In 1993, Michael Jordan, following a third straight NBA championship, declared “I don’t have anything else to prove.” Jordan retired, wandered off to baseball, failed to reach the majors, and returned to the Bulls after two years. The NBA had changed while he was away, and, for the first time, Jordan faced doubters. Now 32, he looked like he had lost a step. His first season back ended with his first postseason embarrassment, courtesy of the Orlando Magic. Meanwhile, Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to a second straight title and was widely considered the game’s most dominant force. Jordan was no longer the undisputed best player in the league, and the Bulls could no longer be considered the best team.
What ensued was a three-year MJ revenge tour—three more titles and two more MVPs. The silverware was a product of the work: Jordan busted his ass during the summer of 1995, gaining eight pounds of muscle and playing nightly pickup with other stars of the time. And he did it all while filming Space Jam.
Part of the pleasure of learning NBA history is watching it repeat itself. In this case, it’s like the basketball gods plagiarized themselves to write the LeBron James story. LeBron said he didn’t have “anything left to prove” back in 2017, but he kept playing. He made a controversial if understandable move to the West Coast to play for the Lakers and proceeded to have the most disappointing season of his career, missing the playoffs for the first time since he was 20 years old. He’s 34, with a lot of miles on his body—56,284 minutes in his career, more than any player ever through their first 16 years, including the playoffs. He showed wear and tear last season, suffering a groin injury that kept him to a career-low 55 games. For the first time this decade, LeBron failed to nab the top spot on either the ESPN or Sports Illustrated player rankings for this upcoming season. He is no longer the undisputed best player in the league, and no longer is his team the clear Finals favorite. That’s why LeBron found something to prove for his self-described “revenge season.” He spent the summer recharging his body, working hard, and playing pickup with teammates. And he did it all while filming Space Jam 2.
LeBron could retire today and be considered, at worst, the second-best player in the history of basketball, with a career featuring an average of 27-7-7, 15 All-NBA team honors, nine Finals appearances, four league MVPs, three Finals MVPs, two titles in Miami, and one title and one broken curse in Cleveland. But Jordan found a way to give more when there was nothing more to prove. Now it’s LeBron’s chance to do the same. There’s some doubt about whether he can pull it off. Age and health are real concerns. LeBron is entering uncharted territory for a player with his number of miles, and the groin injury he suffered is the first notable muscle injury of his otherwise miraculously durable career. Not every legend is blessed with good health into their 40s. For every Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a Larry Bird. It’s only natural you slow down as you get older. And in basketball years, LeBron is in his twilight.
The doubt contributes to the drama. The generational face of the league is facing mortality, attempting to extend his dominance. Will he fade away as the young stars he influenced begin to take control? Can he lead the Lakers back to glory? Will King James lose his crown or take back the throne?
Tampering charges and the ensuing front-office drama made the Lakers an easy team to joke about earlier this summer. For a stretch they were the league’s punch line. But now they have LeBron and Anthony Davis, and it doesn’t really matter if they stumbled, sprinted, cart-wheeled, or belly-flopped into such a dominant duo. They’ve got the best pairing in the league; joke’s on us.
About that duo. The game is about to get a lot easier for Anthony Davis; LeBron could lose a few steps and still be the best player that Davis has ever played with. And LeBron has never had a target like AD, who can pop for 3s, roll down the lane for thunderous dunks, or catch a pass and create for himself. Davis has never ranked worse than the 83rd percentile in scoring efficiency since entering the league in 2012, and now LeBron will be creating shots for him. There isn’t another combination of superstars with more complementary strengths, and they have the right teammates around them to make their jobs easier.
Los Angeles surrounds James and Davis with competent shooters (Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Troy Daniels), experienced veterans (Rajon Rondo, Jared Dudley, and Dwight Howard), and a high-upside player (Kyle Kuzma). It’s similar to the recipe that LeBron followed during his second stint in Cleveland, where he led some of the most potent offenses in league history. Tristan Thompson was James’s pick-and-roll partner. Now, it’s AD, who scored a ludicrous 1.4 points per possession when rolling to the rim, according to Synergy. The Lakers have enough quality shooters that opposing teams can’t help off the perimeter to pressure LeBron or AD without running the risk of allowing an open 3 or a driving opportunity. It might be hard to believe, but Green is the best wing player AD has ever played with because of his shooting and his excellent defense.
What separates this Lakers roster from LeBron’s offense-heavy teams in Cleveland is its potential on the defensive end. It’s largely thanks to Davis, who said it’s his goal to win Defensive Player of the Year this season. He is a shot-blocking vacuum in the paint and nimble on the perimeter. He’ll have help too. Green is one of the league’s better wing defenders. Bradley can harass point guards. Dudley, Caldwell-Pope, and LeBron (when he applies himself) are also solid defenders. There are teams with more continuity (the Nuggets), teams with younger stars (the Bucks), and teams with better depth (the Clippers), but the Lakers have quality depth, and they paired the league’s best big with the generation’s best player. If LeBron is still LeBron, the Lakers will be awesome.
What if he’s not? What-ifs loom over this Lakers team in a way they don’t over franchises with dimmer spotlights. AD might not stay healthy. There could be chemistry problems. A rival team—one in the same city, say—could be better. But whether LeBron’s career ends with more heroics or valiant efforts, a sudden ending, or a slow walk into the sunset, his legacy has been established. Just look at other players across the league; his fingerprints are all over the game.
The NBA underwent a seismic change as the ’80s turned to the ’90s: Bird and Magic Johnson were fading away, but their success paved the way for a star like Jordan to emerge. Jordan took the game to a new level, made it a global industry, and inspired a generation of scorers like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and, yes, LeBron.
When LeBron entered the league in 2003, traditional positional roles were strict. Nearly every lineup featured two big guys, with one small guy who handled the ball. LeBron was instrumental in ripping up that blueprint. There were larger players who handled the ball such as Magic Johnson, but nobody was as athletic, as skilled, or as smart as LeBron was. Today, the league’s rising stars are littered with jumbo-sized, skilled players. Giannis Antetokounmpo is like LeBron without the jumper, and he just won MVP. Ben Simmons and Luka Doncic won the past two Rookie of the Year awards. Simmons brings the dynamic blend of size and auto-aim passing vision. Doncic has LeBron’s computer brain. Zion Williamson is the favorite to win the award this year, and he’s an otherworldly athletic rookie arriving to the league with unfathomable hype, much like LeBron.
LeBron is the patriarch of the unicorn generation. More are on the way, names that you may not know today but someday will, like Emoni Bates, a projected top pick in 2022 or 2023, and Deni Avdija, a top prospect in 2020. Big guys with all-around skill sets are becoming the norm, just like scorers who created their shots using silky-smooth moves off the dribble were as Jordan was nearing the end.
The difference is that the game is far more global than it was when Jordan was in his prime. The next faces of the league come from around the world. Giannis is a Greek-born son of Nigerian immigrants. Luka comes from Slovenia and played in Spain. Simmons is Australian. They are all young. They are all on intriguing teams with a chance to contend either now or in the near future. There may not yet be a singular force on the horizon, but LeBron’s disciples can continue to collectively grow the game worldwide.
LeBron will define this coming season no matter what happens. Young stars whose games he helped shape are on the rise, vying to accomplish their own goals and, in the process, become the next face of the league. The Lakers are championship contenders, but LeBron’s performance will determine whether they can fulfill their promise. “It’s a battle within your mind … to go to that same place that you’ve been five times before,” Jordan said in 1998 before winning his sixth championship. Jordan found the motivation he needed. Now LeBron must do the same. To catch the ghost of Michael Jordan, LeBron James must win the battle within.