By Jason Keidel
It’s hard to think of another endeavor we follow more fervently and fickly than sports.
Consider the NBA playoffs. Just a week ago, we were ready to crown the Philadelphia 76ers as the new lords of the Eastern Conference. And we had LeBron James with one foot in the playoff grave and the other in free agency, booking a Learjet to Los Angeles. Or was is Houston? Or San Antonio?
Yet here we are, with the injury-addled Boston Celtics whipping the young Sixers, up 3-0 in the conference semifinals. And in the other semis, LeBron is being LeBron, a one-man dynasty, literally shouldering the talent-poor Cavaliers to a 3-0 over the Toronto Raptors, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Even by his historic standards, King James is having an out-of-body postseason experience.
If history is our main metric, then Boston and Cleveland are playing in the conference finals, as the teams that jump up 3-0 in such series are 129-0. (Not to mention the Raptors have lost nine-straight playoff games to the Cavs.) While it’s a juicy narrative to see Cleveland play Boston, to see the team Kyrie Irving fled from play the team he fled to, it loses some sizzle since he’s injured for the rest of the postseason. Even still, maxims abound.
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No matter how many years we live, playoffs we watch, and the lessons they convey, we are eternal prisoners of the moment. Even Stephen A. Smith, NBA insider nonpareil, had the 76ers surging through the East — and King James — on the way to the NBA Finals after they gutted the gutty Miami Heat. And our fingers were itching with anticipation, ready to write LeBron’s Cleveland epitaph, perhaps replete with another round of jersey burnings, despite what he’s given Ohio since his return from his basketball spring break in Miami.
In most sports — but particularly pro basketball — there is a process by which teams mature and then conquer. The Lakers had to overcome the Celtics. The Pistons had to overcome the Lakers. Jordan’s Bulls had to climb over the Pistons. And so on. So while Philly’s “Process” — once the biggest joke in basketball — has become the accidental standard of the sport, they are still too young and playoff dumb to make the quantum leap Mr. Smith so eagerly projected this month.
And there’s another sports truism that’s cloaking a larger, more vital narrative. We get bored too quickly and easily. Whether it’s music or movies or museums, we are always looking for the next thing, often ignoring the unmitigated greatness before us.
Case in point — we’re so sick of LeBron James being the best player in the world, we’re eagerly and recklessly looking for his replacement. First it was Stephen Curry, who won NBA MVP, then it was Kevin Durant, who won MVP of the NBA Finals over LeBron despite playing for an exponentially better ball club. Then it was playoff neophyte Ben Simmons after his breakout performance against the Heat.
Like most trends, these trends often grind against the current of reality. As sublime as Steph and KD and Simmons are, they are not LeBron James. And, as astonishing as it is to feel and say and assert after 15 years, no one is still even close to King James’s eminence. Astonishing, not only because this is LeBron’s 15th NBA season, but also after 1,143 regular-season games, and 227 playoff games. In his 15th season, he played his most games — all 82 on the schedule — and led the league in minutes played — 37 per game. His 27.5 PPG are about his career average, but he amazingly posted his best totals in assists (9.1) and rebounds (8.6) per game. Did we mention this is his 15th season?
By contrast, let’s look at the only player we agree is better than LeBron. Michael Jordan played 1,072 regular-season games, and 179 playoff games. LeBron’s already played in 1,370 NBA games that count in the standings, which is 119 more than Air Jordan’s 1,251. And there’s no sign that King James is slowing down. None of this includes all the preseason games, all the travel, all the Olympics that had him pinball around the globe. (Jordan’s only foray into the Olympiad was the 1992 Dream Team.)
Jordan is still the GOAT, but we should stop holding that against James. It’s kind of like saying Theodore or Franklin D Roosevelt weren’t great presidents simply because they weren’t Abraham Lincoln. That Barry Sanders wasn’t sublime because he wasn’t Jim Brown. Or, 48 hours after the Kentucky Derby, asserting that American Pharoah wasn’t a great horse simply because he wasn’t Secretariat.
After all the trades and lineup changes, there’s only one constant in Cleveland, only one reason the Cavaliers are still NBA crucial. LeBron. And he’s arguably playing the best basketball of his career. In pitching parlance, he may not have the 100mph heater, or the curve that drops off the table. But he still throws 98, and his curve has more than enough snap and he’s still pitching complete games despite the epic innings count.
Simply, stop looking for the next LeBron, because there won’t be one, And while we measure the NBA greats by how many rings bulge from their fingers, just making the 2018 NBA Finals, with this box of spare hardwood parts, could be the most magnificent performance of his career.
We’re so eager to see where LeBron James will play next year we’re missing the magic he’s making this year. And we’re so eager to find the next best player on the planet, we’re forgetting that LeBron James still is. By far. For a long time. And maybe for a long time to come.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.