After a lost cause of a season, LeBron James holds the NBA in the palm of his hand again, regaining his foothold as an MVP candidate on a title contender and reestablishing himself as the undisputed face of the league. The four-time Most Valuable Player never really lost that moniker, of course, even as an injury sent his Los Angeles Lakers spiraling into the lottery, because he was still the center of most NBA conversations.
Did joining the Lakers, whose fans will always hold Kobe Bryant in higher regard, taint his legacy? What does his move West mean for NBA ratings? Can he still win with a supporting cast he threw under the bus? Will he successfully recruit Anthony Davis? Can he still win with Davis and a supporting cast who hopped on the bandwagon? How does he feel about China’s authoritarian rule and the protests in Hong Kong?
Barring the rise of an unforeseen shadow, this will remain the case until LeBron retires. He has said on multiple occasions that he would like to stick around long enough to face or play alongside his son Bronny in the NBA. Those close to him have reportedly said “they can see him playing until he’s 40 years old.” Both are a handful of seasons away, which would fall in line with a new contract for Davis, who has helped rejuvenate LeBron in a way that convinces you he can legitimately headline the NBA well into next decade.
But who will assume the reins once LeBron rides into a Santa Monica sunset? His exit could leave a void unseen since Michael Jordan’s second retirement, and even then Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant waited in the wings. Since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird elevated the NBA’s popularity in the 1980s, there has been a fairly smooth succession line among players with the cache to carry a billion-dollar entertainment business as an all-time great multi-champion with the persona to match, from Jordan to Shaq and Kobe to LeBron.
For all we know, LeBron might pass that torch right to Bronny. But let’s consider the more likely candidates who might help prevent the NBA’s current ratings decline from becoming an epidemic in an on-demand era.
Over the past two decades, the face of the NBA has been someone whose greatness and charisma engenders millions to take up either side of a polarizing argument over whether he stacks up against his predecessors. Shaq was just bigger than everybody else. Kobe couldn’t win without Shaq, he didn’t pass, and may have done much worse. LeBron was too passive, not clutch enough, and needed a super-team. And so on. Mostly, we just argue about why they can’t win the big one, until they do, and then we argue about why they’re not as good as the last guy, all while millions of loyalists rightfully tell us we’re dumb.
So, who will that guy be come 2025 or so?
Woulda, shoulda, coulda been faces of the NBA
Kevin Durant always seemed like the logical successor, but it is unclear if he ever wanted to be the face of a league for which he holds some contempt, much like his Brooklyn Nets teammate, Kyrie Irving. Besides, Durant will be 37 then, and we don’t even know what he will look like when he returns from Achilles surgery.
Stephen Curry looked the part when he followed his first MVP season with the unanimous campaign, but he and his Golden State Warriors have already lost some of that luster, and he too is approaching his mid-30s.
James Harden is as polarizing as anyone in recent memory and probably the best scorer since Jordan. (Sorry, Kobe stans.) He certainly has left us wondering whether his style of manufacturing points can translate into playoff success. But, again, his beard may be graying by the time LeBron hangs up his Nikes.
What about Kawhi Leonard? He is already a two-time champion and Finals MVP, and if he ever gets there again with a third team, his legacy will belong in the pantheon. He could still be in his prime, so long as his quadricep does not deteriorate by then, but his brand is built around being the anti-marketable superstar.
Might Davis succeed his teammate as the preeminent player on the NBA’s preeminent franchise? He is somehow still only 26 years old, ready to join an elite class of bigs, and will presumably ride shotgun on the LeBron hype machine in front of national TV audiences for the next five years. Yet, for all his talk of building a brand in L.A. and being the CEO of his own business, his unibrow has been his most marketable trait.
Ben Simmons was billed as the next LeBron, but he has been overshadowed both on and off the court by Philadelphia 76ers teammate Joel Embiid, billed as the next Hakeem Olajuwon. Simmons may still evolve into a transcendent talent, but we have seen little progress toward that end. Embiid has flashed both the personality and talent to be the NBA’s top billing, but both acts look a little tired this season amid career-long injury and stamina concerns. It is hard to imagine either ascending on his own, and while it would be fun to see them share the throne, we already have our concerns about the partnership’s staying power.
Many players are bound for perennial All-Stardom — Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Trae Young and Ja Morant, off the top of my head — all of whom seem better suited as supporting actors in a blockbuster drama starring The Next Face of the NBA.
Surely, more will emerge, some of whom are still playing in high school right now, but three candidates with all-time potential as players and personalities currently stand out above the rest as torchbearers.
And the nominees for Next Face of the NBA are ...
Unfortunately, we have yet to see one of them play in the NBA. Injuries have sidelined New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson for all but nine minutes of his summer league debut and four preseason games after he emerged as the most anticipated No. 1 overall pick since LeBron in 2003. A torn right lateral meniscus has so far kept him from the regular season. He is still weeks away from a return, and even then his load will be managed, all of which raises concerns about his ability to sustain what makes him great.
It is Williamson’s high-flying act at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds that first captured our imagination, and his engaging personality that made it acceptable for a nation to embrace a (gasp) Duke University star. What little we saw of him in the preseason suggested it would all translate to the NBA. He averaged 23.3 points on 71 percent shooting, along with 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in just 27.2 minutes per game.
It is hard enough to project the face of the league five years from now, and Williamson’s three knee injuries since February raise more questions beyond the fact that he has not appeared on an NBA court in earnest.
Which leaves us with two contenders, both of whom are perfect fits for the NBA’s pursuit of global domination: Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Future MVP Luka Doncic. What better way to counter a U.S. ratings decline than two international superstars who can draw fans the world over?
The talent is there, obviously. Antetokounmpo is averaging 31 points (on 57 percent shooting), 13 rebounds, 5.5 assists and three combined blocks and steals in just 32 minutes per game, better than any statistical season Shaq submitted, and an ever-improving 3-point shot leaves plenty of room to grow. Meanwhile, Doncic is averaging close to a 30-point triple-double, better than any 20-year-old ever, including LeBron.
They also have the personality. Antetokounmpo is as likable a superstar as we have ever seen. Doncic is growing into an increasingly entertaining sense of self. Both are fierce and flashy competitors on the court.
It would be awfully entertaining to see them blossom into a rivalry along the lines of Bird vs. Magic, with multiple Finals meetings and a decade’s worth of rings between them, but there are several obstacles standing in their way. Magic and Bird entered the NBA with the shared history of the 1979 NCAA title game. They landed in Los Angeles and Boston at the same time, not Dallas and Milwaukee five years apart.
Antetokounmpo is just now celebrating his 25th birthday, and Doncic does not turn 21 until February 28, an age gap almost twice that of Bird and Magic. Barring injuries, Giannis will be north of 30 in 2025, squarely in his prime, and Luka will be just entering his, two frightening thoughts at this stage of the game and maybe a point in Luka’s favor as a more likely LeBron successor. (And we already know both by their first names!)
The Greek Freak and Slovenian sensation could offset some of the Bird vs. Magic aura that formed before they even entered the league — and only increased with each winning titles in their first two seasons — by also meeting multiple times around the world in high-profile FIBA and Olympic competitions over the years.
Both are in the honeymoon stages of their stardom, even if Giannis is already hearing some of the ring and future free agency talk that follows the greats, but if they really want to be the next faces of the NBA, we are going to need a little bad blood between them, the sort we never really got from Kobe and LeBron. They first meet this season a week from Monday and not again until March 29. Here is to a rivalry in the making.
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