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LeBron James and the Lakers Have Something to Prove Again

Nathaniel Friedman

One day, LeBron James will get very old, and before then, he will cease to be one of the two or three most imposing offensive players in the NBA. But it’s safe to assume that it won’t happen this season, because the simple fact that it hasn’t already happened suggests that it may never happen. Granted, the 34-year-old James is no longer the same player he once was in his twenties, most noticeable on the defensive end. At the other end of the court, James has altered his game over the years, possibly out of necessity. Yet rather than chafing against new limitations, James has continually evolved, to the point where it often seems like he’s getting better with age, or at least approaching some sort of fully-optimized ideal of basketball efficacy.

But individual performance doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and as soon as you zoom out from the finer points of James’s attack, there’s plenty to scrutinize. His first season as a Laker was decidedly underwhelming. While the team would likely have made the playoffs had James not missed several weeks due to injury, James didn’t exactly succeed in transforming them into a powerhouse. He didn’t really gel with the Lakers’ young core and often seemed content to go at it alone. And then almost everyone was shipped off for Anthony Davis, a newly signed Klutch client, and that was that.

Of course, the Lakers did succeed in landing AD, which was the plan all along, and there’s an argument to be made that, for James, 2018-19 was a mulligan. But the fact remains that James didn’t exactly make the best of a lackluster situation. The optics of the Lakers puttering along weren't great. James makes other players better, except in this case, he didn’t. He’s a strong leader, except here he failed to galvanize his team. After spending four years in Cleveland as the David to the Warrior’s Goliath, James seemed to be perpetually looking ahead to having some fellow All-Stars around to work with. And there were whisperings that James was preoccupied with making moves in Hollywood when he could have focused his attention more squarely on the Lakers. Thankfully, we were spared a debate over whether or not James’s charitable efforts were detracting from his on-court contributions.

The offseason may have been even more damning. While acquiring Davis was a coup, albeit a totally expected one, the Lakers were also thought to be in the running for marquee names like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. Leonard, in particular, was thought to have the Lakers high on his list and indeed, the team ended up being—at least ostensibly—one of the three finalists competing for his services. Except the Lakers didn’t end up with Leonard, Butler, or any other top-tier free agent, and it was impossible to not think about how James, or did not, factor into their decision. The Lakers were a train wreck of an organization, and post-Davis, the roster assembled was a hodgepodge of characters severely lacking in depth. But the general presumption was that the combination of James, Davis, and another All-Star would be unstoppable.

In the grand scheme of James’s stunning career, one lost season really shouldn’t matter, and with Davis, the Lakers could easily end up being one of the league’s scariest teams. Ultimately, things like optics, narrative, and legacy matter because the take-centric way we consume. Content without a take is dead on arrival, and fans mistake the language of punditry for a form of expertise when it’s really just a means of disguising inanity. Except in this case, James himself is very much a devotee of this kind of thinking, in large part because, as a massive brand, he understands the value of controlling his narrative. You could argue that James has learned this skill as a reaction to having been under intense game-to-game scrutiny since his teens. But he long ago stopped needing to ever be on the defensive. Now, he has to think this way because that’s how a sports brand has to work.

And at this point, James is really only measured against Michael Jordan, and has made such a strong case for his being distinct from Jordan that it’s become increasingly nonsensical to compare the two. But from a narrative standpoint he’s still chasing MJ, and will be until he figures out how to once and for all differentiate himself. The third act of Jordan’s story, which is still largely intact in spite of his Wizards comeback, combines unfettered dominance, a singularly competitive mindset, and a flare for the dramatic. The best in the game bowed out after unquestionably proving his supremacy.

It just might be the greatest sports story ever told; it has made pro-Jordan takes next to unimpeachable and, more importantly, been the crux of an insanely lucrative brand. And James still has yet to find a way out from under it. He’ll never equal Jordan’s six rings (or even Kobe Bryant’s five). The Cleveland title counts extra because of all the emotion behind it. But if James closes out his career with, say, six or seven title-less seasons, his story ends on a dead patch. Watching James age gracefully and eek out a few more Finals appearances that come up short would be anticlimactic. It’s not how the story is supposed to end. It’s not really an ending at all.

What happens next for James if, of course, not entirely within his control. He no longer has the ability to single-handed dictate his destiny and with it, the shape of the entire NBA. That is, along with the whole defense thing, suggests he may not be the player he used to be. But it’s also partly a function on what’s going on elsewhere in the league. The East is no longer laughably weak. The best players are more evenly distributed, meaning there are more worthy opponents to reckon with. The league is wide-open, which, while it does give the Lakers some shot at a title, also makes things more perilous—and puts more pressure on James to deliver a rousing finale. A title would solve everything. At the very least, though, James needs to recapture the collective imagination, to reestablish himself as an athlete who crafts indelible moments. There may be no real need for him to up his game or change his approach. But the perception is that, for the first time since his early years in the league, when the hype around him was nearly deafening, James has something to prove. And these days, for James being able to impact perception is as important as the reality.

Originally Appeared on GQ