“I didn’t like the ending,” James told Davis, bemoaning the cliffhanger within earshot of a small group of reporters. “I know they started it off for a Season 2.”
While James the television critic sought swift and tidy closure, James the player has embodied the exact opposite. “The LeBron James Show” has become one of the longest-running dramas in NBA history, opening its 19th season when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night. Across the country, Kevin Durant, James’s most enduring foil, is back with the Brooklyn Nets, who begin their own title chase at the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the evening.
Hampered by injuries in recent years, James and Durant are circling each other again, pushing the bounds of the player empowerment era, using many of the same roster-building techniques and even swapping familiar faces as they angle for an edge in the 2022 title chase. But challenges before the season even started served as a reminder that the Lakers and Nets still have plenty to accomplish if they are going to meet in the Finals and deliver the long-awaited third act between James and Durant.
Act One came in the 2012 Finals, when James’s Miami Heat beat Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder with the benefit of experience. The Heat’s James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all in their primes, teamed up in 2010 free agency and schooled the Thunder’s young trio of Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Big brother beat little brother.
Act Two unfolded over the 2017 and 2018 Finals, when Durant joined the Golden State Warriors, forming a superteam that could take down James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, who also featured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Little brother won two titles and two Finals MVP trophies but fell short of being universally recognized as James’s superior.
The years since have been marked by missed connections. James suffered season-altering injuries in 2018-19 and 2020-21, and Durant missed the entire 2019-20 campaign with a torn Achilles’. James led the Lakers to the 2020 title in the NBA bubble, but Durant never traveled to Disney World. And when Durant carried Team USA to gold at the Tokyo Olympics in August, James remained stateside to promote “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Remarkably, the upcoming Christmas Day showdown between the Lakers and Nets is set to be the first time that James and Durant have squared off since Christmas 2018.
But James and Durant clearly have kept close tabs on each other from a distance while executing similar off-court strategies that have created a knot of relationships between their big-market powerhouses.
Just as James rejoined the Cavaliers to team up with Irving in 2014, Durant paired with Irving as 2019 free agents in Brooklyn. Just as James landed Davis, an ideal sidekick, with a strong-arm blockbuster trade in 2019, Durant added Harden in identical fashion this past January. And just as Harden’s arrival gave the Nets a Big Three, the Lakers added a third star by trading for Westbrook in July.
When the dust settled, James and Durant had signed multiyear contract extensions to stabilize their organizations and nodded along as their franchises parted with draft picks and young players to build instant winners. They also had launched an arms race for former stars interested in ring-chasing on discount deals.
The Lakers’ rotation now includes Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, while the Nets boast Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap, giving both franchises the opportunity to field five-man lineups composed entirely of Hall of Fame candidates. When Brooklyn ran out of room for DeAndre Jordan, one of Durant’s close friends, Los Angeles quickly found a home for the 33-year-old center. And when Howard committed a flagrant foul during a preseason game against the Nets, Harden came onto the court and trolled his former Houston Rockets teammate into a technical foul.
All told, the players on the two rosters have combined for an astonishing 101 all-star selections, and additional reinforcements could be on the way at the trade deadline or during buyout season. There can be no questioning the role that James and Durant — bolstered by their influential agents and business partners, Rich Paul and Rich Kleiman, respectively — played in orchestrating these maneuvers.
Anthony revealed on a podcast last month that James called directly to recruit him, referring to his fellow 2003 draft classmate as “the GM” of the Lakers. And just a few days after Patty Mills ended a 10-season run with the San Antonio Spurs by signing with the Nets in free agency, the Australian guard was flanked by Durant at the Olympics medal ceremony. “Patty coming back to the BK,” a smiling Durant bragged into his phone’s live stream. “Black and white.”
Although they were constructed with parallel blueprints, the Lakers and Nets reflect the stylistic differences between their franchise players.
The Lakers are built inside-out and have the ability to field supersize front lines around the imposing James. Since Frank Vogel was hired as coach in 2019, the Lakers have built elite defenses around Davis, ranking third in 2019-20 and first in 2020-21. Finally, a flurry of offseason moves, made in response to a disjointed and injury-plagued showing against the Phoenix Suns in the first round, has left the Lakers with the NBA’s oldest roster.
“The narrative about our age, I really laugh at it,” said James, who turns 37 in December. “Some of the memes and some of the jokes are extremely funny, and some of it is just trying to get people to read tabloids. If we come out and put the time in and put the work in, we’ll make our own narrative.”
The Nets, meanwhile, function outside-in, capitalizing on Durant’s versatility and all-around scoring ability with lineups that thrive on maximum spacing and interchangeability. Despite constant injury issues last season, Brooklyn led the league in offensive efficiency under Coach Steve Nash. Team owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks have spared no expense in compiling the league’s deepest roster, adding experience, shooting and multipositional defense to Durant’s supporting cast. Comfortable with his new city and franchise, the 33-year-old signed a four-year, $198 million extension in August that runs through the 2025-26 season.
“I just wanted to be here, and I thought it was the perfect timing for me to do it,” he said. “It was good to get it done, to commit to the team and the organization and my teammates. We’ll continue to keep working from here. Winning is always the top priority.”
Carefully laid plans can come undone, and the Lakers and the Nets enter the season knowing their fates could be determined by their mercurial third wheels.
Los Angeles must find a way to integrate the 32-year-old Westbrook, who has been traded three times since 2019. The early returns haven’t been pretty: Westbrook has struggled with turnovers, his teammates have looked out of step with his preferred fast-paced approach, and Vogel lamented the Lakers’ poor spacing after one of six losses during a winless preseason.
How the Lakers mask Westbrook’s poor shooting and erratic tendencies remains an open question, but the Nets have found themselves with an even thornier dilemma. Irving, 29, has declined to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, making him ineligible for games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center under New York City’s vaccine regulations. Nets management responded by telling the seven-time all-star that he couldn’t play in any games or participate in practice until he is vaccinated.
Irving, who said last week that he was “uncomfortable” because he thought he would be able to play even if unvaccinated, has expressed hope that he will be able to rejoin his teammates this season and said he plans to “stay in shape” as the situation unfolds. However, he hasn’t given any indication that he plans to get the shot. So far, Durant has diplomatically supported Irving’s right to make his own decision and expressed hope that his teammate will return to full availability.
“I definitely want Kyrie to be around,” Durant said Friday. “I wish none of this stuff would happen, but it’s just the situation that we’re in. … He chose to do what he wants to do, and the team did the same. … What is being mad going to do? You’re not going to change his mind.”
Before the twist ending that rankled James, “Squid Game” reached its climax with an intense head-to-head showdown between rivals, a scenario that, if repeated on the hardwood in June, would delight television executives and fans alike.
To even his Finals record with Durant at 2-2, James must help Westbrook find a clean fit and fend off younger opponents, including the reigning Western Conference champion Suns and Stephen Curry’s Warriors. To land another showcase date with James and solidify his standing as the NBA’s best player, Durant must lead the Nets through the Irving affair and exact revenge against the tough-minded and overlooked Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo.
For basketball’s two biggest power brokers, the coming season offers gigantic expectations but no guarantees.