- When LeBron James is backed into a corner, he usually does his best work. After a humbling Finals loss and Kyrie's trade request, you can expect LeBron to bounce back with a vengeance.
Since he came home three summers ago (as told to Lee Jenkins!), LeBron James has revamped his public image, played three of the best Finals series ever, and delivered Cleveland its first championship in decades. He also hasn’t cared about the regular season.
Look, LeBron doesn’t really have a reason to care about anything besides the Finals. Hell, he can practically sleepwalk through the first three rounds of the playoffs and still be playing for a championship thanks to the sorry state of the East. But as LeBron has let the regular season slide, he’s seen others (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook) usurp his MVP status. James, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons, thanks in large part to his laissez–faire attitude toward the 82 games before the postseason. For the first time in years, though, James may finally have a good reason to care about the regular season: Revenge.
The first year Curry won MVP, LeBron outdueled him in the Finals. The second year Curry won, LeBron blocked the s--- out of him in the Finals, won Finals MVP, and turned the 73-win Warriors into an Internet meme. All of this is to say, whenever it’s been threatened, James has reclaimed his rep as the greatest player alive while the stakes were highest.
Things are different now. There are whispers that Kevin Durant could be overtaking James, thanks to Durant’s own dominant championship series. Warriors players are openly mocking LeBron. And James’s best teammate, Kyrie Irving, wants out of town because he no longer wants to be stuck in LeBron‘s orbit.
James has responded to these slights rather tamely—so far. He’s sticking with Instagram videos and passive-aggressive tweets, trying to act as if he’s not acutely aware of everything that’s going on around him. But once the season starts? That’s when James can really show everyone how dominant he still is.
I see the Cavs’ season going one of two ways. In both scenarios, Irving is traded. In the first one, the team falls apart quickly, drops to the third seed in the East amid a year of bickering and DNP-rests, but somehow still makes the Finals. In the second scenario, James runs a super tight ship, and does whatever he can to fuel his fifth MVP campaign. I’m willing to bet on the latter.
Is it scientifically prudent for James to push for MVP? Probably not. He’s played an unholy amount of minutes. And when his career is ultimately determined on championships, he needs to save his body for the postseason. But right now, James is being backed into a corner. And when LeBron is backed into a corner, that’s when he does his best work.
Game 6 in Boston. Down 3–1 to the Warriors. The first triple–double series average in Finals history. Over the last few years, as his legacy has grown, James has found numerous ways to silence his critics. This upcoming season, he’ll have to deal with the Warriors’ superteam inching toward a dynasty, the Durant hype, and the likely defection of his own teammate. How will LeBron respond? You have to assume with a vengeance.
So I hope people keep taking shots at LeBron. I hope Kevin Love requests a trade as well. I hope Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney rank Kevin Durant No. 1 in their Top 100 list. I hope Irving gets his own team to lead. Because all of these things will hopefully only make James more bloodthirsty at the start of the season.
LeBron hasn’t had to prove anything in a long time. But if people keep giving him a reason to reassert his dominance, well, he may finally have a reason to care about the regular season again. LeBron is shrewd, but he’s also prideful, and on some level, you know he’s annoyed with all that’s surrounded him this summer.
This upcoming season could be LeBron’s last one in Cleveland—or at least for a couple years. But if there’s one silver lining to all the chaos that’s surrounded the world’s best player since the start of the Finals, it’s that he could be motivated enough to make this next season his best one yet.