The NBA playoffs keep moving on without LeBron James for the first time in more than a decade. There are no tales of his last-second heroics or massive scoring outbursts, and he doesn’t have some stacked, Heatles-like squad marching towards the finals or another underdog story like the one his squad in Cleveland pulled off a few years back. LeBron is somewhere — possibly a mansion out west or a private island in the middle of an ocean — but it isn’t playing for the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
Is this the new normal for James as he winds down his career in the Los Angeles sun?
While it’s tough to determine how well the 34-year-old and the Lakers would have fared in the postseason had they made it given how poorly the team played throughout during the season, the playoffs do seem a bit empty without King James out there competing for the NBA’s championship crown. Fans apparently feel that way; viewership of the playoffs was down 18 percent after the second weekend of playoff games across TNT, ABC, ESPN and NBA TV. That could have something to do with the fact that the first round was pretty much exactly what everybody expected, but it does point to a looming issue.
The low postseason numbers come after a regular season where ratings where down 4 percent in general, at least partially in part because LeBron and the Lakers were not as relevant and on as early in the night as he was while playing in the Eastern Conference, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the author of the new book LeBron, Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete,
Given that, before the playoffs even began, Windhorst was unsure how many people would be tuning in.
“I think the recipe is there for some great basketball and we have rising stars in players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to huge interest,” he tells InsideHook. “It could be a step back. LeBron has been so good for the league for his whole career and especially this past decade has been amazing, but it had to end sometime. Whether it ended this year or in two years, you have to pass the baton. And now it’s time for that to happen. We’ll see how that goes. The NBA has successfully passed the baton for decades.”
Interestingly enough, while that baton pass may happen naturally on the court, James’ effort to make Antetokounmpo more of a household name by putting him in Space Jam 2 when filming starts this summer was rejected by the 24-year-old Greek Freak.
Unfortunately for James, similar rejections could be coming this summer when he attempts to get free agents like Kevin Durant or Kemba Walker to sign with the Lakers.
“It’s difficult to get star players to do anything. Those guys have their own plans, own agendas, things like that,” Windhorst believes. “I think there is this expectation LeBron is going to sit in people’s living rooms on the recruiting trail and get them to sign with the Lakers and that’s going to be really hard. He hasn’t even been able to get all his first choices for the movie and that’s just a few weeks work in, you know, a movie. The point is, recruiting stars at the highest level is hard. It’s hard when you are trying to make a movie and it’s really hard when you are trying to build a superstar team.”
Also, with other destination teams such as the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets expected to have plenty of cap room, the Lakers may not be as desirable as James thought they’d be when he signed in L.A. last offseason.
“In this particular landscape, there are a lot of great options out there for free agents to sign this summer,” Windhorst says. “Not everybody wants to come in and play second-fiddle. I don’t think it’s a character judgment, it’s just reality of how difficult it is to team build.”
That reality could throw a wrench into James’ dream scenario for both his team and his forthcoming movie.
“In their dream plan, the Lakers will be coming off the NBA Finals in 2021 — maybe with Anthony Davis or maybe someone else — and LeBron will have won the championship,” Windhorst says. “In their ideal plan, LeBron wins with the Lakers, they have the parade and Space Jam 2 opens two weeks later [in July 2021]. I think that would be their grand plan. Not all plans come together. If they get a big star in the offseason and make the conference finals or the finals next year, it creates an awesome comeback story that ends up being a wonderful narrative turn. I just don’t know if that’s going to end up being the case. I do not think the plan was to miss the playoffs.”
And, despite already having a net worth of more than $450 million, how the movie does upon its release does is important to James because, in addition to walking in his Airness’ sneaker-steps by starring in a Space Jam film, James also wants to emulate his childhood idol by someday joining the ranks of NBA ownership (Jordan is a part-owner of the Charlotte Hornets), at least partially.
“I do think Jordan plays a role but I think it’s part of a bigger strategy to have equity and not be an employee,” Windhorst says. “I do think he wants to elevate his stature and also I think he sees it as something he can do as an African-American, to ascend to those heights and act as an example to others.”
And that goal, owning an NBA team, may be worth more to James at this point in his career than another championship ring after he was able to bring a title to his home state in 2016.
“That championship in Cleveland was so incredibly satisfying, not only that he won but also the way that it happened, that it kind of gave him a blank check,” Windhorst says. “It’s not that what happens in L.A. isn’t important, but he feels he has already checked the boxes in his career. He’s referenced that a little but basically, to use a tired cliche, this is all icing at this point. He’s fulfilled all his debts and what he does now is for him. I think it would have been hard for him to go that route if he didn’t have that championship [with the Cavs].”
Regardless, get your popcorn ready for free-agency this summer (and summer 2021 when Space Jam 2 is out).