As he prepares to embark on his 17th NBA season, what still motivates LeBron James in pursuit of greatness?
What would lead to LeBron James showing up to a basketball game — excuse me — to work, with a glass of red wine in his hand?
We’ve all been there. Maybe not with the Oakville cabernet sauvignon and fashion-forward, wide-legged trousers, but in our own way. Right? Think back to your senior year of high school. Your first job out of college in this economy. Anytime you’ve been bowling. Think back to not giving a darn, or even caring enough to look like you did.
That’s what LeBron’s first season with the Los Angeles Lakers was like. Toothless offense, careless defense, stemless wine glass.
But don’t blame LeBron. This is science or, more accurately, basic psychology.
In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow argued there are different needs to describe the start and endpoints of how people are motivated before reaching the final level of “self-actualization.” Those needs are: “physiological,” “safety,” “belonging and love,” and “esteem.” Each level must be satisfied within the individual in order for motivation to occur at the next level. You’ve probably seen this in school in the shape of a pyramid called “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”
We can apply this theory to LeBron. Throughout his career, certain needs have been made clear. “Surround LeBron with shooters” is one, for example, that everyone but the Lakers knows. We’ve seen LeBron shut down mid-season or even mid-game when certain needs are not met. LeBron may be the greatest ever at putting the team on his back, but he needs to be motivated to do so. Not having the most basic needs met is a good way to, well, do what the Lakers did last season and miss the playoffs.
Having all of his needs met unlocks perhaps the greatest basketball player the planet has ever seen. Acquiring Anthony Davis is a good start, but it’s only just that — a start.
Let’s take a look at each level of motivation and determine “LeBron’s hierarchy of needs.” For science.
Maslow: Food, water, sleep, shelter
First and foremost, LeBron needs teammates to make shots when he passes to them. Data suggests that LeBron is the most accurate passer in the league. He drives into the thickets of the defense and then delivers the ball into his teammates’ shooting pocket better than anyone else. He does his job, all he asks is for them to do the same.
If they miss the shot, hesitate, or do something silly with the ball like reject an open 3-pointer to dribble into oncoming traffic, LeBron gets upset. You’ll see him stare down his teammate or hold out his hands as if to say “Why God?!” The quickest way to get LeBron to dial back is to miss shots or flat out not take them.
Maslow: Personal, emotional and financial security
LeBron: Perimeter defender, rim protector, head coach who holds him accountable
“So I come down the elevator, and Timo is in the lobby. And I swear, it looked like I’d seen the biggest human being I’ve ever seen in my life. I looked at Griff, and he said, “He’s a big motherf*****, ain’t he.”
That’s LeBron talking about the first time he met Timofey Mozgov, a 7-foot-1, 275 pound center the Cavaliers traded for in the middle of the 2014-15 season. Shortly after bringing Mozgov in, the Cavaliers ripped off 12-straight wins and stabilized what would come to an NBA Finals run.
In Miami, LeBron won his first championship after the Heat signed Shane Battier, a do-everything defender who guarded positions 2 through 4, often taking the tougher assignment on the wing in order to free LeBron so that he could make impact plays on defense (LeBron averaged 1.9 steals per game in the 2011-12 season, the most of his career after turning 21).
LeBron has won a championship with two head coaches: Erik Spoelstra and Ty Lue. What do they have in common? They held LeBron accountable and demanded more from him, not only on the court but in the locker room and among his teammates. After two titles in South Beach, LeBron distanced himself from former Cavaliers head coach David Blatt and sought out Lue to lead the team.
Maslow: Friendships, intimacy, family
LeBron: Friends, veterans he respects, locker room vibe
The Lakers tried to skip right to this level. Yes, LeBron respects Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, but neither can shoot and neither likes to play defense while JaVale McGee is a rim protector mostly in theory. They gave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope eight figures, but he’s not very good. Also, according to Baxter Holmes’ report for ESPN.com, Lakers management allowed LeBron’s people unprecedented access to team facilities and charter flights.
LeBron’s friends are very important to him, and the way he has helped put them in a position to succeed is admirable. There’s a balance to it. LeBron’s people were on staff in Cleveland and worked with him in Miami. He won his first two championships by teaming up with his best friend Dwyane Wade. That locker room in Miami was the apex locker room in basketball (remember the Harlem Shake?). LeBron never seemed to have more fun than he did in Miami, and you could argue he was never better than he was in those four years.
Maslow: Prestige, feeling of accomplishment
LeBron: Rings, MVP awards, hairline
Surround LeBron with shooting, plus defenders, the right head coach and people he cares about, and you have a real chance at winning a championship. Based on eight of the last nine years, you are almost guaranteed to go to the NBA Finals.
LeBron may be the smartest player the game has ever seen, he knows when he has an opportunity to win. The last two times he won the MVP award (in 2012 and 2013), he also won the championship that same season. This is the ultimate LeBron: winning, and inarguably at the top of his sport.
Maslow: Achieving one’s full potential
LeBron: “Cleveland, this is for you!”, “More Than An Athlete,” “Train Wreck”
When all the basketball stuff was taken care of was when we saw LeBron transcend basketball and become “more than an athlete.” It was during that first championship season that we saw LeBron and his teammates don hoodies in response to the death of Trayvon Martin. After winning a championship for his home, he built a school there.
Then there’s the other stuff. When he’s winning, LeBron is his most well-rounded: biking to practices, reading books in the locker room, not trying to get his teammates traded.
I take back what I said before, this is the ultimate LeBron. The one the NBA anointed as King and bent the knee for. The most fun superstar of his era. It would be nice to see him again.