For a second consecutive year, it feels like we have a very wide-open field in the NBA. In the Western Conference the reigning champion Suns and Chris Paul feel like they’re as talented as anyone, and out to prove last year was not a fluke… but they’ve lost twice to the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry & Co. not only sit, familiarly, near the top… they just welcomed Klay Thompson back. Both of those teams have great records, but does anyone really think LeBron James is averaging 28.8, 7.6, and 6.4 to just scrape by? A big trade-deadline move for the Lakers feels inevitable, and Anthony Davis should return in February (if not before). And none of those teams want to catch the scorching Ja Morant and Memphis Grizzlies on a wrong day or see reigning MVP Nikola Jokic in Denver on a tough trip through the Mountain Time Zone.
Out East? Even after some struggles, the new-look Bulls sit in first and have been in the top tier all year long. Miami, amidst another season plagued with injuries, is just a half a game behind them. Brooklyn is (kind of) bringing Kyrie Irving back into the fold and sitting just a half a game behind Miami. At some point, Philadelphia wants to trade Ben Simmons for a star to pair with Joel Embiid, who just put up a 50-point masterpiece in less than 30 minutes. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Darius Garland look young, hungry, and dangerous. And the reigning NBA champions are having a “down” season, and are sitting in fourth place with the Greek Freak playing some of the best basketball of his already Hall of Fame-caliber career.
In short, the NBA champion feels unknown. There are new faces and old heroes, and someone will have their names added to history books this June. Lots of analysts, gamblers, and others will spend the next couple of months telling you who WILL win the 2022 NBA Championship… but who needs it? Before, we’ve argued for Steph Curry. Today? LeBron James
The Case for LeBron James
Admittedly, LeBron James has as many accolades as any of his contemporaries from any portion of his Hall of Fame career. Bluntly, LeBron James has the equivalent of two Hall of Fame careers. A step further? After becoming a national icon at age 17, he’s gone two decades in the limelight and the closest thing to a setback has been telling the world where he was going to work during a televised charity event. In short, saying LeBron James needs anything can feel silly. But he needs the 2022 NBA Championship. Badly.
LeBron James currently has four championship trophies to his name after ten trips to The Finals on three teams. That’s historic in every sense. But reading those histories can leave readers with questions.
James’ first title came after an international embarrassment in the 2011 Finals. The Heat created a super team in the summer of 2010 and ran into a veteran, single-All-Star Dallas team with Dirk Nowitzki. We all know the story: James struggled with defenders a foot shorter than him, two big lineups clogged the lane, and Miami lost.
The next year, LeBron James and the Heat gave the Thunder a gentleman’s sweep in The Finals, but the expedited and shortened season followed a lockout. Who knows if that’s how a normal 82-game season shakes out? There is no guarantee the Heat survive. There’s also no guarantee the Thunder are the West’s actual best team. Tough to judge.
In 2013, the Heat nearly lost the whole thing Game 6. James had to go wild just to keep the game close but missed a clutch three with seconds to go. But James’ miss fell to teammate Bosh (because the Spurs had inexplicably benched Tim Duncan), Bosh kicked it to Ray Allen, and Allen nailed it. The Heat lived to play another day, and they won Game 7 at home. But what happens if Pop just leaves Duncan in the game?
James made the Finals in 2013 with Miami, but the Heatles were out of steam. He returned home to Cleveland and made it in 2015, but the roster was brutally battered and injured by Game 2 of the Finals.
2016 was the famous Cavalier come back from 3-1 to give James his third title, and Cleveland their first. But the spark? James was hit in the genitals by Draymond Green during Game 4. The play led to Green’s suspension, after exceeding the Flagrant Foul points limit for a postseason. The Cavs won Game 5 without Green, Game 6 at home, and Game 7 after a nearly scoreless final five minutes. LeBron James cried into Kevin Love’s arms after making his hometown a champion with one of the most historic defensive plays of all time. But what happens if Green had played Game 5?
And if any of that feels iffy, LeBron James’ latest title? It came in a once-in-a-lifetime bubble experiment. There were no live fans, no outside distractions, and games nearly every day. The wear-and-tear clearly impacted the Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat, and the lack of noise clearly helped Anthony Davis’ jump shot. LeBron James and the Lakers won the 2020 NBA Bubble title as fairly and squarely as possible… but wasn’t it a weird one?
LeBron James needs the 2022 title, and he needs it to be a straight-up victory. There can’t be a bunch of injuries, a weird suspension, or some other oddity. The “one for the thumb” needs to be unquestionable and solid.
What Does it Add?
LeBron James will have individual career statistics that are impossible to match when he retires. He is already the first player with over 30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 9,000 assists in a career. He is on pace to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time points record at some point next season. And, LeBron will pass 10,00 assists this year if he stays healthy and his averages hold, and he could be as high as third on the all-time assists list by then as well. Realistically, there won’t be a statistical argument against LeBron James being the greatest individual player (if there even is one, currently).
But as a winner? For the “wins-are-an-individual-stat” crowd, LeBron James sits at four titles. His contemporaries, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry, bookend him with five, five, and three respectfully. His idol? Michael Jordan sits distantly in front of him with six. And that Abdul-Jabbar guy he’s chasing in points? Also six. As for players with comparably long careers? Bill Russell and his Celtics teammates sit distantly ahead of him, too.
LeBron James winning a fifth ring overall would level him with Bryant and Duncan. It would give him a niche, winning multiple titles in multiple cities, that no one before him has to their name.
James has indicated he’s got a few more years left in the association, so this year may not be of dire need… but how many chances will he realistically have, where he is clearly the team’s best player, to win a title? Further, if he really wants to get to (or break) Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar’s six championship mark, can he wait another year for number five?
How Does it Happen
First and foremost, it takes an admission that the Russell Westbrook acquisition was a swing for the fences that turned into a pop fly. Reports indicate that James, who is overly involved in roster creation, is open to shopping the 2017 MVP. Westbrook is the most obtuse piece in the Lakers championship puzzle. Westbrook scores around the basket, much like a traditional post. But at six-foot-three he brings the ball up like a point guard. Thus the real big men need to get out of the lane… and in some cases off of the floor. The “LeBron at the Five” lineups were fun, but a similar ultra-small-ball gimmick in Houston ultimately lost in the second round.
Westbrook deals are difficult with his contract, and ultimately LA may have to take a talent loss for a better fit. Westbrook is an energetic player that fills up an intangible stat-sheet along with his triple-double stuffed traditional one. Someone will probably take that on… but for how much remains a question.
Even if the Lakers can move on from Westbrook, health will also be an issue. Anthony Davis is recovering from an MCL injury and has played one near-complete season in the last four years. Kendrick Nunn is healing his own knee injury. LeBron James himself has played in just three-fourths of the games this year as he takes uber-care of his body. And this season has seen several teams randomly spend two weeks decimated with health and safety protocols. What’s to say that it doesn’t hit LA in April?
The fifth ring for LeKing feels like a long shot. Even if Westbrook gets moved, and even if the Lakers are healthy, the title this year may be as difficult to win as any in recent memory. If anything, fans betting LeBron pulls it off is entire because he’s gotten himself to the plateau of “can you really bet against him?”