China, Trump and Kawhi: Will LeBron James Buckle Under the Pressure?
This may prove to be the most consequential season in living NBA legend LeBron James’ career
Rejoice! The 2019-20 National Basketball season is upon us! Looking to get into the NBA this year? Of course you are, it’s the best sports league in the world, and we’re in for a very exciting season. Wanna get started?! All you have to do is crack open a cold BrewDog, flip over to your local TNT station, and you can catch a hot double-header, with the New Orleans Pelicans facing off against the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors.
But, be advised: the real action will begin when Los Angeles’s favored son, reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, heading up his new team, the LA Clippers, squares off against the Los Angeles Lakers, featuring carpetbagging Ohioan LeBron James and new Lakers’ superstar forward Anthony Davis.
Their matchup will be the first meeting of two superstar-laden squads, who play in the same building and, on first glance, appear to be prime contenders for the NBA Championship. The Clippers are a fairly straightforward case: they were very good last year, have a deep bench, an excellent coach, a front office that isn’t run by lunatics, and they added Leonard and Paul George (out for a month or two, due to a blank-blank injury) to their squad over the summer.
For their arena-mates and rivals in the marketplace, the Los Angeles Lakers, though, the path is a little more… complex. They traded most of their young talent away for Davis, which you have to do if you get the opportunity to add superstar-level talent to your roster. But the players who are replacing Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are a bit of hodgepodge. Dwight Howard, sporting the incredibly-cursed number 39 on the back of his jersey, is returning to the Lakeshow after getting screamed out of town by Kobe Bryant and spending the following years stumbling from team to team, bringing a kind of plague with him. Rajon Rondo, who appears to be starting at point guard, has been a malcontent for nearly a decade. Jared Dudley and Danny Green are a pair of dependable role-players who have had good careers, but both are also older than 30. The Lakers did manage to keep Kyle Kuzma around, apparently because Kobe Bryant likes him, but his defensive effort sucks and he’s an unproven quantity at best.
Davis is excellent, but we’ve seen teams with inferior talent plugged around him get swamped before. The Lakers’ prospects, for the next few years, lie in the lap of LeBron James. James has been the best player in the NBA for a long time now, is probably the best NBA player since Michael Jordan—only Spurs’ hero and Starcraft legend Tim Duncan really has a serious case otherwise—but the party can’t last forever, and LeBron has shown signs that maybe he might be turning into something else.
Wild as it seems, being that he has been in the NBA for 16 straight seasons, James got hit with his first major injury last year: a strained groin that ended up keeping him out for more than half the season. Far be it from me to suggest that this will necessarily recur throughout the year, but James is in the portion of his career where every pro athlete is made more and more aware of their ongoing war with time itself.
But James, in particular, has burned the candle at both ends. Before his injury, he had managed to play in 153 straight games—nearly two whole seasons worth, an anomaly for a league that has been prioritizing rest more and more by the year. James has played 46,235 regular-season minutes, good for 17th all time, and has also managed to stack a whopping 10,049 playoff minutes on top of that, the most playoff minutes ever in the history of the NBA. He has Tim Duncan, who played on a team that was always in the playoffs until he was 39 years old, beat by more than 700 minutes. These weren’t soft minutes either. James has had the ball in his hands, driving at the rim, jumping for boards, making contact, and (usually) trying his ass off on defense that entire time. Michael Jordan was 34, the age James turned last season, when he retired a second time. But he played in college, took time off for baseball, and wasn’t in nearly as many playoff games as James.
We’re seeing time do its work on most of LeBron’s banana-boat peers already. His Miami cohort Dwyane Wade went on a luxurious and not-terribly-productive goodbye tour last year; Carmelo Anthony can’t seem to find anywhere to play at all; and Chris Paul was traded to a rebuilding Oklahoma City squad after an underwhelming season in Houston, where he is poised to have the strangest year on the court imaginable.
His choice to go to the Lakers in the first place is littered with the apparent motivations of a man cruising toward retirement. He’s lived in Los Angeles in the offseason for a while. He’s a film and television producer of some note, who will be in the upcoming remake of Jordan’s cult hit Space Jam. His son, Bronny, is an excellent youth basketball player, and LA has the best amateur youth teams in the country.
Even LeBron’s off-court reputation has been cause for concern over the last month or so. His mealy-mouthed response to the NBA’s bizarre conflict with the Chinese government was a red mark on his role as the league’s anti-Trump conscience, a point in favor of the various right-wing ghouls who make their hay giving him shit on cable news. An unproductive season could end up giving those monsters more wood for their stupid-ass fire, made even stupider for the inevitablity that it has to happen someday.
Before James came to LA, the Lakers weren’t exactly poised for great things. They were a struggling team in the middle of a rebuild, totally unlike the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers’ squads where he had previously signed as a free agent. They struggled even with him on the team and playing up to expectations, and then completely collapsed when he was sidelined. He clearly didn’t go there because he was looking for the best basketball situation—he went because that was where the next part of his life was inevitably going to be.
After last year’s slopfest, everyone involved knew acquiring Davis was James’ and the Lakers’ bid for maxing out the end of his career, the biggest shot down the field they could heave to try and get James one more title on his way out the door. It’s hard to look at the ravages time inflicts on all great athletes and not hold doubt in your heart, but doubting James has been a sucker’s game for a long time.
You can’t always—or even often—say this about the NBA, a league where dynasties have been a matter of course, but God only knows what’s going to come of all this. Doubting James’ on-court prowess still feels foolish, but you can smell time bearing down on his tenure as the face of the NBA. And as he goes, so goes the league. The uncertainty around James this season is reflected in the league itself. The Toronto Raptors, reigning champions, lost their best player, Kawhi Leonard. The Warriors lost Kevin Durant to the Nets and Klay Thompson to an ACL tear, and seem poised to take a step back. The Clippers look excellent on paper, something close to a title favorite, but you never know how newly-assembled teams are going to mesh. The Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook, a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask. Denver, Milwaukee, Portland, Philadelphia and Boston all seemed like they could run with the big boys last year, but no one can seem to agree on if they will keep that train chuggin’ to new heights. An uncertain year for LeBron is presaging an uncertain year for the entire league. I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens.