The desire to return to basketball in July was fed by a cocktail of motivation and incentive, guzzled by a league that would much rather ratchet up the endangered 2019-20 season than wrap it up.
And while there are obvious and multiple reasons for the willingness to cope with the complex chore of saving the season here in the rubble of COVID-19, here’s the most meaningful one: LeBron James.
The sport’s box office king is healthy and hyper and last we saw, still serving up quality basketball. Therefore, this is the tonic for a league and its network partners looking to recoup staggering losses from a four-month delay, and for legions of fans starved for live basketball drama instead of a documentary from a foregone era, and for a 35-year-old legend who knows this could be his best or only chance to win a title with his third team.
Yes, LeBron is ready to rescue the NBA, and vice versa.
Would the league be so hell-bent on moving mountains to resume play if, say, LeBron was hurt and unable to suit up? Well, perhaps so. But with LeBron having a reasonably strong chance of reaching the finish line with the Lakers, and maybe raising his arms in celebration if he breaks the tape, there’s a bit more urgency by all parties to see this through.
With all due respect to the Milwaukee Bucks and the defending champion Raptors and the Clipper uprising on the other side of LA, they aren’t the engine that’s powering this undertaking. If LeBron and the Lakers are just as good over the next several weeks as they were the first several months, the intrigue and the ratings will be worth the wait.
It won’t matter that there won’t be any collective gasps coming from the empty stands, or that this will take place in a disinfectant-filled basketball bubble in Orlando, or that these games will be devoid of a postseason-charged atmosphere. Stripped of all that, the basketball world will still get what it wants: LeBron and his big-market team in the championship hunt. Folks will either root for LeBron to get his fourth championship or be fascinated to see how he fails. And that translates into a bonanza for the league, because only LeBron is capable of selling tickets to an event that literally isn’t selling any.
March may seem like a decade ago, but your hazy memory might recall that the last time we saw LeBron, he’d just finished buzz-sawing through his two biggest threats, the Bucks and Clippers. He was epic in those consecutive games, crushing their souls and spirits and coming through in the moments of truth. Essentially, he abruptly changed two major conversations — MVP and title favorite — in just three rapid-fire days.
And he’s anxious to change another buzz, because while “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan’s 10-episode vanity project, stole the basketball audience during the national lockdown, LeBron was busy hibernating and therefore powerless to give a rebuttal to the GOAT debate that raged from that documentary.
It’s quite possible, then, that LeBron is more desperate for basketball than you or anyone else on the planet.
When the league was forced to pull the plug on March 11, the season was swaying in LeBron’s direction. Unlike a year earlier, he was the picture of health and stamina, playing 60 of 63 games, burning through 35 minutes a night and barely breaking a sweat. Even better, he was feeling frisky and saucy, leading the NBA in assists, meshing with co-star Anthony Davis and helping the Lakers take regular-season ownership of the West. His vital numbers: 25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 10.6 assists.
He dropped performances we don’t normally see from players with this much career tread wear on their limbs: 40 points against the Pelicans, 32-14-12 against the Nuggets, 35-16-7 against Dallas, and near triple-doubles against the Bucks and Clippers. He was a more active and willing defender, improved 3-point shooter in volume and efficiency, and still capable of entertaining with signature dunks, passes and finishes. The closing chapters to his career were being written in boldface.
There’s certainly a chance that LeBron and others might emerge rusty or out of rhythm from the four-month layoff. The flip side is the ample rest will refresh and reinvigorate him, and only help maintain, if not enhance, the pace he had already set for himself and the Lakers.
Surely, LeBron didn’t waste his time during the layoff binging on Netflix. There’s far too much at stake for him to waste an opportunity, so a player who annually spends almost $1 million on his body certainly took care of business in ways others couldn’t. Without question, the incentive for LeBron only rose during the layoff. He knows the historical ramifications of doing for the Lakers what he did for the Heat and Cavaliers. How many players have won three titles with three different teams and were the best players on those teams? Do a documentary on that; it’ll be about four seconds long.
Also: An appropriate way to label this, his 16th season, might be to call it “The Last Chance.” Because there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get this close to the O’Brien Trophy with the Lakers again. Remember, next season the Warriors will emerge from their one-year reset feeling restless and reloaded. And the Nets will bring a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. And the Clippers and Bucks aren’t going south anytime soon. And the 2020-21 Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz should lurk as spoilers in the West, if nothing else.
Thankfully, a pandemic didn’t cost LeBron at least a try at another championship. That would’ve been ranked high on the NBA’s list of what-ifs in the history of great players with legacy gaps, right behind Jordan tossing away roughly two years of championship hoops so he could satisfy an itch to shag fly balls in the minors.
LeBron’s basketball clock is indeed ticking, and while he’s still bringing A games most nights, his health and his high standard of play aren’t automatically transferred from one year to the next, not here in the sunset years. Besides, Anthony Davis, never the picture of perfect health himself, might stumble physically next year. And the rest of his Laker teammates, given their ages and short contracts, are transient. Sports have taught us time and time again that nothing can be taken for granted.
And so: Right now, LeBron can still crown a superb season. He can save the NBA, and by restoring the basketball season, the NBA can save him. As the sporting country creeps ever so slowly toward a sense of normalcy, fans need basketball strictly from a diversionary standpoint.
But make no mistake: Now more than ever, a league and a superstar need each other even more.
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