What the NBA Looks Like After LeBron

06/04/2021

As much as I hate to say it, it seems like the post-LeBron era is imminent, which means we must look into the state of basketball over the next few decades.

The changing of the guard is here, and this new era may be more fun than the last.

One thing is clear about the last 16 years of basketball, it was all about LeBron. Starting with leading an underwhelming Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals in 07 at just 22 years old, bouncing out of the playoffs this year as a defending champion, and everything in-between by the tune of eight straight finals appearances amidst ten total. Basically, if anything happened in the NBA, LeBron was at the core of it.

No player has ever dominated the NBA quite like LeBron has.

Sure, Michael Jordan was dominant, but he only reached six NBA finals, let alone getting to eight in a row.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar went to an identical 10 finals, but he only had two finals MVPs to show for it, meaning that by the latter half of his career, he was no longer the best player on his teams.

Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 years, but for context, his first win in 1957 came with 8 total teams in the NBA, and by 1969 when he won his last, there were still only 14 teams in the league.

Meanwhile, LeBron has reached 10 finals in 18 years, in an era where there are more teams, international basketball is at its very best, and players are more skilled and athletic than ever. We will never see anything like that again.

But the caviar is, that kind of unprecedented dominance can become tried and boring, The two lowest rated NBA Finals in NBA history featured LeBron.

The mere existence of LeBron dictated what teams, front office executives, and players did for years. LeBron still receivs blame for creating the Miami BIG 3, but what people forget is that it came in response to what the league had already done in stacking the cards to defeat him.

  • The Boston Celtics championship Big 3 of 08 came together in direct response to watching a 22 year old LeBron make the finals the year before, while the Celtics missed the playoffs.
  • In 2016, The 73-win Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant after losing to LeBron in the finals.
  • And recently, the Brooklyn Nets added a former MVP in James Harden, along with Blake Griffin, and LeMarcus Aldridge to load up a roster that could take down the defending champions Los Angeles Lakers.

Basically, LeBron has been Thanos to the NBA for the best part of two decades. Much like how the Avengers abandoned the luxury of their own stories and movie franchises to team up and take down Thanos, NBA superstars have abandoned the luxury of their own stories and franchises to team up and take a chance at defeating LeBron. It was the only way to win a ring.

Well, after nearly two decades, last night showed us that this era may have come to an end. It was the first time LeBron had ever lost a first round playoff series, ending a 14 and 0 record. For LeBron fans, it hurt more than seeing the Undertaker's WrestleMania undefeated streak come to an end. I make that parallel because the ending of this streak felt much like the scripted ending of professional wrestling. It felt inevitable that this Lakers team would fall short.

Starting with the Covid-induced shortened NBA offseason that has seen the final four teams in the bubble struggle through the next season. It marks just the second time in NBA history, and first since 2001, where three of the four conference finalists from the year before bounced out in the first round of the playoffs. 

From the start of the season, it felt inevitable that the usually durable 36 year old LeBron, who has played the second most minutes of any NBA Player ever, would look human and suffer some wear and tear along that way. That came by the means of an high ankle sprain that saw him miss 26 games, the most he has ever missed in a single season. He came back two games before the playoffs started, and it was clear he was not the same player.

LeBron entered the playoffs after having missed 26 of the last 31 games, Anthony Davis went down with an injury in game four, and the defending champions had dropped all the way down from a top three seed to a seven seed by the time LeBron made his return, meaning they would face a formidable Suns team. 

A healthy LeBron could have overcome those odds, but this version of him looked exhausted both mentally and physically. And so the streak came to an end, signaling the start of a new generation of basketball.

And perhaps what was most fitting is that it came largely at the hands of a 24-year old Devin Booker, a six-year NBA veteran, who was starting middle school when LeBron made his first trip to the finals.

There is a future where Luca remains in Dallas, Giannis remains in Milwaukee, Jokic remains in Denver, Embiid remains in Philadelphia, Booker remains in Phoenix, and that core along with some new names take turns at competing for championships.

Brooklyn, and there collection of superstars will still be there, but only time can tell if they don't break apart to take one last turn at leading a franchise, especially if they win this year as they are favored to.

A free for all kind of era that can only exist when a player the caliber of LeBron James or Michael Jordan reaches the end of their peak. There will be a void left and there is no star dominant enough to feel that void on his own, they will simply have to take turns, and that makes for much more entertaining viewing.

No more teams built to stop LeBron, which means that the NBA world can reach an era where the best players aspire to reach the finals themselves. Balance in a universe where we could go into the playoffs with no clear favorites, something we were robbed of for years because of LeBron.

But don't mistake this as a statement that the LeBron era is over this second. LeBron will be back, and he'll be back with a vengeance.

Like Thanos said, "You should have gone for the head." 


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