6 Million in ad revenue — the first special of its kind, it showed just how powerful the NBA superstar actually was — he had the ability to capture attention, a new form of currency.

The Cavaliers didn’t know about Lebron’s decision until it was too light — he made the announcement on national television before even giving Dan Gilbert a call.

The disrespect!

Lebron’s power move was a far cry from the day’s of the 80’s, when a hardline group of NBA owners took a tough stance against players rights, just avoiding a lockout before making concessions.

Attention: The New Currency

What NBA owners (and the sports world for that matter) failed to understand, was that as the talent of the NBA: the faces of their respective franchises — THEY controlled the purse strings.

Lebron and NBA superstars to come had the power to use their influence to capture fan attention.

And where the fans go, the advertisers go.

  • According to MVPindex, a social media intelligence platform, James’ digital value in 2016 (October 20 — January 22) was in excess of $15 million across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube, more than any other NBA All-Star.

In addition, unlike other sports franchises out there, NBA players used their platforms to voice opinions on trending political topics and social justice issues.

Today’s NBA superstar can leverage the power of social media + user generated content to create their own stories.

Back in the day, you stuck with your teams for your entire career: win or go home.

Which meant that NBA greats like Karl Malone, Charles Barkeley, and Patrick Ewing — small market superstars, while legends in their own rights, never got to have the sweet taste of winning an NBA championship.

The greats — Magic, Kobe, Jordan, and Bird — stayed with their teams and won multiple rings — all large market teams.

The Old NBA, The Michael Jordan Era, (the Establishment) was all about the franchise first, THEN the superstar.

Team first, player second.

As a player, one could imagine that being frustrating. Everyone wants to feel the love.

Loyalty — in addition to Superstar level talent — was an unspoken rule players acknowledged after signing those large deals.

It meant that franchises had marquee players to build their franchises around, no matter what the cost.

For a player bound to a team with poor management, that could mean no rings, potential injuries, and never quite knowing how great you could have been.

Enter Lebron James.


Lebron History

Under the public eye since high school, Lebron has been yammin’ on fools since he was 16.

No high school player in recent memory (other than Lonzo Ball, but more to come on that later) has been under more scrutiny than Lebron James.

A 6’8’’ 265 lb freak of nature, the man can literally can play ANY POSITION ON THE COURT.

Which is why Lebron has been so invaluable to the teams he’s been a part of: teams get better when Lebrons playing for them. Pure and simple.

Since being drafted in 1st overall in the 2003 draft (a class that included future Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade) Lebron has:

  • Received Four NBA MVPs
  • Appeared in 7 NBA Straight Finals
  • Won 3 NBA Championships
  • Brought an NBA championship home to Cleveland — ending a 50 year drought.

And the thing is, Lebron has accomplished these feats outside of a major sports market.

He got them done in Cleveland and Miami.

While both major metropolitan cities, both cities haven’t historically been considered “sports meccas.”

Historically, cities like Los Angeles, New York and Boston have been the elite sports towns.

Which makes sense, right?

Players of the old guard: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant — these players were superstars for their cities.

Elitism at the highest level in sports.

Elitism: The Downfall of Major Sports Cities

If you think it through, it makes sense that major cities have typically been the best. They have the most amount of people.

With large populations comes advertising revenue. Follow the people, and you’ll find the money.

The socioeconomic / government implications of sports aside, if you want to get very binary with it, the more people you have, the more championships you win.

People, the most valuable resource, means more fans and more revenue, which leads to more wins and better players.

A self-fulfilling cycle which keeps the most competitive teams siloed from the rest.

Sure, every once in awhile you’d find an anomaly who “won more games than they were supposed to” or maybe even won a championship — Cinderella stories they’re normally called.

A blip in the Matrix.

An often unrepeatable offshoot that balances itself once an elite city gets its grasps on another championship — the Matrix bringing balance back to its complicated power system.

Only 5 teams, Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Spurs and Warriors have won more than 3 championships, totaling between them almost 70 percent of the titles.

But here’s the thing, that’s changing.

Today’s NBA represents a power shift that began with Lebron James and his decision to win a championship in little old Miami, Florida.

The era of Small Market basketball had begun.

Keep reading to learn more.


Today’s NBA’s “elite” looks a lot different than it did 10–15 years ago.

It different than it was even 5 years ago, as a result of the integration of technology into teams.

Social media and technology have combined to impact professional sports franchises and how they’re managed.

Elite Teams of the 2010’s

San Antonio: Kawhi Leonard, Lamarcus Aldridge

Golden State: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson

OKC: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony

Houston: James Harden, Chris Paul

Cleveland: Lebron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

The teams in that conversation are telling: small market teams like San Antonio, Oakland, Oklahoma City, and Houston are not only the best teams in their divisions, but arguably in their Conferences.

Which is weird… right?

But if you look at their rosters, you would be surprised at all.

Which is a shift from the bygone basketball era’s of the 80’s and 90’s.

The greats of those era’s were from cities like Los Angeles, Boston and New York.

Elite Teams of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s

Los Angeles Lakers: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abudl-Jabar, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neil

Boston Celtics: Larry Bird, Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo

New York Knicks: Walt Frazier, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Patrick Ewing, Carmelo Anthony

Larger markets have historically meant larger opportunity for players — both off and on the court.

Major Markets like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are responsible for 36 NBA championships.

Since 1946 we’ve seen a total of 71 NBA Championship teams — 36 of which came from major markets.

Four teams responsible for 50% of total overall championships. For some perspective, there are a total of thirty (30) teams in the NBA.

Which means that 26 teams split the remaining 35 championships victories.

Hardly anyone’s “dynasty.”

The Lebron Era changed that.

It was a dream story: a small town kid from a working class town was going to be the answer to his hometown’s woes.

This legend in the making, was going to bring Cleveland it’s first championship.

But the thing is, while chasing his destiny, Lebron did things his own way.

  • A prodigy, he made the leap straight from high school to the pro’s.
  • Not only that, but he didn’t end up hiring a major sports agent to represent him: he hired his boys.
  • Leaving his hometown and going to Mimi

Gone were the days where players couldn’t control their own destinies.

Lebron captured public sentiment to tell his story through the media.

And the most important part of that was that he backed his words up on the court.

He showed us just why he deserved the right to do things his way, by showing day in and day out that he was the best damn player in the league.

That made for one powerful NBA Superstar.

So while it came as a surprise, looking back at his history, it shouldn’t have been.

When Lebron hosted his ESPN special, “The Announcement,” he threw a wrench in the system.

While Cavs fans were praying that he’d stick through with his hometown team, the choice had been made.

Lebron was “taking his talents” to South Beach.

He bet on himself.

And just as much as social media was a tool for his rise, it also laid the foundation for his downfall.

Videos of his jersey being burned.

Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert very bitter and public breakup email.

The hate on ESPN was strong — the criticism flew in from all sides.

There was a certain pressure for Lebron to be the next Kobe, Jordan, or Johnson — a marquee player who represented his city.

Which he rejected.

Aside from it being a smart career bet, you have to commend the man: he wanted to win.

So like every other athlete out there, when his free agency came, he decided that he was going to explore his options.

And he exerted his influence again, opting to take advantage of the increase Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to work out short term 2 year deals that gave him the flexibility to negotiate deals that gave him the option to play elsewhere should he choose.

And it worked out in his favor.

Not only is the 15 time NBA vet 2nd highest paid player in the NBA, he continues his Finals dominance with continued appearances and having finally brought a Championship to his hometown Cavaliers in 2015.

The Business of Lebron is booming.

And he might not be done: rumor has it that he’s interested in playing alongside a young Lakers core during this summer’s upcoming free agency.

Which this Lakers fan would love to see: the end of the Lebron James Era while the torch passes to young Lonzo Ball.

Key Takeaway: What I want you to understand about the Lebron Era was that the new digital age: social media, smartphones and technology, meant that players have more controls over their careers than ever before.

Back in the day, it would have been considered career suicide to jump from team to team (for certain marquee players like Lebron). You almost certainly received the ire of basketball fans — which could ultimately cost you endorsement dollars.

Lebron James changed that — by making fans part of the discussion — and exerting his never ending social media shrewdness to help guide conversations, he was ultimately influence the way the NBA as we know it operates today.

Part Three coming soon!

Be sure to follow me on Medium for the next post in this series.If you’re interested in more articles like this, feel free to subscribe to my Newsletter.


Work in startups? Check out my post on 5 Easy Steps to Develop Your Startup’s Sales Strategy