The end of an era: Meditating on the NBA post-LeBron James

Dorian Debose | Senior Sports Editor

For the first time since the 2004-2005 NBA season, LeBron James will not be in the playoffs. After joining the Los Angeles Lakers, a young team in a fiercely competitive conference, James will be at home with the rest of us this spring, sipping wine with his kids while other players compete for a championship. It’s almost impossible to imagine: playoff basketball without LeBron. While there are plenty of great players who will be competing this April and May, none of them are LeBron.

None of them have been the face of the NBA for 15 years. For almost my entire life, LeBron has been basketball’s standard-bearer. He has been both the protagonist and the antagonist for some of the most memorable moments in NBA history. It was Lebron that dragged the corpse of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that consisted of Mo Williams (whose biggest achievement is having been on LeBron’s team) and Delonte West (whose biggest achievement was having been on LeBron’s mom), into the Playoffs. It was LeBron who turned the Miami Heat into the villain of the league and created the “super-team” trend. It was LeBron who led the Cavs back from the brink of defeat in the NBA finals to dethrone the unstoppable Golden State Warriors. Last year, when LeBron led the Cavs back once again to the NBA finals with Kevin Love and packing peanuts as his teammates, it was a reminder of how special LeBron is.

Or was.

This season has been filled with disappointments for fans of the Lakers, but not necessarily for LeBron fans. He led an admittedly mediocre Lakers team to a decent record until he got injured. Since then, the Lakers have been spiraling out of control and LeBron can’t change that. He has been having a down season for someone who was once considered the greatest player alive. He’s averaging over 27 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, which is absurdly good for anyone who isn’t LeBron. This season, he is the fifth most impactful player in the league according to advanced NBA stats. He is more impactful than players like Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic, who have had their names thrown into the NBA MVP race this season.

However, he isn’t judged on the standards of mere mortals. This season, there are grumblings that LeBron may not be the best player alive anymore. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a freakish athlete in his own right, has a good claim to be the best. So does James Harden, whose streak of dominant games single-handedly willed the Rockets into the playoff race. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have a claim to the throne on any given night. It feels like LeBron has fallen from first amongst equals to only a member of the NBA’s elite.

Perhaps the league is better without a single greatest player. When Jordan retired the first time, Hakeem Olajuwon put together two impressive seasons. Scottie Pippen showed that he was a star in his own right. Shaquille O’Neal emerged as a force along with Penny Hardaway. Without Jordan, the teams in contention for the championship expanded and it was glorious. It will be nice to see an NBA finals that isn’t LeBron vs. someone. There is finally parity in the league. There are five excellent teams in the eastern conference that could all make the finals and compete. The entirety of the Western conference playoffs will be must-watch television. That LeBron is not the most dominant force in the league is, in a way, a sign of how healthy the league is. That’s great for fans.

Still, the league without LeBron at its head is something I’m not quite ready to face. I have been able to see arguably the best player of all time play out his entire career. People who saw Jordan play are changed forever. They can never enjoy basketball the same way because he revolutionized the game in their eyes. He is incomparable. Even in his last years as a Washington Bullet, Jordan still held a special position as the greatest to ever do it. LeBron will be in that same category: Halfway between a player in the twilight of his career and an icon at the zenith of his power.

It could be that I am overreacting. Next year, LeBron could have a 30-10-10 season, lead the Lakers to the playoffs and we’ll all be eating crow. I wouldn’t be surprised. It would be just another chapter in the amazing, peerless career of LeBron James.

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