Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.
More people should think about where they want to live and work as seriously as LeBron James does.
Our decisions about where to live and work are some of the most important decisions we make. But too often, we don’t really stop to examine them. We stay where we grew up, or move to a nearby city or suburb. We stay where we went to college, or relocate for a job, or follow a partner or spouse. Basically, when it comes to decisions about where to live, we wing it.
Not so for LeBron James. He is the living symbol of taking location seriously. In the coming week or so, James will have to make a decision about whether to extend his current contract and stay in his hometown of Cleveland, or move to another city and franchise to embark on the next chapter in his career. It goes without saying that he will make this decision strategically. And not just with his own career in mind—factors like the opportunity to play with better players, increase his number of championships, and haul in more money. He’s on record as saying that this time, he will factor in his family’s wishes and consult with his kids.
James was widely criticized for the spectacle of “The Decision” when he announced on national TV in 2010 that he was leaving Cleveland to “take [his] talents to South Beach.” But as I wrote at the time, it was also an instance of James, as well as fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, taking their careers into their own hands and creating a super-team, with world-class general manager Pat Riley, in a glamorous, multicultural city.
Four years later, in 2014, James announced he would return to Cleveland in a Sports Illustrated essay titled “I’m Coming Home.” He described how he wanted to bring championships to the long-suffering Rust Belt town that gave him so much. With his second decision, he became a symbol of going home and giving back, re-burnishing his tarnished brand in the process.
This time he has a different, perhaps even tougher, choice to make, with many dimensions to consider. Most pundits, and the Vegas odds-makers—yes, they take odds on this sort of thing—seem to think he is headed to one of a small handful of places.
The Lakers lead in the betting odds and have some intangible qualities going for them. James will carefully weigh the pros and cons of joining that storied franchise in L.A., a true superstar city, the center of the entertainment universe, where he already has two homes and spends considerable time. The Lakers’ ownership group is led by Magic Johnson, an uber-successful former NBA star and business mogul. And the team has the money, or so-called “cap space,” to add more stars. It’s rumored to be eyeing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, which would create a new Big Three.
James will also take a close look at Philadelphia, a city that currently ranks in second place for landing him, according to the odds-makers. He will weigh the fact that Philly, America’s eighth-largest metro area with 6 million people, is located in the middle of the even larger New York–Boston–Washington corridor, home to 50 million-plus people and one of the largest economies in the world. He’ll gauge the possibilities of winning the East and competing for the NBA championship alongside the Sixers’ young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Another team James will likely consider is the Boston Celtics, probably the best team in the Eastern conference and located in the city that the oddsmakers rank fourth on their list. He will tally the pros and cons of joining what is arguably the NBA’s most legendary franchise, where he would be part of a strong organization led by Danny Ainge and reunite with his former Cleveland partner, Kyrie Irving, in that team’s strong nucleus. Boston, like Philadelphia, is on the Acela corridor.
Another leading contender is the Houston Rockets, ranked as the fifth most-likely franchise to attract James, largely due to salary cap issues. Houston is a big, thriving, fast-growing metro. The Rockets already have a fantastic core, led by James’ close friend Chris Paul and the scoring dynamo James Harden, who took the champion Golden State Warriors to seven games this past post-season. One thing James will have to factor in thinking about either Houston or L.A. is that he would move from the less competitive Eastern Conference, where he has always played and dominated, to the NBA’s far more competitive Western Conference, where he will have to get past the Warriors to get back to the finals.
Of course, James will also very seriously think about remaining in his hometown, Cleveland. The odds-makers place his likelihood of remaining there in third place, behind Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He will take a close look at Cleveland’s relatively weak roster and consider the fact that he has lost consecutive finals to the Warriors. He will evaluate whether Cleveland can successfully defend its Eastern Conference title against a more mature Philadelphia team and a loaded Boston squad at full strength. He will weigh the difficulties he has encountered with the team’s owner, Dan Gilbert, and its weak and some say dysfunctional management culture.
The grass sometimes looks greener—and studies say that when it comes to moving, it often does. But home offers James a number of distinct advantages. From a financial perspective, he will consider the fact that Cleveland can offer him the most money in the form of a max deal, and possibly even an ownership stake in the team. And from a personal perspective, it’s hard to understate the significance of remaining where he grew up and honed his basketball skills. His oldest son, LeBron Jr., is now at the high school that launched LeBron himself directly into the NBA, providing yet another reason to stay in place. (James has said he hopes to stay in the NBA long enough to play against his son).
As he weighs his options, he will recall that going back to Cleveland did much to change the narrative about his career and to bolster his brand, which took a hit when he relocated to Miami. Indeed, a detailed study of the career patterns of NBA superstars that I wrote about back in 2012 concluded that the optimizing strategy, on average, for these superstars is to stay with the team where they started out, and recruit more superstars to join them.
LeBron will consider what strategies he and the Cavaliers can undertake through trades and other means to entice other superstars to come to Cleveland, even though their cap space is tight. He will weigh the uncertainty and pressure of joining a new franchise, trying to meld and mesh once again with new players, new coaches, and a new system, following Shaquille O’Neal’s warning against chasing titles in newer and more exotic locales.
Many of us are handicapping LeBron’s decision, rooting for him to move on to a new city—where we live or whose team we root for—or to stay in Cleveland. Personally, I’m hoping he stays put. For one, having lived in Pittsburgh for nearly two decades, I’m always pulling for the revival of the Rust Belt. But I actually think it’s the best decision for him and his career.
While James’ situation is extraordinary, there’s a big lesson in it for all of us: to make our own location decisions as carefully and strategically as he is making his. For those of us fortunate enough to have the ability and means to choose where we can live, it is undoubtedly one of life’s biggest decisions, if not the biggest. The career opportunities that are available, who we decide to take as life partners, and the networks and communities we become part of are all inextricably connected to where we decide to live.
In addition to James being a transcendent basketball player, the decision he’s making encapsulates just how much place matters in the contemporary economy, and in each of our lives.