CHARLOTTE — One request before the NBA season resumes for a final sprint: It needs more LeBron James. Seriously. It might seem a strange thing to ask, considering James is the most overexposed athlete on the planet and most every NBA star now follows his “How To Manipulate Franchises And Maximize Power” manual. Hear me out on this, though.
During the first two-thirds of the 2018-19 season, James has tried to chill and play the long game in Year 1 with the Los Angeles Lakers. For certain, this story line has been compelling and well publicized, and James has been quietly and indirectly involved with some of the league’s other major plots, most notably Anthony Davis’s attempt to flee New Orleans. But in a soap opera that has included drama in Golden State, an arms race in the Eastern Conference, chemistry problems in Boston and teams preparing for another banner free agent class this summer, King James is competing for relevance more than usual. And it has been an awkward shift, not for him but for the other characters.
Kevin Durant and Draymond Green got into a tiff, and later, Durant had his own meltdown, expressing frustration with constant media and public speculation about his future. Never mind that Durant and others have attracted this attention by trying to do the LeBron thing: signing short-term contracts for leverage and portability, then welcoming a free agency bidding war. Durant wants the power of being noncommittal, but unlike James, he abhors the scrutiny. And he seems downright relaxed about this game compared with Davis, who clumsily asked the Pelicans to trade him via his agent, Rich Paul. The season began with Jimmy Butler’s bizarre methods in forcing his way out of Minnesota, and madness has so engulfed the NBA that Kristaps Porzingis even forced a trade while on his rookie contract — and out with a knee injury.
Meanwhile, James sits in the background, trying to direct a Lakers squad with a losing record (28-29) and a 10th-place standing in the Western Conference. The Lakers stand three games behind their Los Angeles sibling, the Clippers, for the eighth and final playoff spot. With 25 games remaining, James and the Lakers aren’t in an impossible position, especially when you consider that the Clippers dealt their best player, Tobias Harris, at the trade deadline. But the Lakers have a tough remaining schedule, with their opponents combining for a .520 winning percentage so far and marquee games against Milwaukee (twice), Golden State, Denver, Toronto and Oklahoma City on the docket.
The four teams directly above them in the West — No. 9 Sacramento, the No. 8 Clippers, No. 7 San Antonio and No. 6 Utah, all of whom are theoretically passable — have much weaker schedules on paper. James has won three championships and made eight straight NBA Finals appearances, but he faces an immense challenge just to make the playoffs. He needs to be at his best, and while many experiencing Le-fatigue may disagree, the NBA needs him to be at his best.
I would have disagreed with this sentiment before the All-Star Game. I’m enjoying this season, from James Harden’s scoring to Paul George’s ascension to MVP candidate to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s freakish influence on winning in Milwaukee. But this is also the NBA that James changed in 2010 when he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made an unprecedented power move. And in this period of innuendo and superstar transience, the league feels much more rational when its best, most calculated and media-savvy superstar absorbs the spotlight.
In Charlotte, as the NBA’s marquee players convened, the vibe was strange and tense. Davis was patient and professional in answering questions about his situation with the Pelicans, but he also stammered through the session. Durant mean-mugged reporters, became defensive several times and reiterated that he just wants to play basketball. Kawhi Leonard, another uncomfortable impending free agent, kept it stoic, and then he created two unintentional, viral social media moments. First, people made a big deal of the Team LeBron photo, in which Leonard and former San Antonio Spurs teammate LaMarcus Aldridge stood next to — but awkwardly apart from — each other. Then, after the game, Leonard was caught trying to dance, moving like a robot with low batteries.
But when James was around, the atmosphere was relaxed. When he is the star of stars, there’s a balance to everything. He doesn’t mind the rumors. He can tolerate the criticism. He enjoys the game within the game and, as an emerging entertainment mogul, he understands the nuances of storytelling. When he’s the dominant personality, the NBA soap opera turns into the theatrical masterpiece that keeps people coming back for more.
James created this environment, and only he can truly live in it. Other stars think they’re following in his footsteps, but in truth, they are also walking in his shadow. It’s a comfortable place to be. Durant did it when he left Oklahoma City for Golden State in 2016. But even though he created the strongest superteam model to date and beat James to win the past two NBA titles, the tale of “What’s next for LeBron?” manages to challenge the Warriors’ dynasty as the NBA’s most important story. Think about that. In defeat, James has as much power of influence as the Warriors do in chasing history.
If you’re a team fighting for relevance, or if you’re a fan wishing that what you care about received more attention, this is frustrating. But James is the central figure in a sport experiencing another spike in popularity, and there’s a trickle-down effect to his unyielding fame.
For the NBA to make a pivot from drama to the postseason push, James and the Lakers must lead the shift. It will be the first time this season that there is authentic immediacy to what the Lakers are doing. No more patience and searching for James’s star companion, for now. It’s all about the pursuit of the postseason and, as always with James, it comes with historic implications and talk about his legacy.
James hasn’t missed the postseason since the 2004-05 season, his second in the NBA. His teams have never exited in the first round. If the Lakers sneak into the playoffs and somehow avoid facing the Warriors, are you sure you could trust Denver or Oklahoma City over James and his band of youngsters, who presumably would have played exceptional basketball down the stretch? Are you sure you could trust Denver in its first playoff appearance of the Nikola Jokic era, or an Oklahoma City squad that has started its post-Durant era with back-to-back first-round exits? Are you sure you could trust one of those teams knowing that James, because he previously missed 17 straight games with a groin injury, will be fresher than usual?
Or if the Lakers do provide a little late-season excitement and then lose in the first round, imagine the urgency that will stir within both James and the Magic Johnson-led front office to trade for Davis and/or triumph in free agency. Perhaps that’s the best of both NBA worlds. It would be just enough James to get the postseason going, followed by an epic “To Be Continued . . .” leading into July.
There’s a final factor that should be appreciated, too. An early postseason exit for James could help validate some of the strides in parity that the NBA has made, provided it doesn’t come against Golden State. The Warriors remain far ahead, but beneath them the league is becoming more balanced. While James isn’t in the Eastern Conference anymore, a one-and-done experience out West still eliminates a popular preseason assumption that you could just throw the game’s best player on the losing Lakers, and they could topple any team besides the champs.
When he left Cleveland for L.A. last summer, James provided freedom in the East, which is guaranteed to crown a new conference champion. If he contributes to the validation of a rising contender out West, it would be an unexpected gift for the league. And then he could go back to carrying the soap opera with his unofficial tampering.
More LeBron James can feel tiring, but more LeBron James is essential. During this wild and fickle era, he is the instigator and the stabilizer. To appreciate a good season drowning in speculation, the game’s best player needs to do exactly what makes him polarizing. He needs to hog the relevance once again.