After weeks of uncertainty, the NBA announced last month that the 2019/20 season would be completed, even if it takes a vastly different form to any other year in professional basketball’s history.
Like most sports around the world, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the NBA in March, and as the situation showed no signs of improving, commissioner Adam Silver admitted that cancelling the season was a very real possibility.
As it has transpired, the NBA has managed to get around the worsening situation in the United States by moving a 22-team mini league to a single-site campus at World Disney World Resort in Florida, where, after completing the remaining regular season games, 16 teams will enter the playoffs and battle to become champions.
So, from July 30, the eyes of the basketball world will be transfixed on Disney World – and as has so often been the case, much of the focus will fall on one player in particular.
LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers arrived in Orlando last week to begin preparations for their assault on an NBA title that, according to most sportsbook estimates, they are favourite to win.
Never-ending James v MJ debate
There is of course plenty of basketball to be played between July 30 and mid-October when the Finals will conclude. But in front of James is the tantalizing prospect of adding to his already legendary legacy while stoking fresh “GOAT” debates.
The comparisons between LeBron James and the great Michael Jordan have been a constant presence throughout his career.
Those who argue James is the greatest of all time point to his better all-round statistics, his ability to consistently be the stand-out player in a more competitive era, and what he has been able to achieve during the latter stages of his career as he approached his mid-30s, in particular with a mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers franchise.
MJ supporters, on the other hand, justify their argument in two easy to understand ways: Jordan is the greatest scorer in basketball history, and he has six NBA rings. James can only lay claim to three – until LeBron matches or surpasses MJ’s trophy haul, there is no argument to be had.
What has always been fascinating about the debate is that it naturally pits two players against each other who share so much in common. Both players have made enormous social and cultural impacts and invested millions in charitable causes; both have reshaped the game of basketball and defined their eras; both share an insatiable desire to win and displayed once-in-a-generation levels of leadership; they even share a penchant for cigars and gambling. Stories have emerged of casino losses in the tens of thousands of dollars, proving even the most successful athletes have not been able to win long term at blackjack!
The James Effect
Whatever the differences, similarities, and career achievements, the debate over greatness can never provide a definitive answer. But James does at least have an imminent opportunity to close the championship gap to 6-4 when this season resumes.
Should James and the Lakers be triumphant come October, it would be the latest astounding feat that even Jordan’s most ardent supporters would begrudgingly applaud.
After all, there is no other player besides James who could arrive at a struggling franchise (albeit a former giant) during an overhaul involving a new president, a new coach, and a completely remodeled team and lead them to glory at the first time of asking … in the middle of a global pandemic.
Prior to this season, the Lakers had missed the playoffs for six successive seasons. They arrived at Disney World top of the Western Conference. Call it the James Effect.
Favourites they may be, but the Lakers are facing some difficult challenges ahead of the season restart. It was announced that Rajon Rondo will miss up to six weeks after fracturing his thumb in practice, ruling him out until after the start of the playoffs, while Avery Bradley has skipped the trip to Orlando altogether over health concerns.
Delivering in face of adversity
The absence of both players is a blow and places even more responsibility on the shoulders of James and his trusted sidekick Anthony Davis, whose arrival at the Lakers led to widespread changes to the playing personnel.
Despite the setbacks, it is also worth considering that James has often thrived in the face of similar adversity. He led the Miami Heat to his first title in 2012, while Chris Bosh was a long-term absentee, and pulled off the greatest feat of his career by carrying the Cavaliers to the 2015 Finals without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, going down only to one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the Golden State Warriors.
James is also physically fresher at this point of this season than in any previous year due to the four-month shutdown. Typically one of the league leaders in minutes, James has often relied on his supreme fitness, talent, and strength of will to power through the playoffs. That is not going to be a problem this year.
The Milwaukee Bucks and their NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers, may have a thing or two to say about the destination of this season’s championship, but the current circumstances do seem to play to James’ advantage.
Whether a fourth ring will be enough to swing the “GOAT” debate in James’ favour is irrelevant. What is important is that NBA basketball will soon return and one of the league’s greatest players will dazzle fans during a time when we need it most.