The NBA is officially back this week! In year 17, LeBron James is having the best age-35 campaign in NBA history and has led the Lakers to the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. He is also in a two-man race for MVP with Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But does he have anything to prove in Orlando? What will a ring mean for his legacy? The Crossover staff answers that and more.
Zero. Zip. Nada. That’s how much LeBron James has to prove in the bubble, or anywhere for the rest of his career. He’s arguably the greatest player in NBA history. He’s having the best age-35 season ever. Even if this bizarro finish ends without a championship—or even a trip to the Finals—James’s legacy is unblemishable. He won two trophies in Miami. He pushed Cleveland past a 72-win Golden State team for another title in his second year back. There are teenage NBA fans who came of age thinking LeBron played in every Finals. He will, at worst, finish second in the MVP voting this year, and pre-pandemic had a revamped Lakers team atop the Western Conference standings. There was a time LeBron needed to prove something to people. That time, though, has long since past.
No. LeBron hasn’t had anything to prove since Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Whether or not he’s the GOAT is different than having something to prove. Obviously another ring would help his case in that argument. But until we see what these playoff games actually look like—and if any teams have to deal with an outbreak—it’s hard to attach the proper legacy context to whatever we’re about to watch. (That was an insane sentence to type.) If you want say LeBron had some questions to answer in terms of his body headed into this season, well he already proved months ago his condensed 2019 campaign looked more like an aberration, as he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers before the season was suspended. The way people who love basketball talk about LeBron is always going to be a little unhinged and a little too intense. No matter what happens over the next couple months will change that.
That’s all I was going to write in response to the question of whether or not LeBron has anything to prove in the bubble, but since I’m being paid by the word [editor’s note: He’s not being paid by the word], I thought it would be a very, very, very, very, very, very, very good idea go a little deeper. I’m pretty firmly in the LeBron-has-nothing-to-prove camp no matter what the circumstances. That’s not to say that he can’t have an impact in the bubble that goes beyond his play on the court.
Chemistry and the like can be overrated, but the intangible, non-quantifiable aspects of the game are going to come into play more than usual. There’s (theoretically, at least) no place for players to go to get away from their teammates. Think of that guy the next cubicle over (remember cubicles?) who smacks his food and talks too loud on the phone and wears too much cologne? Now imagine living with him—indefinitely—at Disney World. Leadership is really going to matter, and that’s where players like LeBron will have to step up, to keep guys focused and happy (and out of strip clubs).
But at the end of the day, LeBron doesn’t have anything more to prove than anyone else. Though if the Lakers win it all, he’ll have more bubble rings than Jordan, so that’s got to count for something, right?
No. I mean, if the Lakers win the entire thing, it certainly matters for LeBron’s cabinet of accolades. But from my standpoint, the unusual nature of this season should actually absolve teams from unnecessary pressure. Making a deep run in the bubble is certainly impressive. But I certainly don’t view Orlando as an essential proving ground for one of the best players in league history. If the Lakers pull it off, it’s a feather in his cap. But as long as there’s not a weird collapse coming (and hey, that bench is a little thin), this doesn’t feel like the year to heap pressure on James’s shoulders. (It’ll happen anyway.)
LeBron James certainly has plenty to gain as he and the Lakers enter the NBA bubble, but the notion that he has something to prove is utterly ludicrous. James is the best player of the 21st-century. He’s inarguably one of the top five players of all time. His legacy was sealed the second the Cavaliers won the 2016 Finals.
In terms of the GOAT debate, the 2020 playoffs could provide another notch in James’ column. But does The King have anything to prove in Orlando? Not really.
No matter the location of games, the focus of the 2019-20 season for LeBron James has always been to help lead the Lakers to a championship while honoring Kobe Bryant. Alongside Anthony Davis, James and the Lakers have proven strengths both offensively and defensively while leading the West. A championship this season would not only be the first for the franchise since 2010, but a fourth ring in a third city would add to James's NBA legacy.
The bubble will provide its challenges, but if James can conquer it alongside his teammates, he will be able to prove that he can fulfill his top goal—to return to Los Angeles with the Larry O'Brien trophy while adapting to any circumstances.
LeBron James has nothing left to prove but he does have something to gain. Regardless of what happens, his legacy is secure. Once you’re in the debate with Michael Jordan, you don’t leave it. And James will continue to compile accolades and break records. However, if he is able to lead the Lakers to a championship, it would somehow elevate him even higher (if that’s possible). He would have overcome a number of factors to bring the NBA’s premier franchise back to prominence and in the process would become the first superstar to win with three different teams and it would be his second of four titles that would be historically unique in its significance (joining 2016 of course). Basically, winning a title at 35, in year 17, in the bubble, would make a heck of an addition to his eventual documentary.
LeBron James has nothing more to prove than any other superstar in the NBA. Prior to the league’s stoppage he mounted a valiant run at the league’s MVP award as the Lakers kept pace at the top of the Western Conference standings. James’ vintage performances in his team’s wins over the Bucks and Clippers reopened a conversation for MVP that was previously closed. Days removed from those victories, the league shut down.
On a recent podcast, veteran guard J.J. Reddick put his experience plainly, saying, “This is not what we signed up for. These circumstances are not normal to play NBA basketball.” The 2019-20 season will go down as maybe the most unusual in the history of the sport, and it’s unfair to drastically alter a player’s legacy based on his performance when the league resumes for that reason. I know he’s LeBron James, so rushing to extreme judgements about him is a natural reaction, but if Los Angeles fails to take home the title, let’s remember to put the defeat in proper context of the league’s craziest, and most unique season yet.