The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
Don’t you worry. LeBron James knows he’s staring it down.
Entering his 14th season, LBJ is hardly the oldest player working in the league he’s dominated for a decade now. Still, he’s just one of 12 active players from his 2003 draft class still playing, with one fighting for his career, another running the Lakers, and several others hoping for one final contract to line up before retirement hits.
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With the spring and summertime farewells to Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in place, not a whole lot remains. Paul Pierce is on his last wheelchair, and Vince Carter already has his NBA TV tribute feature acting as offseason programming fodder. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker could have walked away long ago, and Amar’e Stoudemire made it NBA-official in July. Chris Paul was grizzled from the word “go,” Dirk Nowitzki currently straddles the movement between “bit” and “beast” player, while Elton Brand is only around to teach his Philadelphia 76ers teammates how a Discman works.
(When I first used that joke, it was at the fin de siècle, and it concerned Charles Oakley and a phonograph. Around that time, LeBron James was just starting to play nearly each and every second of his AAU games.)
LeBron turns 32 just before the end of this calendar year. Unlike his other preps-to-pros contemporaries, he never sat games in favor of Eddie Jones, Christian Laettner, Walt Williams or Antonio Harvey. James averaged 39.5 minutes per game as a rookie teenager, and he’s worked the equivalent of 2 1/2 extra seasons in playoff basketball alone – at 42 minutes a game, against enhanced competition. To say nothing of the overseas competition in the summer.
He is not old, but he is also not normal. Unique in 18-year-old rookie terms, just as much so while three months removed from 32.
The elimination from view of Duncan, KG and Kobe only narrows the focus. James talked about as much at the outset of training camp:
“It feels like our era is next,” James said Tuesday. “That’s what it feels like. Me, [Dwyane] Wade, [Carmelo Anthony], [Chris] Bosh. We’re next. We’re on deck. We’re the next group behind those guys. I mean seriously, if you look at it, we’re the next group. So that’s one of the first things that I thought about, like, once Dirk [Nowitzki], and Vince [Carter], and Paul Pierce decide to go, we’re next. You just don’t take it for granted. Every time we come out here, we talk to you guys, step out on the floor, we’re going to play this game, we love it, but we’re on deck.”
“We’re next up in line,” he said. “We’ve given the game all we can give. We’re the next crew, so it definitely makes you reflect on everything and you don’t take anything for granted. I never do, but in my career I’ve always been like, ‘Man, this is an unbelievable moment I’ve been put in.’ I try to give as much as I can. But we on deck.”
Multi-sport analogies rarely work, as LeBron, Wade, Melo and Bosh truly were “on deck” once they started to make playoff noise in 2005 and 2006. Dwyane made it to the Eastern finals in that first year before winning a title in the second. Anthony seemed safely ensconced in Denver under George Karl and alongside several suitable veteran teammates. Bosh capably handled the selling of salted crops with the Raptors when Carter forced his way out of Toronto for next-to-no compensation during his second season.
James? He wasn’t handed much by way of teammates or support, and his playoff fortunes suffered as a result. No wonder he overreached in his giddy “Decision” turn in 2010 (and the embarrassing 2009-10 showcase season that preceded it).
“On deck” for retirement, however, is apt.
Wade’s haughty offseason move to Chicago this offseason was widely ridiculed, while the whole of discussion in New York over the last year has centered on just how the 30-something Carmelo Anthony will attempt to squeeze some near-prime years into Kristaps Porzingis’ pre-prime seasons. Bosh, meanwhile, is just fighting to return to an NBA court this season or next.
This isn’t to say that the NBA is without star power. Far from it.
When Michael Jordan retired from the NBA for the second time in 1999, then-commissioner David Stern had to list Vin Baker as one of the four or five NBA stars that the league’s fans would have the pleasure of watching in MJ’s absence. Even if James had walked away from the game this summer following the realization of his promise to bring a title to northern Ohio, the league’s culture is still lousy with boffo talent, and personality. Remember: LeBron James hasn’t actually won an MVP award since 2012-13.
That cannot fully be blamed on voter fatigue, as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry enjoyed outstanding seasons in the years since LeBron hoisted the award. Charles Barkley (in 1993) and Karl Malone (in 1997) did the same when they were chosen over Jordan for MVP, but then as now, those results seem dubious in a way that Curry and Kevin’s candidacies just did and will not.
Of course, Michael never had to battle Hakeem Olajuwon (though he was selected in the same draft class) in his prime for the award, nor Duncan, by virtue of his retirements in 1993 and after the 1997-98 season. James stuck it out through times when he could have demanded a break, as Jordan so badly needed after his unprecedented workload and ubiquity became too much to deal with on a year-to-year basis.
“It’s a personal goal. I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”
It should be, but only a handful in NBA history have both the talent and support system (as this remains a team game) to lend credibility toward such a chase. As such, LeBron will have a chance to follow through on what eluded both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the remaining superstars who dominated the NBA’s lean years in terms of popularity following Jordan’s 1999 retirement.
Duncan, constantly acclimating his game in ways that the stubborn-as-all-hell (to a detriment, several times) O’Neal and Bryant refused to, came the closest to trading steel with that ghost. However, during what should have been his prime years and during what was his finest team season in 2004-05, Duncan listened as San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich instituted a limited minutes project.
It helped Duncan play until 2016, working as the lead force on a 67-win team. Save for a knee twinge midway through 2015-16, it would have led to another season and possibly more.
It also led to career averages of “just” 19 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks per game. Forcing those who paid attention to forever argue Duncan’s place amongst the greats in favor of those with bigger stats and more accessible offensive numbers.
LeBron, working off of Popovich’s (in-person) influence, took a step back of sorts in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Following a bit of a laugh-fest at his expense early in 2015-16 (working for a team that had yet to win a championship), the Cavs superstar reversed course. He pushed to play more minutes and play most games, even with his team’s standing in the East mostly assured and with Golden State and San Antonio having run away with the best records in the league.
“That’s just not, that ain’t me.”
“I’m not a 31-, 32-minute guy.”
This came after James averaged 45.7 minutes, 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals in nearly-singlehandedly dragging an injured Cavaliers team toward a championship during the 2015 Finals.
Tim Duncan, at age 32, was a 33.7-minute guy. LeBron, after playing deep into June every season from 2011 through 2016 (and, presumably, 2017)?
We’ll see. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue will see to it:
“I’ve looked at the schedule,” Lue said Wednesday. “Just seeing what makes sense and what’s smart when playing four-in-five type of nights. Can’t run our guys into the ground. We have to be smart, understand we have to take care of our bodies and take care of our key guys. Make sure that when we get to the playoffs we’re ready to go.”
James responded like the sort of guy who understands that he’s been the center of the NBA’s attention for 13 years now, while working up those big minutes. He responded as a competitor, and someone who also understands that (as has been the case since high school) when he travels to some far-flung land (say, Arizona), a goodly chunk of the paying public will be there just to see him.
“I try to make myself available for my teammates every night, and I think I’ve had some pretty good coaches over the last few years, with Erik Spoelstra my last couple years there [in Miami] and now Coach Lue has done a great job of just trying to help me take care of my body,” James said, “because I’m very stubborn when it comes to wanting to play.”
Training camp talk goes both ways. Coaches from 1-through-30 build up the ideal of their team running pell-mell “random” sets and pushing the ball, but that sort of September talk tends to fly out the window after two bad possessions in a row during the first week of November. From there, the coach is suddenly calling plays off of offensive rebounds.
Tramping down to Tim Duncan Town would seem sensible, but this also means actually signing off on plopping LeBron James on the bench, in street clothes, in full view of either home or road fans that have a vested (and rather dear) interest in watching him play even those Duncan-styled 33 minutes a night. It’s hard to convince players to pass on suiting up after they’ve come all this way, even if “all this way” means driving through snow toward the home arena on a game night.
It’s something else entirely to convince a player to stay home on the road end of a back-to-back. The camaraderie and chance to be part of something bigger than themselves is what just about every NBA legend (save for psychos like MJ and Kobe) say they miss the most upon retirement. Imagine pulling James off the tarmac just before a trip to Philly, just because that’s night’s win over the Pacers took a little longer than expected to conclude?
Luckily, the absence of the Duncan/Garnett/Bryant triptych won’t force James into waving any placards outside of NBA arenas this season. Fans weren’t tuning in to watch those three during their 2015-16 farewells, and the league’s preponderance of nationally televised stars even makes staying in to listen to Mark Jackson on a Friday or Saturday night a worthwhile experience.
The teenage case remains, though.
LeBron James is both personally and professionally (by those of us that expect him to answer to his potential) charged with chasing Michael Jordan down, and he’s expected to provide entertainment as a top-billed performer regardless of how his team’s final act runs out on a near-nightly basis. This has been the case since 2003.
He’s also expected to mind his minutes yet again, knowing weeks before Halloween that he will be expected to be at his best some eight months later while chasing Kevin Durant around the court for 40-odd minutes.
It’s a beastly set of standards. And yet, somehow, only LeBron James seems fit to be up for the challenge.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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