MIAMI -- With his former team's "Heat Culture" slogan painted at half court in front of him as he rested on a baseline seat after shootaround Monday, LeBron James reflected on what his time with the franchise meant to his career that has now spanned more than two decades.
"I think I would still be at this level no matter if I would've came here or not," said the Los Angeles Lakers star, now in his 21st season, said. "Let's not get it twisted: The four years I was here, it was amazing. I loved everything about it. Loved this franchise, this franchise is top tier, it's one of the best franchises in the world.
"But as far as my career, my career was going to be my career as far as individually, because I know how much I put into the game and I know how much I strived to be as great as I can be. [But] as far as what I was able to learn here was second to none, that's for sure."
James was 25 years old when he arrived in South Beach in 2010. He had zero championships, two MVPs and one NBA Finals appearance to his name through his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. By the time he left Miami in 2014, he had boosted those totals to two titles, four MVPs, five trips to the Finals and two Finals MVPs, and he was instrumental in the Heat reeling off 27 straight wins in 2012-13 -- the second-longest win streak in league history.
"I came here for one reason and one reason only, and that was to win championships," James said. "That was my only goal. That was the only reason I teamed up with [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh. Because I felt like I couldn't do it in Cleveland. We couldn't. ... I tried to recruit guys to come to Cleveland. I tried to go and help the upstairs and it wasn't happening. So I had an opportunity to be a free agent so I did what I thought was best, not only for my career but for me at that point in time."
James said it was a formative time in his life, not only in his career, as he uprooted himself from the only home he'd ever known in Northeast Ohio to settle in South Florida.
"It was a culture change for me," James said. "People talk about 'Heat Culture' -- it was a culture change, period. I was changing everything about my life for the first time in my life. To be able to be here and be able to learn and be alongside D-Wade, UD [Udonis Haslem] and Spo [Erik Spoelstra] -- those guys who had won it already -- it definitely was great to be a part of, for sure."
Miami will don its City Edition uniforms when it hosts the Lakers, with "Heat Culture" stitched on the jerseys to complement the specialized court it will play on that includes a message painted in block letters in the lane: "Hardest working. Best conditioned. Most professional. Unselfish. Toughest. Meanest. Nastiest team in the NBA."
James, who put the Heat on a short list of what he considers to be the model franchises across all sports -- including the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs in the NBA and Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in the NFL -- said a strong team culture can only exist if players buy in.
"Obviously, it starts from the top, but at the end of the day it's the guys that are in the locker room holding guys accountable," he said. "You can have the messaging come from the top, but if guys are not abiding by it or doubling down on it in the locker room and then applying it on the floor and applying it off the court and being model citizens, or whatever the case may be, then it still doesn't matter."
It was not the first time James evoked the Steelers this season. When the Lakers started off their road trip with a 120-101 loss to the Orlando Magic on Saturday to drop to 3-3, he likened L.A.'s early-season seesaw to Pittsburgh's performance.
"We're like the Pittsburgh Steelers right now," James said. "The Pittsburgh Steelers right now have not outgained or outscored any of their opponents in this season right now, and yet they got a winning record."
Indeed, Pittsburgh is 5-3 but has been outscored 163-133 overall and has accumulated 2,228 yards on offense while allowing 3,018 yards on defense. Similarly, the Lakers are .500 but they've been outscored by 61 points in the first quarter -- the worst points differential through six games by any team since the Detroit Pistons in 1964-65. L.A. also ranks 29th in 3-point percentage (29.7%) and 28th in both catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage and wide-open 3-point percentage, according to data compiled from Second Spectrum.