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LeBRON IS LeGONE, GIVING WAY TO A REVILED SUPERTEAM
With James likely finished as a champion, his influence remains in the form of the Brooklyn Nets, a merger of three corporations who loom as unpopular NBA title favorites — unless they beat themselves
As a student of Hollywood and a mogul in progress, LeBron James knows how to squeeze a story line. And his personally calculated script would have been as triumphant as any known to sports: Win two or three titles with the Lakers, produce a summer cinematic hit in ‘‘Space Jam 2,’’ chop it up on his barber-shop show with Jay-Z and other entertainment legends, then play one final season with son Bronny.
Eat that, Michael Jordan.
But as an athlete who has played basketball without pause since age nine, and a celebrity who has been in the global blast furnace since 18, James also knows the realities of life. Such as: Humans age, bodies break down, and the hunger to dominate fades to passivity. Those dark sides converged Thursday night in a postseason narrative that spun backwards, not according to plan, and one he’ll have to accept the rest of his waning career.
Without his partner in championship crime, Anthony Davis, who is so brittle that Charles Barkley calls him ‘‘Street Clothes,’’ James again turned to putty in the defining early moments of Game 6. He didn’t attack the basket until the mesmerizing Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns had built a 29-point lead with a three-point barrage. When TNT analyst Grant Hill, hardly known for slicing critiques, zinged James on the broadcast — ‘‘He’s just not being aggressive,’’ he said — you knew this was a crossroads in sports history where a legend’s arrow pointed south. When a comeback failed, and James was eliminated for the first time in the opening round, it was time to perform the autopsy.
He no longer can depend on his health in a game, basketball, where he can’t be pocket-protected by 2,000 pounds of blockers like a certain 43-year-old quarterback. Nor can he win a series by himself, unable to summon fire and purpose among so many Dennis Schroders and Alex Carusos after Davis’ problematic groin gave out in the first quarter. Nor is he America’s darling, dividing the nation with proud but polarizing activism last year, then pissing off even his supporters by not revealing if he has been vaccinated while breaking NBA policy by appearing at a tequila-brand event.
The King’s twilight finally is upon him, summoning the truth. He never was going to one-up Jordan in history, his legacy vacillating to the end between Mount Hoopsmore and intermittent disappointment. And now, with the ouster of the Lakers coming just eight months after they won the Disney Bubble, he’ll limp toward his 37th birthday knowing that better NBA story lines have passed him by in the fast lane.
‘‘I think about the moment we entered the Bubble to today. And it’s been a drain — mentally, spiritually and emotionally draining,’’ he said. ‘‘Every team had to deal with it. May the better man win. The Suns were the better man.’’
He exchanged jerseys afterward with Booker, his protege, in what seemed like a passing of a generational torch. But James isn’t ready to give in to the new stars, dynamic as they are. He says he needs to rehab his ankle, which has bothered him for months, and needs for Davis to stay healthy. Both are ambitious goals, but in his mind, he’s still LeBron. Good luck, old man. ‘‘I don’t need motivation from anybody in this league. I motivate myself. I’m motivated by my family, my kids,’’ James said. ‘‘We have some young guns in this game — Luka (Doncic), Book, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum — and those guys are great. But my motivation doesn’t come from them.’’
And, no, he won’t play in the Tokyo Olympics. The budding mogul has a movie to sell and a red carpet to walk. ‘‘I’m trying to beat the Goon Squad,’’ he said of his ‘‘Space Jam 2’’ release next month. ‘‘I didn’t have success against the Suns, so I’ll focus all my attention on the Goon Squad.’’ He’d better start attacking the basket, or the Goon Squad will beat him, too.
This as a more compelling story, Booker and the Suns, reduced James to an afterthought. Said Booker, making Kendall Jenner and the desert people proud in a 47-point show: ‘‘That’s the way we wanted it. We knew we weren’t going to get where we want to go without going through them. I’ve been working my whole life for this moment. It wasn’t time to shy away from it.’’
LeBron is LeGone, exiting stage right while Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden blur past him, realizing he’s no longer in their way. The Nets of Brooklyn borough are the conversation piece of a sports nation now, for better or worse, and don’t laugh when I suggest their second-round duel with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks IS the NBA Finals. With appropriate slack-jawed reverence for Doncic — who channels the shotmaking of Larry Bird, the court command of Magic Johnson, the showmanship of Steph Curry, the muscle of James and the late-game inevitability of Jordan — the Mavericks aren’t ready to win a championship. Nor are the Suns, who have won 44 of their last 58 but still must worry about the injury factor of Chris Paul, whose insurance commercials couldn’t be more fitting. Utah looks best in the West, with their three-point flurries and big man Rudy Gobert anchoring the league’s best remaining defense, but are the Jazz experienced enough to win a title? Philadelphia, in the East, would have posed a legitimate threat to the Nets and Bucks … until Joel Embiid, playing the best ball of his life, succumbed to his latest injury, a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
So like it or not — and many do not — the Nets emerge as the epicenter of the playoffs. They are unpopular, almost reviled, because they came together like a corporate merger. Durant, a mobile corporation, left Golden State to prove he can plan his own parade after being treated like a rent-an-outlier. He was joined by Irving, bitter in Boston and moody about life, in a tag team. The third to follow this empowerment pattern, Harden, demanded out of Houston and hopped on the speed train. All three left behind hard feelings and frayed franchises, not healthy for the league, and in this sense, LeBron’s influence remains as he departs. He was the one who created the superteam concept 11 summers ago by uttering the words, ‘‘I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.’’ Among those taking notes during ‘‘The Decision’’ were three young players with militant streaks who eventually sought to control their individual narratives. They don’t care how they’re perceived, which is fortunate for them because few fans can muster a liking for such a premeditated contrivance.
‘‘I don’t even know what that means, villains,’’ said coach Steve Nash, dutifully defending his guys. ‘‘A lot of it is just narratives. People love to talk hoops and barbershop — whatever. It’s not like we did anything illegal. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, not try to add to our roster, and just sit pat? That’s the idea of this league is to try to put together the best team you can.”
The owner of this once-dismal franchise, Joe Tsai, saw a poll that called the Nets the most hated team in sports. Durant, Irving and Harden seem to embrace the animus, if not ignoring it all together. Said Blake Griffin, a former superstar used to hearing catcalls: ‘‘Everybody always wants to have a team to build up but also hate at the same time. There’s always that thing. I don’t know that we pay that much attention to the villain aspect. We don’t take what everybody else is saying to heart. So what’s being said doesn’t bother us.’’
Finally on the court together, after a regular season when their injuries looked suspiciously like rest-for-the-playoffs schemes, the Big 3 have a chance to be remembered as the most potent group ever. First the Nets must win a championship, and to hear them, it’s all but a foregone conclusion.
‘‘We just don’t want to take any of this time for granted,” Irving said. ‘‘This doesn’t happen too often kind of in our culture, in our history, where three of the best scorers to ever play the game are on one team.”
‘‘I think if us three are on the same page and play well and communicate with the rest of the guys, where to be on both ends of the ball, I take our chances against anybody,” Harden said.
Here’s where the matchup turns delicious, even as a morality play of sorts. Antetokounmpo, too, could have chosen the superteam route, coveted as he was by the Lakers, Heat and Warriors. Instead, he assumed the more difficult challenge of signing his max deal with a small-market team and trying to win an NBA title without a sidekick superstar or two. In that sense, he becomes the widespread rooting interest as the Greek in the heartland angling to take down the New York power players. Durant is smart enough to remind the world of Antetokounmpo’s status in the league, knowing he carries his own burden to win a championship after recent playoff letdowns.
‘‘We’ve got our work cut out for us,’’ Durant said. ‘‘I mean, he’s a two-time MVP and Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, so we’re looking forward to the challenge. He’s long, athletic. He plays hard. He cares about teammates. He cares about winning.’’
The rap on Giannis is that he can’t elevate his game, or lift his supporting cast, to a consistent championship level beyond the regular season. Does he want it badly enough? He is issuing no proclamations before this series, which begins Saturday night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but he did take a playful nibble on a question about his routine as a family man. He was asked about his daily routine at home.
‘‘OK, so I wake up. The first thing I do in the morning? I pee," he said. ‘‘After I pee I take a shower. After that? I drink two bottles of water. After that? I go to practice. Prepare mentally to go to practice. Come to practice. Do whatever I got to do. Lift some weights. Shoot some shots. Ask coach, even, what I can do to get better. How can I help the team be better. After that, I just go back to my house. Special time with my son. Put him down for a nap and after that? I watch Netflix for like eight hours. My home has no basketball talk.’’
Meanwhile, Durant is either meditating, sparring with strangers on social media or planning his next film project, while Irving is declaring war on the world in general and the media specifically. In that sense, it’s possible only the Nets can beat the Nets, which is where Nash enters the equation. So far, he has managed to steer this monster joyride to the title favorite’s role, not thought possible when Irving said before the season, ‘‘I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.’’ Nash wasn’t bothered by the comment, knowing he was hired to manage superegos, and Irving eventually acknowledged, ‘‘I think I’ve got to take back my comments in terms of a head coach a few months ago.’’
Yet knowing how Durant, Irving and Harden have had turbulent moments in defining career settings — Durant vs. Draymond Green, Irving vs. his Celtics teammates and fans, Harden vs. himself in the playoffs — at what point does Nash have to lay down the law? And will they even listen? Late in a Game 4 rout of Boston in the first round, the Big 3 still hadn’t been pulled. Why risk injuries? ‘‘Those guys didn’t want to come out,’’ Nash said. ``So just let them go a few more minutes.’’
So far, anyway, there has been no dissension, no arguing about box-score totals, no beefing from Harden about having to play point guard and distribute the ball. Durant makes sure he regularly props up the turbulent Irving, saying this week, ‘‘His mind is so different that stuff he brings out is just unexpected — one-legger off the right leg, shooting off the glass, left-handed finishes, ball-handling. He’s a joy to watch and play with.’’
Said Irving, finally finding bliss: `’’Just grateful that we have a chance to be together in the trenches, me and my teammates.’’
At some point, though, someone will have to awarded a final shot in a huddle during a tight game. Egos will be tested, especially when Harden is the only one of the three without a title and, startling as it seems, is the third option in clutch situations. Durant makes sure he buffs up Harden, too. ‘‘`He comes into the gym every day, and it’s just excitement to play basketball,’’ he said. ‘‘The energy is just infectious, and you can tell everybody was drawn to James since the day he got here. His presence was just key for us.’’
Chances are, the championship will be won by a team with limited injury drama. Because of the short, 71-day layoff between the Bubble season and a new regular season, and a compressed 72-game schedule, attrition has been the dominant theme. Embiid, James, Davis, Paul and Doncic all have dealt with playoff setbacks. Durant, Irving and Harden are fresh. Too bad Curry didn’t have a healthy team around him, as a Warriors-Nets Finals would be an all-time combat collision. Too bad we can’t pit the Nets against the sport’s greatest showmen — Doncic and Curry and Booker and Embiid and Damian Lillard and Trea Young, enthralling story lines all.
We just want to see the Nets challenged. Hell, I’ll go so far to say I hope they lose. If they’re going down, the Bucks have the best chance to slay the superteam. Otherwise, I fear more headlines such as this whopper in the New York Times Magazine: ‘‘Kevin Durant and (Possibly) the Greatest Basketball Team of All Time.’’
Jesus. The Jordan vs. LeBron argument has ended, once and for all, and now we’re going to argue Nets vs. the Jordan Bulls? Nets vs. the Showtime Lakers? Nets vs. the Kobe/Shaq Lakers? Nets vs. the Bird Celtics. Nets vs. the Russell Celtics? Or, in the superteam division, Nets vs. the LeBron Heat? And — ready — Durant’s Nets vs. Durant’s Warriors?
Please, someone just beat them.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports and media columns for Barrett Sports Media and appears on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.