BY OWEN SCARROW
LeBron James’ days as the best basketball player on the planet are over. It’s a time we all saw coming; a time that appeared as though it would never happen, but James is getting older and it was only a matter of time before The King was dethroned.
When James signed a four-year deal with the LA Lakers this past summer, it signalled a new phase of his career. Gone are the days of signing one-year deals, holding power over front offices and forcing them to put championship-contending teams around him with the threat that he may leave if he’s not pleased.
For the first time in his career, we, as an NBA audience, can envision a life for James beyond basketball; a life after his playing days and ventures he may explore once he hangs up his shoes.
His footprint outside of basketball started in July when he opened his “I Promise” school for at-risk youth in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. In addition to the free education provided for the 240 third and fourth-graders, they will also receive:
- Free uniforms
- Free breakfast, lunch and snacks
- Free transportation within 2 miles
- A free bicycle and helmet
- Access to a food pantry for their family
- Guaranteed tuition for all graduates to the University of Akron
A move to Los Angeles also coincides with James’ dive into entertainment, with his show The Shop, and the newly announced Space Jam sequel that he is set to star in, gaining popularity. It’s clear that not only does James see a light at the end of the tunnel, but he’s actively putting plans in motion to ensure he jumps right in after his retirement.
But for now, James is still a basketball player, and a damn good one at that.
It has been a heated discussion recently as to who is the greatest player of all time, James or Michael Jordan. There will likely never be a consensus GOAT, but the fact that James is even in conversation means something. Jordan was, and continues to be a polarizing figure. Before James came around, the thought of anybody being discussed in the same class as Jordan was seen as blasphemy. He may never take over the greatest of all time title, but even being in the conversation is something no one else has even come close to.
LeBron has repeatedly said he would love to one day share the court with his son, Bronny Jr., either as teammates or as opponents. As a freshman in high school, that gives him another three to four years after this one before he would be eligible for the NBA draft. With three years left on his contract after this one that means the elder James would need to sign at least one more contract to make this dream come true. At 37 years old exiting this current contract, his next one will more than likely be his last.
This current contract with the Lakers hasn’t panned out the way he had planned.
It was unthinkable that a player of LeBron’s talent, still conceivably in his prime, would miss the playoffs entirely, no matter the roster around him. Hell, LeBron took the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers team to the NBA finals with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a 33-year old Eric Snow as his best teammates.
Here we are in 2019 though, and LeBron is about to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-2005 season.
Part of it is some bad luck; the Lakers have been decimated by injuries this season. LeBron has missed 20 games, starting point guard Lonzo Ball has missed 26 and has been shut down for the remainder of the season, veteran point guard Rajon Rondo missed 24, and third-year forward Brandon Ingram has been shut down after missing 21 games. A reduced roster, along with a front office that seems incapable of making big-time moves fit for a big-time player playing in a big-time market, make James’ remaining years in Los Angeles a mystery as he winds down his playing career.
So that brings us to the big question: what the hell does he do now?
The first thing that needs to happen is he needs another star player to play with. Since the turn of the century there have only been two championship teams with less than two all-NBA level players. The 2004 Detroit Pistons beat the Lakers at the height of the Kobe-Shaq feud, and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who were major underdogs against the James-led Miami Heat.
The Lakers tried and failed to acquire Anthony Davis at the trade deadline earlier this season. It was reported that the Lakers offered a litany of draft picks along with three or four of their young, up and coming prospects. The reports had a noticeable effect on the team’s chemistry and fingers were pointed squarely at James for their desire to give up so much for the star.
This off-season there will be no shortage of star players in free agency, and the Lakers need to act then. Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Demarcus Cousins, and Kawhi Leonard are the top-tier of the free agent class and if the Lakers fail to land even one of them, it would be a disaster for the team.
If they were to fail to land one of these players, they’ll have to seriously consider making major changes to their core group of players. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have shown flashes of becoming high level players, but their inconsistencies and injury issues have robbed the Lakers of their full potential. Another season of mediocrity, along with no significant improvement from their young players would put the Lakers in a dangerous position where star players are reluctant to sign with them, and their most high-leverage pieces lose a lot of their trade value.
When it comes down to it, LeBron just needs help. The King is past the point in his career where he alone is able to lead a team to championship contention. He needs another star, or at least a roster that’s fit to sustain leads while he rests. There are very few instances ever where a Top 5 player in the league has requested a trade from their team, but if the team around him continues to fail to improve, James may have to consider it.
There are very few seasons left where we get to see a player of LeBron’s skill level play the game. For us as fans we shouldn’t take any of it for granted, but neither should he. There is obviously a plan already in motion for his transition into retirement that goes far beyond basketball. He wouldn’t have signed such a long term deal with a team who hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 if there wasn’t one. But just because he’s looking forward doesn’t mean he needs to stop focusing on what’s happening right now.
LeBron only has so much time left.
For the benefit of the game, both himself and the Lakers need to make the most of it.