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LeBron Is Still Painting His Masterpiece

The Warriors are the most overwhelming favorite in the history of the NBA. King James doesn’t give a damn about that.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A brief history of the NBA in eight fake quotes, five exclamation points and two question marks:

1946–56: “White guys, set shots, clotheslines and layups!”

1956–66: “Hi, I’m Bill, and this is Elgin, Wilt and Oscar.”

1967–76: “Things are going well, so let’s double the number of leagues, triple the number of franchises and overpay everybody!”

1977–83: “We’re back to one league — only it’s plagued by drugs, ugly fights, tape-delayed playoff games, stupid owners and unapologetic media racism!”

1984–93: “Bird, Magic AND Jordan! Holy shit! We saved this thing!”

1994–2003: “Too much money, too fast, too soon … oh, and the quality of play sucks. Wait, MJ’s gone. Now what?”

2004–11: “Seriously … how do we fix this?”

2012–16: “Wait a second … I think we fixed this!”

Even though it’s the same age as Sylvester Stallone, Steven Spielberg and Donald Trump, the National Basketball Association looks better than all of them. Did you know that Ian Mahinmi will make almost $16 million this season … and he’s not even one of the league’s 49 highest-paid players? Hold on, I’ll put that in bold italics.

Did you know that Ian Mahinmi will make almost $16 million this season … and he’s not even one of the league’s 49 highest-paid players?

What better proof that the NBA has belatedly matured into a marketable, profitable, forward-thinking and massively entertaining cash cow? In 2016, major markets willingly share their revenue spoils with smaller markets. Superstars gobble up endorsements, sneaker deals and worldwide attention no matter where they play. The innovative leadership of Adam Silver and a newer class of owners provides a stark contrast to everything happening in the NFL. And a fan-friendly style of play — honed over the past dozen years with savvy rule changes, intelligence from advanced metrics, and the supernatural shooting prowess of certain stars — makes those ugly Pacers-Pistons playoff series feel like they happened 50 years ago.

Everything peaked with Steph Curry and the gunslinging Warriors, our most popular juggernaut since Jordan’s Bulls … right until the greatest player since Jordan brought Cleveland back from 3–1 to spoil Golden State’s victory party. LeBron had spent 13 years cruising through his career without a signature series or moment, and within the span of three games, he had both. (Long live The Block.) But that Cavs-Warriors rematch stands as our most unforgettable Finals since 1998, one of those rare times when you could feel the league’s history shifting (and then it did). Almost immediately, we pivoted to the NBA draft, then the Durant sweepstakes and a barrage of other signings, and then Team USA and the Olympics. Only in late August did the NBA finally exhale.

It’s the perfect league for our personality-driven, look-at-me, I-want-to-know-everything era. We don’t just follow our favorite basketball teams, we follow everyone. We consume NBA content on high-definition televisions, through clips and snaps and GIFs, through the real-time reactions of other fans on Twitter, through the endless array of columns and features and blog posts. It’s just part of our lives, every day, day after day. As owners and players peacefully bang out a new collective bargaining agreement right now — maybe the first time that’s ever been written — they’re more like two bartenders splitting up a massive jar of tips after an especially hectic night. It’s less of a negotiation and more of a collaboration. Nobody wants to screw this up.

And I’m looking at everything and going, After four decades of complaining, I can barely figure out how to pick nits anymore. Sure, I wish the regular season were six games shorter. I wish Seattle could land an expansion team. I wish shitty teams weren’t rewarded for repeatedly being shitty with MORE top-three picks. I wish Boogie Cousins would unblock me on Twitter. I wish Gregg Popovich had retired from the Spurs and run for president. And I wish I weren’t so worried about the league’s competitive balance being completely out of whack.

Again, we’re picking nits. But the competitive-balance issue is fascinating. The Cavaliers brought back the league’s most expensive roster, making them 1-to-4 favorites for LeBron to crash his seventh-straight Finals. Golden State trumped them with our past two MVPs and four of the league’s top-15 players, becoming -150 favorites for the 2017 title (meaning you’d have to wager $150 to win back $100). If you were to bet on Golden State and then the Dubs finally get undermined by injuries, or if Joe “Light-years Ahead” Lacob undermines their karma again, or if serial scrotum attacker Draymond Green undermines another pivotal playoff game, or if opponents keep undermining the frailer-than-you-think Curry by beating the crap out of him, or if the Dubs battle the same unforeseen chemistry stumbles that undermined previous Juggle Superstars On The Fly contenders (the 1969 Lakers, 1997 Rockets, 2004 Lakers and 2011 Heat, to name four) … you’re losing that bet.

Your other option: wager on EVERYONE ELSE to win the title at +120. You read that correctly. The Super-Warriors have turned the other 29 teams into “the field.”

(You know what else that means? LeBron James — the third-best basketball player ever, the leader of our defending champs, the captain of the NBA’s most expensive roster and the superhuman battering ram who toppled a seemingly invincible Warriors squad just four months ago — has now been relegated to “the field.” Hold this thought.)

The team-by-team odds to win 2017’s title are even stranger:

Warriors: -150
Cavaliers: +325
Spurs: 6–1
Celtics: 20–1
Clippers: 20–1
Thunder: 30–1
Raptors: 40–1

We can get 20-to-1 odds on the NBA’s fourth- and fifth-best teams? For comparison’s sake, here are the Super Bowl odds right now:

Patriots: 5–2
Seahawks: 6–1
Vikings: 6–1
Cowboys: 10–1
Steelers: 12–1
Cardinals: 12–1
Packers: 12–1
Broncos: 16–1
Falcons: 20–1
Chiefs: 20–1
Raiders: 25–1
Washington: 30–1
Bills: 40–1
Texans: 40–1

To recap:

• Our fourth- and fifth-best NBA teams have the same title odds as the Falcons and Andy Reid.

• Our sixth-best NBA team has the same odds as Daniel Snyder and Kirk Cousins.

• Our seventh-best NBA team has the same odds as Rex Ryan and Brock Osweiler.

THIS IS NOT GOOD. San Antonio’s backcourt isn’t nearly talented enough to steal a title. The Always Flawed Clippers are always a little too flawed. It’s not happening for Boston, Toronto or OKC. Cross everyone else off. We’re out of teams. What now? It looks like a nine-month wait until the Cavs-Warriors Finals Trilogy peaks with one more superfight — the Cavs as Ali, the Warriors as Frazier, and eight months of Everyone Else as the undercard.

On the other hand … what an undercard! We get Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns and President Stevens and the Process and Greek Freak and Boogie and Dwightlanta and Old Man Dirk and Westbrook Triple-Doubles and the Baby Lakers and a rejuvenated Kevin Love and Thibs yelling “ICE!” and everything else. And it’s not like this Finals is done-done. Remember, it’s been 31 years since everyone stared at an NBA season and said, “Oh, this is gonna be boring … we already know the Finals matchup.”

Guess what happened. We wrote Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers into the ’86 Finals with a nonerasable Sharpie, expecting their version of the Manila fight for the championship. And then something wacky happened. As the Lakers pulled their team bus into the Finals driveway, the Rockets came roaring out of nowhere, cut them off and forced them into a tree. Trust me, the Lakers got their asses kicked. They couldn’t keep Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson off the boards. Those two made Kareem look like he was 200 years old. The whole thing was astonishing.

Repeat these three words with me: YOU. NEVER. KNOW.

Durant and Westbrook were supposed to own this decade. The Shaqobe Lakers were supposed to win eight titles. Miami was supposed to kill Dallas in 2011. Nobody saw the 1977 Blazers or 2004 Pistons or 2011 Mavericks coming. Nobody saw Hakeem winning two straight titles. Everyone wrote off the 1969 and 1976 Celtics. Nobody saw LeBron sneaking into the 2007 Finals, or Iverson sneaking in there in 2001. The NBA has an especially delightful history of surprising us when we least expect it.

And if it ends up being Cleveland and Golden State again, so be it. Seven years ago, I spent an entire chapter in my NBA book explaining why Jordan was the best player ever. I promised that I would never waver from that opinion.

I’m wavering.

The first 13 years of LeBron’s career were better than the first 13 years of anyone else’s career: four MVP awards, three titles, three Finals MVPs, six straight Finals, nine straight first-team All-NBAs, one iconic comeback, one vanquished curse, and a truly staggering level of durability and consistency.

The man has played 199 of 199 possible playoff games. He has logged nearly 47,000 minutes including the playoffs, more than anyone through their first 13 years except Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He has never suffered a major injury. He’s slapped up 27–7–7 so many times that there’s been an internet push to name that stat line after him. (How many LeBrons will Westbrook get this year? Like, 50?) We’re decades away from worrying about artificial intelligence basketball players, but when one finally sneaks into the league, it will probably be modeled after LeBron and everything he’s done.

And if LeBron were to start sliding now, satiated by Cleveland’s first major sports title since 1964, worn down by those 47,000 minutes and that incomprehensible burden … I mean, would you hold it against him? He’s one of the five best players ever. Any “Who’s your greatest starting five?” argument has to include Jordan, LeBron, Bird, Magic and Pick-Any-HOF-Center. Jordan will always best him in hot-take categories like …

“Ceiling of Peak Performance”

“Clutch Gene”

“Willingness to Embrace Male-pattern Baldness”

“Signature Moment”

“Force of Personality”

… but what LeBron achieved in those last three and a quarter Finals games — starting with the way he shrewdly goaded Draymond into an idiotic suspension — had a greater collective degree of difficulty than any Jordan accomplishment. It’s true.

Already blessed by a genius basketball brain and the most daunting array of physical gifts ever crammed into a perimeter player, LeBron had one other blessing — circumstance. It’s the only curse of Jordan’s career, unless you count Brad Sellers. From 1988 to 1993, MJ hijacked the league from Bird and Magic, buried the Showtime Lakers, destroyed the Bad Boy Pistons, denied Barkley’s Suns and completely broke his only kinda-sorta-maybe challenger (poor Clyde Drexler). After the 1993 Finals, Michael Jordan was competing against one guy: Michael Jordan. We’ll never know why the most maniacally competitive basketball player of all time decided to WALK THE FUCK AWAY at the peak of his powers, but all these years later, the only acceptable explanations look like this:

1. Suspended on the down low by David Stern for his gambling foibles
2. Worn down by multiple years of unprecedented media attention
3. Shattered emotionally by his father’s tragic murder
4. Didn’t have a challenger to push him

And look, it might have been a combination of three of those reasons. Or maybe even all of them. But I’d bet on the fourth reason over the other three. Last October, I did a panel at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit with John McEnroe, my favorite tennis player ever and someone I had always been dying to meet. We spent an hour talking in the greenroom, another hour on stage, then two more hours in the car and on the airplane. It was the best podcast that I never recorded.

You know what struck me more than anything? Nearly 32 years after Bjorn Borg had abruptly retired from tennis, McEnroe STILL hadn’t gotten over it. Borg brought the absolute best out of him. He thought about Borg every time he didn’t want to wake up, every time he didn’t feel like training, every time he didn’t want to hit balls for another 15 minutes. He needed Borg. It wasn’t just about winning majors and getting that no. 1 ranking for McEnroe … it was about that next time he played the laconic, long-haired Swede. He measured himself as an athlete against Borg and Borg only. That’s what drove him.

Their rivalry flipped in 1981, when Johnny Mac defeated Borg at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, both times in the finals, inadvertently sending the Swede into a tailspin. Within a few months, Borg had vanished from tennis forever. Poof. We never realized at the time that Borg was taking McEnroe’s tennis ceiling with him. Connors and Lendl couldn’t inspire McEnroe the same way. Neither could the no. 1 ranking. The ultimate tortured artist, Johnny Mac couldn’t figure out a good reason to torture himself anymore. He drifted through the next three years, winning three more majors when he should have won six or seven. By 1985, he was kicking back in Malibu with his new girlfriend, Tatum O’Neal, wondering why he didn’t feel like playing tennis anymore. Then he vanished like Borg. For a solid year. And he never won another major.

Could that be what happened to Jordan? And could that be what prolonged LeBron’s prime? Since turning 21, LeBron had Sheed’s Pistons pushing him, then KG’s Celtics, Kobe’s Lakers, Cleveland’s curse, the Decision fallout, all the Miami hate, Durant and Westbrook, Duncan’s Spurs, the Cleveland return (and the promises he made), the 73-win Warriors … it just never stopped, and that’s not including sports radio, hot-take shows, sports blogs, Twitter replies, and every other mechanism that drives a competitor these days. Annoyed for months that everyone wouldn’t stop celebrating Curry’s Warriors, LeBron admitted after Game 7 that he’d kept listening to Jay Z’s “A Star Is Born” for motivation. You know, the song with lyrics like:

“I’m the blueprint, I’m like the map for ’em.”

“I am one of one, can’t you see just how long my run.”

It’s something Jordan would have done, too. But by 1993, Jordan had run out of reasons to be annoyed. He drifted to the Birmingham Barons, battled the Mendoza Line for six months, then drifted back to basketball in time for the 1995 playoffs. A young and hungry Magic team was waiting for him. For the first time, someone embarrassed Michael Jordan in a playoff series. And by the summer of 1995, Jordan was properly annoyed again. He spent the next three years getting his revenge. On everyone. But he needed two years of suffering to get there.

LeBron James needed about three weeks — by July, the Basketball Gods gave him the Super-Warriors and what he calls “the Ghost of MJ” to keep him hungry. It’s always something, and in a way, it’s been the luckiest piece of his career. After the 1998 Finals, Jordan retired again because he didn’t have anything left to prove. He assumed that walk-off homer in Utah had clinched GOAT status forever. He left the door open — just a little. LeBron sees it, and over everything else, it’s the best thing about a league that’s in the best shape of its life. Michael Jordan never saw LeBron James coming.