LeBron James has nothing left to prove to anyone.
He’s won three championships and been named the NBA Finals MVP for each one of them, he’s won two gold medals with Team USA at the Olympic Games, and he’s been voted the league’s MVP four times, which is tied for the third-most all-time. Somehow, he managed to live up to even the loftiest expectations that were set for him when he declared for the NBA draft in 2003.
And yet, in his 17th season, James still seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season, James has used the hashtag “#WashedKing” in his Instagram posts; a reference to the critics that questioned whether or not he was still capable of being the best player on a championship team after he missed the playoffs in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
James answered those critics by leading the Lakers to their first playoff berth in seven years and their first Finals appearance in 10, all while making his case for another MVP award at the age of 35. James finished second in MVP voting behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is 10 years his junior.
After the Lakers clinched their spot in the Finals on Saturday, James posted on Instagram again, but this time he didn’t have “#WashedKing” in his caption. Instead, he had another hashtag: “#RevengeSeason.”
You see, while James has proven that he can still compete at a high level, there’s still one thing left for him to do, and that’s to beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. James was going to be motivated regardless of who the Lakers drew in the Finals, but there’s obviously some extra motivation for James to beat Miami.
James infamously left the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Heat in 2010. When James was introduced to Heat fans alongside his new teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he made the bold prediction that the Heat would win not one, not two, but at least seven championships together.
James only brought two championships to Miami during his time with the team, but that’s still twice as many championships as they had before he got there. They also made the Finals all four years James was a member of the organization.
James took the Heat to new heights, but it wasn’t high enough for the team’s president, Pat Riley. When James made the league-altering decision to return to Cleveland in 2014, Riley told Wright Thompson of ESPN that he was stunned, and upset — really upset:
“I was silent,” Riley says. “I didn’t say anything. My mind began to just go. And it was over. I was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was. I had a very good friend who talked me off the ledge and kept me from going out there and saying something like Dan Gilbert. I’m glad I didn’t do it.”
That was three years ago. A year later, Riley told Jackie MacMullan of ESPN that he didn’t have much to say about his relationship with James, at least not on the record. James wasn’t nearly as mum when it came to his feelings about Riley in his NBA Finals media availability on Tuesday.
“When I hear Pat Riley, I think about one of the greatest minds probably this game has ever had,” James said. “He’s won at every level. I saw the stat the other day that he’s been part of a championship in four (different) decades. This league is not the same without Riles. He’s a great guy, great motivator, someone that just knows what it takes to win, and he’s shown that over the course of, what, 40 years.”
Riley knows James better than that, though. In the same 2018 interview with MacMullan, Riley was asked about James’ apparent dig at him after winning the 2016 Finals, when James said alluded to people he trusted with the Heat telling them leaving would be making “the biggest mistake of my career.” Riley denied saying that, even saying he sent James a text before that Game 7 — James never responded — but admitted he wasn’t surprised his former star could manufacture a slight:
“That’s one of LeBron’s greatest traits, that somewhere in him there’s such a competitive thing that he’s going to find something to motivate himself to win.”
But James doesn’t have to dig too deep to find that motivation this time — it’s all there. His motives were questioned when he signed with the Lakers in 2018, his competitive spirit was doubted when he missed the playoffs last year, and his greatness was challenged when he moved to the Western Conference.
This isn’t the same type of revenge that James was after when he beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals in 2013, nor is it the same type of revenge he was after when he came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals. James was counted out. He was told he couldn’t do it — not in the West. They tried to take his crown while he was still sitting on the throne.
Whether it’s the Heat, or another former GM questioning his will to win, this is personal.
Alright alright. Enough is enough. The throne has been played with to much and I ain’t for horseplay. Ether coming soon! #JamesGang✊— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 1, 2019
That it has the chance to come against an organization that thought he couldn’t win without them makes the opportunity all the sweeter.