I, like many people, highly enjoyed the 10-part ESPN documentary released last May called The Last Dance, which chronicles Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls and their journey to winning the 1998 NBA Championship. Following the season, Jordan retired as the consensus greatest basketball player ever with six championships, six Finals Most Valuable Player awards, five NBA Most Valuable Player Awards and 14 All-Star Game appearances. But it was the finish of the 1998 season that sealed Jordan’s legacy, when he dragged an aging Bulls team to the title as his sidekick Scottie Pippen and loose cannon Dennis Rodman began to decline. Jordan ended his final game scoring 45 of his team’s 87 points, capping it off by being the only Bull to touch the ball in the final 40 seconds of the game. With a layup, steal and game-winning jumper with less than five seconds left, Jordan secured the title and his legacy as the greatest of all time. Now, LeBron James seeks Jordan’s throne, and this postseason may be his best chance to take it.
The greatness of LeBron James is well documented as he approaches the end of his 17th NBA season. The timeline of LeBron’s career is remarkable. He was drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, then rocked the sports world with “The Decision” to take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat with whom he won his first two championships. Then, he returned to Cleveland in 2014 and brought home a title in 2016, before leaving for L.A. in 2018. At 35 years old, he is still competing at the elite level, leading the league in assists for the first time in his career, as well as making his 13th All-NBA First Team. He has led the Lakers to the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, currently holding a commanding series lead and shot at the NBA Finals. LeBron continues to be one of the best players in the league and is showing no signs of slowing down. However, there are many situations evolving that may make the 2020 postseason LeBron’s best and potentially last chance to win his fourth title and potentially supersede his idol, Michael Jordan.
To start, we must look at LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers and whether they are built to win now versus winning in the future. The clear answer is right now. LeBron’s fellow star Anthony Davis will be a free agent this offseason, and while the Lakers are the clear favorites to sign Davis, there are no guarantees he will stay, as he already turned down an initial four year and $146 million deal. To re-sign Davis, they would have to offer him a supermax contract worth over $200 million for the next five seasons. This contract along with James’s max deal would take up most of the Lakers salary cap, so the chance of adding another star in L.A. would be unlikely over the next few seasons. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has significantly hurt NBA revenues, so the salary cap is unlikely to be expanded next year, meaning adding smaller role players to the roster in free agency will be difficult. The Lakers traded a king’s ransom for Davis in the summer of 2019 and gave up nearly all of their best young players as well as most of their future first round picks. So, trading for a third star to pair with Davis and LeBron is unlikely. The rest of the current Lakers roster is solid, but many of their key role players are on expiring contracts or aging past their prime. For the Lakers to improve, it will have to come from within the organization with Davis continuing to improve and younger players such as Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso filling larger roles. Is it enough to get past what the rest of the league has to offer? It may only be getting tougher in the future.
The top teams in the rest of the league are likely only getting better in coming seasons. To start, the other Los Angeles team, the Clippers, still have stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for next season and possess a far better supporting cast with sixth man of the year Montrezl Harrel and Lou Williams and defensive specialist Patrick Beverley. While they will certainly be disappointed in their collapse against Denver, another year to improve team chemistry should have them back in the mix. Speaking of the Denver Nuggets, they too should be even better next season as their top two players Nikola Jokic and Jamaal Murray are both under the age of 25, and 2018 first round pick Michael Porter Jr. looks as though he could play an even larger role next season. The Milwaukee Bucks have reigning MVP Giannis Antetekoumpo and led the league in wins this season. At 25 years old, Giannis seems to only be getting better and the Bucks should perform better next season.
Other young teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics are poised for strong futures. The Mavericks will ride the ascension of 21-year-old Luka Doncic, and with a healthy Kristaps Porzingis and potentially adding another reliable scorer in the off-season, they should be in the title picture in the coming years. The Boston Celtics have a great young core, led by 22-year-old Jayson Tatum and 23-year-old Jaylen Brown, and still have former all-stars Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward under contract for next season. The Celtics could potentially play the Lakers in this year’s finals and have established themselves as a top team in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps even more scary, the Golden State Warriors are going to be good again. After injuries to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors tanked this season into the 2nd overall draft pick and were able move the exiting Kevin Durant to get former number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins. The Warriors have the necessary assets and tradable contracts to potentially add another star while still retaining many of the core players which led them to three titles in five seasons. Speaking of Kevin Durant, he will be returning to the Brooklyn Nets after tearing his achilles and will be joined by all-star Kyrie Irving. Durant outplayed LeBron in back to back finals in 2017 and 2018 and should have Brooklyn in contention when healthy. The rest of the league looks to be getting better in the coming years and whether the Lakers will be title favorites again in the 2021 playoffs remains to be seen.
Should this be LeBron’s “Last Dance,” the script has been written to finish this season in a Hollywood fashion. To start, the road to a title has never been so clear. Fortune has smiled on the Lakers as the best two regular season teams in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks and defending champion Toronto Raptors, have already been eliminated. Furthermore, the second best team in the West, the L.A. Clippers, collapsed on Tuesday, surrendering a three-to- series lead to the Nuggets. Denver played well, and Nikola Jokic and Jamaal Murray certainly look improved in the bubble. However, the Lakers defeated them in three out of four regular season games and are heavily favored to advance. Assuming the Lakers take care of the Nuggets, either the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics await them in the finals. As for LeBron, to play against his former team, the Heat, would bring some attention to his days in Miami where he won two titles and made the Finals in all four of his seasons with the team. To match up with the Celtics would mean that LeBron would get to add his own chapter to the most prominent rivalry in NBA history. From the days of Bill Russel and Jerry West, to the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson era, and to the more recent battles between Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, the Celtics and Lakers have dominated the league for over 50 years. The Celtics with their 17 titles and the Lakers with their 16 are the epitome of excellence in the NBA. If they were to match up, LeBron could add his stamp on this rivalry and win his fourth championship. Following the death of Hall of Famer and Laker legend Kobe Bryant, to win the title this season in his memory would be the ultimate way to honor his close friend. With the world as it is right now, all eyes have been on the NBA Bubble, which has already shown an incredibly high level of play to go with the players’ calls for social justice. LeBron is not going to “shut up and dribble,” he said in an interview with ESPN, subsequently rising as one of the leaders in the league in boycotting games following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. James has connected with his millions of social media followers with a consistent message of criminal justice reform. LeBron will be able to expand his audience on the largest stage the league has to offer and use this platform to influence the world off the court while still being the league’s best player. Michael Jordan never took this opportunity before his retirement, and LeBron could establish himself as not just as the best player of all time but the NBA’s greatest offcourt ambassador. The league is getting better, and he is only getting older. He may never have such a large spotlight on him ever again, regardless of whether he wins another title. LeBron needs to capitalize on it now and match or surpass Jordan’s Last Dance while he still can.