It is the last day of the month, and by the time we get to the end of the next one, the NBA will have finally returned.
When we get to that point, a lot of things are up for debate, but one thing certain is that the basketball world will be doing what’s it’s doing now – talking about LeBron James.
🙌💪 @KingJames isn’t finished yet
How many more playoff points will LeBron score? pic.twitter.com/JX6Zpqv19L
— The Association on FOX (@TheAssociation) June 28, 2020
The restarted campaign, reimagined for quarantine necessities and situated in Orlando, Fla., will in many ways be like nothing we have ever seen before. Yet it has a thread of familiarity in that it is the biggest name in the sport who dominates the story, and the biggest reputation in the game that is on the line.
As the NBA has fell off the radar somewhat, especially considering that these past few months would usually have been the heart of the playoffs and all the associated excitement, James has remained a primary talking point.
As the most legitimate threat to Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest basketball player to have ever lived, he was at the forefront of discussions and conjecture when The Last Dance aired over those nostalgic weeks in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown. It is a line of chatter that persists, with FOX’s NBA analyst Chris Broussard saying that if James can reach the NBA Finals again, his stock edges closer to Jordan’s.
“LeBron would join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in reaching 10 NBA Finals. … The only other player who led his team to more Finals, if LeBron gets there, would have been Bill Russell, with 12.” — @Chris_Broussard pic.twitter.com/ug2esCdUMT
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) June 26, 2020
“It does just add more fuel and ammunition to LeBron’s argument,” Broussard told First Things First. “He would join Kareem Abdul Jabbar in reaching 10 NBA Finals. (Plus), he led his team every single year. That is a huge notch in LeBron’s belt in the GOAT conversation.”
There will never be a consensus on James. For every person who regards his nine trips to the Finals as a transcendent achievement, there is someone who will paint it as an implied flaw, given that six of those runs ended in defeat.
He is the kind of personality that invites attention, with the fearlessness to both be the biggest name in the game and to own that status with swagger. For a while, no one was talking a lot about the NBA, and when they did, it seemed like every news item involved him in some way.
James didn’t hide away during the turbulent times this past spring. As a social campaigner, he activated both his fame and his contacts to spearhead the More Than A Vote movement, which responded to the death of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed by structuring a widespread voting rights initiative.
“This is the time for us to finally make a difference,” James told the New York Times.
“This is the time for us to finally make a difference.”
— ESPN Los Angeles (@ESPNLosAngeles) June 11, 2020
This week, as the 10th anniversary of his move to Miami rolled around, and with it all the infamy of The Decision and how it came about, James’ legacy comes into starker focus. It is a gift that keeps giving, with Tuesday’s revelation focusing on how James initially wanted to join the New York Knicks in free agency before that concept turned into a predictable disaster.
Throughout all the talk, James has been working out harder than ever, perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that the resumption of this fractured season will see him up against younger men who have had all the time in the world to get their minds fresh and their bodies into optimal condition.
You haven’t heard much from Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but everything we know about the inner fire of each man suggests they will not just be ready to go, but salivating at the prospect of it.
According to Broussard, James has never been more motivated, though he and the Los Angeles Lakers do have some obstacles to overcome.
“I know LeBron has had some guys on Zoom calls, he has been working out with some players, he is going to be in the greatest shape,” Broussard said. “He has probably got the best set up of anyone in the league. That will help with the Lakers. The question mark with them is hey, LeBron is 35, most players will tell you as a veteran, it takes you a lot longer to get going. Will LeBron be a little bit hurt from the layoff just because of his age and being a little bit rusty?”
There is a line of thinking that the biggest challenge the Lakers face will come not against Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, or whoever emerges from the East, but from Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers in what would be a Western Conference Finals blockbuster.
Anthony Davis will be back, but defensive specialist Avery Bradley won’t, opting to sit out due to family health concerns. The Lakers seem to be edging closer to signing J.R. Smith as a permitted replacement, a player who James is familiar with, but also brings an air of unpredictability.
When the games get underway, look through the weirdness of it all and realize that this is actually the perfect kind of postseason. Basketball loves nothing more than weighing up the greatness of its finest proponents.
“You cannot refocus on basketball to the detriment of the BLM cause. But can you capitalize on the NBA stage and maximize the cause? Yes, I believe you can. It will be a great stage, and LeBron will capitalize on it.”@RealSkipBayless on the NBA’s return pic.twitter.com/b9HmIrOer7
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) June 30, 2020
A behind-closed-doors culmination to the season is the ultimate level playing field – and thereby perhaps the ultimate test.
Everyone has had months to get themselves ready. No rigors of a long season to have wearied the bones. No home advantage and the leverage that delivers. Just basketball.
It is the kind of challenge that supreme athletes should relish, and the NBA has no shortage of those. But ultimately, this reconfigured time in basketball will be remembered for how it looked different – and whether the game’s ultimate alpha either rose to the challenge – or couldn’t.