Who can supplant LeBron in 2013-14?
The storylines, players and teams who can steal the headlines from King James
Time to issue a challenge, one that's so great it will take about 400 players plus the cooperation of the media to pull off: make the 2013-14 NBA season NOT be about LeBron James.
As LeBron goes for a Michael Jordan-like three-peat, he can already say he's matched No. 23 in his ability to singlehandedly dominate the discussion of his sport. Since 2010 we've gone from wondering where he would play to seeing what he could do once he got there to his breakthrough championship followed by his validating second title.
So the first task will be to pry the most valuable player trophies (both regular-season and NBA Finals) out of LeBron's hands after he won the past two. The second will be to supplant him as the NBA's main storyline, particularly with free agency looming at the end of the season.
The latter could actually come from his own team. What if Greg Oden, the Heat's low-cost gamble, can go from out of the league to making a difference in the low post? Or what if he fails and Roy Hibbert powers the Indiana Pacers past Miami? Or Dwight Howard, who dominated the discussion this offseason, pays immediate dividends in Houston? Any of those scenarios would fit into a larger story: the return of the center as the pathway to a championship.
A measure of LeBron's impact on the league (and another parallel with Jordan) has been winning multiple championships without an All-Star center. Yes, Chris Bosh has played there for the Heat, and yes, he's made the All-Star team. But that's been more indicative of the thinning of big-man talent than the play of Bosh. Bosh missed almost half of the Heat's playoff games in 2012 and averaged only 12 points and 7 rebounds in the 2013 postseason. LeBron was Miami's best low-post player; he enabled the Heat's position-less revolution. The battle hasn't been decided, however.
This summer we saw more teams attempt to get bigger rather than try to go small like the Heat. It's possible that the small-ball conquest isn't complete, that the way to take what LeBron currently has is to choose the opposite path from the one he took to get it.
This challenge you've proposed is right up there with the saltine and cinnamon challenges. They're unwinnable. (I've tried both.)
Because, as Shane Battier likes to say, the NBA has been "feeding off the teat" of LeBron James for some time now. And that's not likely to change this season, when he appears to be at the height of his powers and in that point in his career where he doesn't really need "superstar" help to win championships. (Folks in Cleveland can only lament he wasn't in that place four years ago, or pray that he comes back to Cleveland while he's still that player.)
There will be plenty of distractions that force us to look away from LeBron.
There's Howard looking to rebound in Houston. The compelling comebacks of Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant, and to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook. The heightened battle of the boroughs in New York. The upgraded Clippers and the deeper Warriors. Even in Miami you can focus on the year-long examination of Dwyane Wade's knees.
But all of it can be framed by LeBron.
The re-emergence of the big man in the NBA? It's an attempted counter to LeBron's dominance. Rose's return? Even if he wins MVP again, the question will still be "Can he beat LeBron?"
Let's just say Rose can. Let's say someone, whether it's Hibbert, Howard, Rose or Kevin Durant and Westbrook, takes down LeBron and the Heat. It will still come back to King James, only more intensified. Because then his departure from Miami will seem more imaginable. And then it's 2010 free agency all over again, now with the Lakers presumably in the mix. And it doesn't get sexier than discussions of LeBron and Kobe in purple and gold.
That's the beauty of the NBA. Just like with Jordan two decades ago, 29 teams are trying to take down LeBron. And then, this time, they'll try to sign him.
How's this for a twist: The more this becomes about LeBron, the more this becomes about Durant.
LeBron's reign is coming at Durant's expense -- directly, in the case of the 2012 NBA Finals. Durant is the closest thing to LeBron on the court right now. You might recall, I even had Durant ahead of LeBron as Most Valuable Player through the season. (That changed after the Heat beat the Thunder behind LeBron's virtuoso performance on Feb. 14, and then the Heat didn't lose a game for the next six weeks.)
If LeBron keeps denying Durant the MVP awards and championship rings that should be coming his way, doesn't this become more of a Durant issue? As great a moment as the 2011 championship was for the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban and Jason Terry, it felt more like a referendum on LeBron. He was the one with the higher stakes, subject to greater ridicule with a defeat. The gap between potential and results is starting to grow for Durant as well. At this point Durant winning his first championship will be a bigger story than LeBron winning his third. LeBron losing in the Finals would no longer feel cataclysmic, merely disappointing.
The problem for Durant is that the Thunder have moved backward. I still remember Durant, Westbrook and James Harden standing by the side of the court, taking in the waning moments of the Heat's championship-clinching victory in Game 5 of the 2012 Finals. Little did we know that the trio would never play together in Oklahoma City uniforms again. Now OKC doesn't even have Kevin Martin, and Westbrook is coming off a new injury that cut his (and the Thunder's) 2012 playoffs short.
The good news for Durant, who turns 25 at the end of the month, is that there's a good chance he'll still be in his 20s when LeBron's reign comes to an end. But will he be the one to capitalize? The Clippers, Warriors and Rockets all got better this summer. The Spurs refuse to go away. I hope Durant's best chance at a championship isn't already in the past, when the Thunder led 1-0 in the Finals. At the very least there's a little more urgency for Durant. Certainly more than there is for LeBron.
Two things lead me to believe the "pressure" for Durant to win a title hasn't reached extreme levels:
His experience without Westbrook in the playoffs seemed to show he's not quite prepared to carry a championship team on his back. And he's far too young for him to feel like he needs to leapfrog LeBron right now.
Howard, on the other hand -- he has potential to be front and center for a lot of the season.
Just like LeBron three years ago, people are going to want to see Dwight fail. He was ridiculed, called weak-minded and selfish when he left the Lakers, so everyone who thought that way will be watching closely to hope they're proved correct. If he and the Rockets struggle, it'll be headline news.
And if he succeeds, it creates ripples in Los Angeles (maybe Kobe Bryant and Mike D'Antoni were the problem?) and with the other elite teams out West that just assumed Houston would need at least one season to develop chemistry.
Either way, it'll have to be extreme to draw attention. The Rockets will have to be as bad or worse than last season's Lakers, or they'll have to be dominant. Anywhere in between, Howard's not appealing enough to be the face of the league.
As for the pressure on LeBron to win his third, I think it'll end up being just as great as the pressure to win last year. He's already drawing comparisons to the best that ever was, and last year's Finals were a Ray Allen 3-pointer away from being a disaster for LeBron.
We're no longer projecting greatness for LeBron. We're fully expecting it. Anything less, at this point, is a major disappointment.
You're right that Howard has little chance to be the league's greatest hero or greatest villain. Mostly he inspires fatigue. Lakers fans grew tired of him in just one season, and his departure didn't devastate L.A. the way LeBron's did Cleveland.
But you're wrong in saying the pressure has increased for LeBron. The higher the ring count, the lower the demands. We would've shredded Tim Duncan for missing that layup in Game 7 -- if he hadn't won four championships already. We would have dug up everything we said about LeBron in 2011, searched the thesaurus and found new ways to say it about Duncan. The difference is, Duncan didn't need this championship. He wanted it -- and plenty of folks wanted it for him -- but taking an L in the Finals at this stage in his career doesn't diminish our opinion of him one bit.
LeBron already has more championships before his 29th birthday than such multi-ringed greats as Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. He's also on the short list of active players who have won back-to-back titles (at this point it's basically his Heat teammates and the dwindling members of Kobe's crew from 2009 and 2010.)
That's why I'm more fascinated by Durant's or Rose's drive to get back in the mix. Think about how far Rose has plummeted. In 2011 he was the MVP of the league and only three victories from the NBA Finals. He's won only one playoff game since. He'll only be 25 when the season starts. If he wants to go down as the best of his generation he can't afford to fall much farther behind in the championship count.
The same goes for Carmelo Anthony, even if he seems to be the only one who's including himself in that conversation. I don't see him entering the discussion this season, either. It would be fun to see him force his way in, though.
Rose remains the great unknown in this equation.
What if he comes back better? We all seem to assume that he'll need time to return to the player he was, but he's had plenty of time to recover. So if he returns as a dominant force along with an improved Joakim Noah, it's possible the Bulls become the East's most intriguing team.
But it still comes back to beating the two-time defending champ. And even if someone does, the discussion will immediately shift to LeBron's offseason decision.
Just like the summer of 2010 is remembered more for LeBron's decision than the Lakers' second straight championship.
Good luck trying to find ways to avoid LeBron this season. If that's the goal, your chances aren't looking too good.
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