LeBron James knew what he was doing.
By tweeting an emoji of an hourglass on Jan. 30 ahead of the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline, he created a Category 5 hurricane in the basketball world, with rumors, stories and videos swirling around the internet with such speed and intensity that they took over the news cycle.
Does James want to be traded? Is he twisting the Lakers’ arm into make a big move? Is he implying he might opt out of his $51.4 million player option for the 2024-25 season?
James seemingly enjoyed the drama. When asked on Feb. 3 if he wanted to clarify the tweet, he simply said: “No.”
James is the king of using cryptic messages to his advantage, putting pressure on teammates and front offices as they try to decipher what he may be thinking.
In many ways, he has taken control of a media machine that can make players feel powerless. With James, he’s often the one doing the driving, using a combination of ambiguity, innuendo, praise, criticism and silence to control his narrative — or infuse it with chaos.
In fact, just a few days after his hourglass tweet, James poured gas on the rumors, responding to a tweet of an apple emoji with a crown and the Statue of Liberty, leaving people wondering if wants to play for New York.
He then wore a Knicks towel in a postgame interview the next day.
None of this is surprising considering the Lakers are in ninth place in the Western Conference with a record of 27-25 despite James and Anthony Davis being mostly healthy and playing at an exceptionally high level all season. James is averaging 24.9 points in his 21st year, more than three times what anyone has ever averaged at that point in their career.
It’s clear James’ patience is wearing thin, something he communicated without saying a word. Here’s a look back at some other instances of James sending cryptic messages to his team and how they played out:
February 2015: LeBron challenges Kevin Love
In the summer of 2014, the Cleveland Cavaliers formed one of the most formidable trios in the NBA with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love. However, it took some time for the star-studded team to figure things out — particularly Love, who went from starring on the Minnesota Timberwolves to being the No. 3 option in Cleveland.
Love was open about his struggles with his new role from the start, saying in October that his teammates had encouraged him to “fit out” instead of trying so hard to “fit in.” That was easier said than done for Love, and ahead of the 2015 trade deadline, James flipped Love’s words on him in a tweet.
Despite James’ not-so-subtle message to Love (he confirmed the post was meant for Love later that week), the two were able to make things work on the court and make a run to the Finals together, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games. Many thought James’ words would come back to bite him when Love became a free agent in the summer, but the sharp-shooting forward signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension with the Cavs and they won a title together.
Feb. 4, 2023: LeBron possibly stumps for Kyrie trade, disses Russ?
A similar thing happened last season just days ahead of the trade deadline after the Lakers skidded to a 2-10 start and fell to 10th place in the West.
Following a loss to New Orleans on Feb. 4, James praised Kyrie Irving, calling it “a duh question” when asked if he was the type of player who could help the Lakers get to the finish line. That comment was widely construed as a jab against Russell Westbrook.
That wasn’t an anomaly.
James is known to be so intentional with his words in news conferences that any compliment he gives to a player, coach or executive from another franchise is often interpreted as a subtle shot against someone within his organization.
The following day, it was reported that the Brooklyn Nets had agreed to deal Irving to the Dallas Mavericks for a package many thought the Lakers could rival. James appeared to respond to the Lakers’ inaction with a post on social media.
The Lakers eventually traded Westbrook and added six players, which changed the trajectory of their season and led to them making an unexpected run to the Western Conference Finals, but James and Irving discussed the possibility of reuniting in Los Angeles once the Mavericks’ season was over, according to a report from ESPN in January. Irving ultimately re-signed with the Mavericks on a three-year, $126 million contract.
February 2022: LeBron takes a shot at his GM by praising two others
James is a fan of fearless team managers — he made that obvious after the 2022 NBA trade deadline, when Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka stood pat despite Westbrook clearly not fitting with the team.
On Feb. 17, the day of the Los Angeles Ram’s Super Bowl championship parade, Rams general manager wore a shirt with a picture of his own face and the words “F–k them picks,” a reference to his willingness to surrender draft picks to build a contender.
James saw the shirt and made a point to comment on it publicly.
Then, during NBA All-Star weekend in 2022, James called Oklahoma City executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti “the MVP” for having an “eye for talent.”
The Lakers went on to miss the playoffs that season, but Pelinka didn’t make the same mistake the following trade deadline, overhauling the roster and trading a first-round pick to get off of Russell Westbrook’s contract.
January 2024: LeBron praises his (former) coach
Following a game against the Clippers in January, amid reports that there was a chasm between Lakers coach Darvin Ham and his players over all the lineup changes, James, unprovoked, praised opposing coach Tyronn Lue for seamlessly integrating James Harden.
“Don’t take T. Lue long to make sure it gets right,” he said as his own coach was under fire. “It took him five games.”
The Clippers are 34-15 on the season and only a half-game back of the No. 1 seed. The Lakers are 27-25 and are currently positioned to compete in the play-in tournament for the third time in James’ Lakers career.
It’s fair to wonder if everyone reads too much into James’ every word, applying meaning where none was intended. But underestimating James’ media savvy is unquestionably a mistake.
Similar to how he has learned to slice through defenses like a freight train, James has mastered the art of controlling his narrative. He even knows how to stay above the fray while simultaneously diving into it, keeping his name clean while making his point clear.
During the playoffs last season, he declined to comment on Dillon Brooks calling him “old” and saying he’d only respect him if he scored 40 points against him. But after dismantling the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, he posted song lyrics to Jay-Z’s “Legend,” including, “It’s apparent you’re staring at a legend. Who, put a few little in the they place before.”
Then after Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone poked fun at James for hinting at retirement after his team swept the Lakers out of the playoffs, James posted on Instagram, “Enjoy your light but just know I’m the SUN.”
Did James maintain plausible deniability that his messages were directed at Brooks and Malone? Yes. But did he ultimately get the last word? Definitely.
James only really got burned by the media once with his over-the-top TV announcement that he was taking his talents to Miami, for which he was widely mocked. Ever since then, he pretty much has been the master of his image.
He has used his platform to promote social justice, as well as his I Promise School and foundation. He has used it to get back at people who have trash-talked him. He has used it to celebrate his achievements and laugh at anyone who has called him old. And he has used it to deliver threats.
That was never more obvious than at the end of last season.
Following his 40-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist performance in Game 4 of the conference finals, James gave the basketball world whiplash when he hinted for the first time at calling it quits.
“Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about,” he said.
It gave the Lakers a lot to ponder, including how to construct a championship team alongside him before it’s too late. And it instilled fear in basketball fans, making them realize that what they’re witnessing from him on the court has an expiration date.
But he came back. And amid another bumpy season, he’s serving some more reminders.
Don’t take him for granted.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
Get more from National Basketball Association Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more