‘It would be maddening as a teammate’

One of the greatest and, shall we say, scrappiest point guards of all time, John Stockton was never shy on the basketball court, and in recent years he certainly hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinion off the court either.

During a recent appearance on the DNP-CD podcast, Stockton — among many other topics, including why he was hesitant to appear in The Last Dance if it was just going to be a Michael Jordan “puff piece” — was asked for his thoughts on LeBron James using his superstar influence to dictate the rosters of his teams.

“It would be maddening as a teammate to know that you can be expendable for one of his guys that he thinks he needs to play with,” Stockton said.

You can listen to the full interview here (go to the 16-minute mark for the LeBron comments):

Stockton was careful to say he doesn’t know for sure that LeBron is actually sitting in the office of his GMs and dictating roster moves, only that it “appears” he has done so in the past. Indeed, nobody would argue that LeBron, almost certainly directly but at least through his agent, Rich Paul, and the vast power network he has established across the league, has thrown some of his weight around in this way before.

Let’s be clear, LeBron is not alone here. Almost all superstars have a front office voice. It’s a matter of the degree to which they use it. When LeBron came back to Cleveland in 2014, he wasn’t interested in playing with Cleveland’s No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Instead, he wanted Kevin Love. So he got Kevin Love. Wiggins began his career in Minnesota, and the Cavs won the 2016 title.

When LeBron came to the Lakers in 2018, he said he was cool playing with the young nucleus they had constructed of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. But that wasn’t true. He wanted Anthony Davis, also a Rich Paul client. A year later, Ingram, Ball and Hart were sent to New Orleans for Davis. A year after that, the Lakers won the title.

This isn’t to say LeBron is some kind of personnel genius. These are obvious moves for a team in win-now mode. LeBron, potentially, just leaned on his franchises to make them happen.

Still, Stockton’s point isn’t without merit. Just because breaking up a roster ends in a championship doesn’t mean it was any less of a gut shot to the guys whose lives got upended. For months these guys have to sit in the dark with the rest of us wondering where they’re going to be playing, and living, a day from now, or a week from now, or a month from now. It’s a tough spot to be in as a teammate, with the power of a guy like LeBron swinging over your head.

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I think ultimately the narrative that LeBron is pulling all the roster strings is overblown. No doubt he has had his share of influence in the past, and he wants to play with certain guys. He wanted Russell Westbrook as a teammate. Bad call. But the Lakers did it anyway, and it more or less cost them Alex Caruso. It happens. Most superstars don’t stick entirely to their job on the court, as Stockton said he did throughout his career, letting the front office do their jobs independent of his.

Stockton also weighed in on the modern movement of players chasing championships — a shift in thinking most people attribute to LeBron’s infamous 2010 decision to form a super-team in Miami after falling short of a title in Cleveland for seven years — with different teams instead of sticking one place and “climbing the mountain.”

“I like where guys just tighten their belt up and say, you know what, let’s go to work. We’ve just got to get better. We gotta play harder. We gotta play smarter,” Stockton said. “Instead of just, where’s the grass greener? I’m gonna go there and win a championship. I think it devalues that. You’re not climbing the mountain. You’re taking a helicopter to the top.”

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