There have already been some eulogies written on this absurd Lakers season, and there will probably be even more to come this summer. LeBron James’s first year in Hollywood (don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it) WAS LIKE A HIGH-BUDGET FLOP. (I’m sorry. But seriously though, we’re talking a Will Smith in Wild Wild West-level bust.) While the long-term implications of James’s decision to spend his career twilight in L.A. are still murky—who is going to be in the Space Jam 2 cast? Is this basketball team ever going to be good?—the short-term consequences are crystal clear: The postseason is going to be a lot less interesting.
Some people may say they have LeBron fatigue. Others may say they are excited for the league’s new generations of stars to take over and put their stamp on the playoffs. Even more random people I’m creating may in fact not like LeBron, and are taking great pleasure in watching his Finals reign crumble. To all these people (who may or may not exist) I say, what the hell is wrong with you?
I don’t think the postseason is going to be bad. The East actually has some competition at the top, which is a nice start. My Denver Nuggets are a new entrant in the West, and I’m excited to watch Nikola Jokic get tested in a seven-game series. A Giannis vs. Embiid matchup could set the stage for a classic rivalry. But what all these storylines lack are the narrative heft LeBron brings every time he steps onto a basketball court.
It’s not only LeBron’s skills that make him so compelling, it’s also the heightened stakes—whether manufactured or not—that follow him on every title run. Like, how will another championship affect the GOAT conversation? If LeBron’s team plays poorly in this big game, will the roster get blown up in the summer? Is James going to troll someone with his outfit as a direct result of something someone said during a press conference? Narrative has become a dirty word for people in certain circles of the sports internet (like, the MVP race), But putting each LeBron playoff run in the context of his entire career and what it means for his legacy is actually fun, and there’s no player scheduled to be in the postseason who brings the same aura around him.
Even as the Warriors have dulled much of the playoffs, James has been providing theatrics that keep things juicy. Just last season, LeBron put together one of the best Finals runs of his careers, knocking down game-winners against the Pacers and Raptors, engineering a sweep of No. 1 Toronto, and putting up a 50-point triple double in Game 1 of the Finals. And each of those moments created emotional responses from all the NBA fans I know. Even when the Warriors swept the Cavs, I still got my drama, thanks to the J.R. Smith incident and James’s mysterious broken hand. (LeBron showing up to his final presser of the series with a cast was incredibly petty.)
The postseason isn’t only about crowning a champion (especially when that has felt preordained for the third year in a row.) It’s also about birthing legends because of how the game’s greatest players comported themselves when the intensity was the highest. For LeBron, that intensity is higher than everyone else’s, because for better or worse (it’s definitely for worse), he’s ultimately judged on his playoff success, and he’s provided the slightest bit enough ammunition for his critics—however flimsy—that there’s still a conversation to be had about what that meant at the end of every one of his runs.
Losing that conversation sucks. I want the late-night group texts about what the latest LeBron performance did for his GOAT hunt. I want to see if James has even the slightest chance to lift his team up when hilariously overmatched against the Warriors. I want to see the greatest player of this generation, now cast as an underdog, feel as if he still has something to prove (even when he tries to convince us publicly he doesn’t.)
The NBA’s postseason is still in very good hands. Kawhi and Kyrie are back, Giannis is on the rise, Embiid and Ben Simmons have something to prove, and maybe this is the year Steph finally gets his Finals MVP trophy instead of Kevin Durant. But though LeBron James may not be the best basketball player in the world anymore, he’s still the most interesting. A playoffs without him means a playoffs without incessant legacy talk, with fewer iconic moments, and without the drama that follows the only man credible enough to openly put himself in pursuit of Michael Jordan. As the postseason approaches, I’m realizing I’ll miss all of that more than I thought.