From the Bleachers: It’s a new NBA, but LeBron is still king
In this year of the unexpected, at least basketball fans can expect a familiar sight: LeBron James competing for an NBA championship.
I last wrote to my faithful audience in the middle of May, when the only live sporting event we could watch was Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson squaring off against Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods on the golf course. Much has improved since then. The NBA, NFL and MLB are all operating, and they’ve done a solid job for the most part.
My winter and spring columns focused heavily on the NFL, but I’d like to spend the next couple discussing my newfound love for the NBA. The so-called NBA bubble has run smoothly and, in my opinion, has provided a much-needed distraction from some of the challenges that our world has been faced with this year.
I’ve always been an NBA fan, but it was hard for me to fully invest myself in the regular season and the early part of the playoffs when I knew that LeBron and the Golden State Warriors would eventually be squaring off for supremacy in the middle of June. Not this year.
When the Los Angeles Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard in free agency and acquired Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder, they became widely thought of as the NBA favorites. The NBA’s best regular-season team from last year, the Milwaukee Bucks, were considered the Eastern Conference favorites as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo was on their side. Both were heavy favorites in their second-round matchups against the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat, respectively. Both lost. This league!
It’s not uncommon for the top two seeds to square off against each other in each conference finals series. This year, the only one of those four teams to remain alive is the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets, Heat and Boston Celtics weren’t guaranteed to make it here by any means. None of these four teams had made an NBA Finals since Miami in 2014, and the Nuggets have never made an appearance.
For the first time in a while, the NBA feels exciting and unpredictable, as if anything can happen again. The Nuggets have won six elimination games, three against the West’s No. 2 seed that didn’t take Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić seriously enough. The Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler and a plethora of shooters, took the NBA world by storm when they swept the Bucks. No team seeded below third has won a championship since 1995, but if anyone can do it, it’s this top-tier No. 5 seed.
The unexpected has hit us in full force repeatedly during these last six months, both on and off the court. If you had bet on the Celtics, Heat and Nuggets to make the conference finals at the beginning of the playoffs, your pockets would’ve become significantly deeper.
But let’s revisit this article’s opening paragraph. LeBron James’ Lakers missed the playoffs last season, but before that, he’d appeared in eight straight NBA Finals. With a 2-0 lead on the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, he’s well on his way to making it nine for 10.
This Lakers team is unlike any that LeBron’s ever played with, and that’s because he’s never had a sidekick like Anthony Davis. James has played on some great teams, especially during the Big 3 days in South Beach, but Davis is better than Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving or Dwyane Wade ever was. A first-team all NBA selection, the Lakers’ leading scorer and the third-best player in NBA history based on John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating, Davis is the real deal.
But unlike the Wade-Bosh duo and the Irving-Kevin Love tandem, this Lakers team lacks a clear third option. Kyle Kuzma is the team’s third-highest scorer but an inefficient defender. Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, while both showing flashes of their past brilliance from time to time, aren’t who they used to be. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green can shoot well but often inconsistently.
For the Lakers to emerge victorious, their leaders will have to play at an MVP level, which isn’t new to LeBron. It took a superhuman effort from him to come back from being down 3-1 against the Warriors in 2016, and even surrounded by a solid supporting cast in Miami, he needed to be at his best to win back-to-back rings against the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. Having Davis will be nice, but unless Rondo or Howard turn back the clock 10 years, it’s going to require the 35-year-old to be at his best.
If James is up to the task, the debate between him and Michael Jordan will get a lot more interesting. James’ 3-6 Finals record has always haunted him, and dropping to 3-7 would add more fuel to the fire for his haters. But if he can win his fourth at 35 years old on his third team, then the difference between six rings and four rings doesn’t seem so big.
I’ll admit my bias in this debate: I’ve been a diehard LeBron fan since a young age and believe that, ever since winning his third ring, he is the greatest player of all time. He is one of the best scorers, passers, rebounders and shot-blockers the league has ever seen, and he has turned around three different franchises, proving that he isn’t only effective in one system. Taking the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers, who became the worst team in the league when he left the next year, to the NBA Finals is one of the most incredible achievements in league history.
Regardless, at the end of the day, we want winners. Jordan was a winner. LeBron is a winner too, as evidenced by making nine Finals and winning three. If he hadn’t been tasked with defeating the superteam Warriors or Gregg Popovich’s Spurs in seven of his nine Finals appearances, I think the narrative around his career would be quite different.
But none of that matters in 2020. The Lakers would face a tough but beatable opponent in the Finals, giving LeBron every opportunity to add one final chapter to one of the most remarkable careers in sports history. 2020 has challenged us all in remarkable ways, something Lakers fans and Kobe Bryant fans know all too well. But maybe it will end in a way that might feel rather normal, with LeBron James playing his best basketball on the biggest stage.