What would this NBA championship add to LeBron James’ legacy?
It’s a question that gets asked every year, but in the most unprecedented season in NBA history, it will get asked more when the Lakers resume action against the Clippers on Thursday night.
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The Lakers owned the best record in the Western Conference (49-14) when play stopped on March 11, and James will be the focal point of the restart. Los Angeles is a betting favorite to win the 2020 championship along with the Bucks, and those odds shouldn’t change much as long as James and Giannis Antetokounmpo stay healthy within the NBA’s campus.
What would a fourth title mean for James? Let’s take a closer look.
Let’s get that out of the way first. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced the NBA into a “bubble” at the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, Fla., but that does not diminish from the legitimacy of the season.
The Lakers will play eight “seeding games” before the playoffs, giving them a total of 71 regular season games. That’s five more games than James played in 2011-12, when a lockout shortened the season. James led Miami to an NBA championship that season, the first of his career.
The NBA is planning a full postseason with best-of-seven series beginning Aug. 17, and the NBA Finals are set to start Sept. 30. All of that will be conducted inside the “bubble,” and one could argue that could be just as tough as the home-and-road grind of the traditional NBA playoffs.
There is some added pressure for James to carry this team when looking at the state of the Lakers’ roster.
Avery Bradley, who made 44 starts this season, opted out of the restart. Rajon Rondo had thumb surgery on July 16, and the timetable for his return is six-to-eight weeks. Anthony Davis is also dealing with eye injury, but he does plan to play against the Clippers on Thursday.
James already leads the Lakers with 34.9 minutes per game, but he will be counted on more in the short term while the Lakers find their rhythm in the restart.
If Los Angeles can do that and march through the NBA Finals, then it would complete a masterful season for James in many ways.
James’ first season in Los Angeles did not go according to plan. The Lakers missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record and were the definition of dysfunction from the front office down to the court. There were questions about whether James could return the Lakers to their former glory.
Those have been answered to this point, especially with the addition of Davis, and James has a chance to lead Los Angeles back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2009-10. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to a championship that season, his fifth as a player.
James has played at his customary MVP level in making that success possible. He averages 25.7 points per game and leads the NBA in assists with 10.6 per game.
To lead that turnaround — during a season impacted by COVID-19 — would be that much more impressive.
James is presented with the opportunity to win a fourth NBA championship. He would join a rare club with that accomplishment. Only two other NBA players with at least four NBA championships won those titles with three different franchises.
That exclusive group includes Robert Horry, who won seven rings with the Rockets (1994-95), Lakers (2000-02) and Spurs (2005, 2007) and John Salley, who won four rings with the Pistons (1989-90), Bulls (1996) and Lakers (2000).
Horry and Salley, however, were role players. James would be the first NBA superstar to pull off that accomplishment with three different teams (Cavs, Heat and Lakers). A total of 24 Hall of Famers have at least four championships. James would join that list.
Antetokounmpo is likely to win back-to-back MVPs. Kawhi Leonard is the reigning Finals MVP, and his Clippers hold the second-best record in the Western Conference.
Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Houston’s James Harden, who won the NBA MVP in 2017-18, could potentially face James and the Lakers depending on how the “seeding games” and postseason play out.
James can prove he’s still the best in the game at 35 years old, and that would only add to his legacy later.
“The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary series highlighting the Bulls’ six championship runs with Michael Jordan, aired during the NBA hiatus and served as a reminder of the standard James has chased throughout his career.
While that debate continues, it’s important to remember Jordan won his last championship when he was 35 years old. James, who turns 36 in December, has shown no signs of slowing down and could inch one step closer to that standard.
How many championship runs does James have left? That’s a fair question. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the oldest player to win the Finals MVP award, and he did that while leading the Lakers to the championship in 1984-85. James still has time, but this season presents a unique opportunity to add that fourth championship.
He also faces the most pressure of any player in Orlando. That comes with the territory of being the face of the NBA.
So yes, this absolutely counts.
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