The Great Fire: How LeBron James and Miami Shaped the New NBA

Commentary6 years ago4 min readGiancarlo Navas

There is a Roman legend of the Great Fire which burned down over half of the empire’s capital. History blames Emperor Nero for the disaster, claiming he caused the fire so that Rome could be rebuilt as he wanted. They say Nero played music as his city burned.

The lesson to be learned from Nero’s legend is that ultimately power wins. No matter the deranged or the benevolent. The groundbreaking or pioneering. Nero set out to change the literal landscape of Rome and did so by first burning it to the ground.

The NBA is a different league than it was six years ago. Kobe won his fifth title with a pair of seven-footers in the front court. Now the reigning champion is the undisputed King of basketball, and perhaps, all of American sports. LeBron James won with small ball principles and a mercenary mentality. He chose where he wanted to play and who he wanted to play with. It was all on his terms. This wasn’t how the NBA was before, and the reason for this paradigm shift is him alone. But to do it, he had to burn the former construct all to the ground.

LeBron left his hometown team in the summer of 2010 in pursuit of championships by any means necessary. He formed a super team in Miami with one of the few people who might have been his equal and another perennial all-star. This was when LeBron lit the match of his Great Fire. Since then, the league has been chasing him.

The Bulls of that era were built to match them and failed. The Pacers were built to counter them and failed. The Knicks were built to mirror them and failed. The Nets were built to rival them and failed. The Warriors, as presently built, are his lasting legacy. The accepted construction of loyalty to a single organization was challenged. LeBron gave players empowerment. He left comfort and failure for a pressure cooker of success and was validated for it. Twice.

He went to Cleveland and had Andrew Wiggins moved for a win-now piece in Kevin Love. He joined Kyrie Irving and started yet another super team. Again, he was validated. He did it beating the best basketball team I have ever seen.

The league is a changed place. Players are leaving franchises that they have grown with for winning opportunities. Free agency is an event like it’s never been before. Star players, the ones that matter, make threats to leave teams and often do. They hold the power. They hold all the leverage. This sense of player empowerment didn’t exist before LeBron James.

Playing in Miami, he was hated. When the HEAT started 9-8, the country laughed. When LeBron had cramps against the Spurs, he was relentlessly made fun of. That HEAT team was covered and dissected in a way none of us have seen—all stemmed from hatred and jealousy for no good reason. The public did moral gymnastics to justify their disdain, claiming it was “how he did it,” or they didn’t like the idea of super teams. Now? It’s the norm.

The Warriors and the Cavs of present day aren’t covered like the HEAT were. When Cleveland started off slow and lost in the Finals, there was an extension of empathy that Miami was never given. When the Warriors lost their first game to the Spurs this season, the coverage was nothing like the HEAT’s first loss to the Celtics in 2010. This week, LeBron was doing the Water Bottle Challenge on the bench during a blowout and it was received with general positivity. Of course, it has its polarity, but had that happened in Miami? It probably leads Good Morning America, and hyperbole aside, that’s the space that team lived in.

LeBron burned the NBA down to make this possible. By getting himself charred and burned in the flames of envy and irrationality, LeBron burned down the NBA we once knew. By coming to Miami he sparked the change that engulfed everything. LeBron has rebuilt it the way he wanted, giving players the power and agency they wanted but could never get. And as the NBA burned, much like emperor Nero, the King played his own music. Winning three titles and having been to six-consecutive Finals.