The Step Back

Don’t take your eyes off LeBron James this season

For the first time in a long time, LeBron James wasn’t the story of the offseason. He wasn’t entertaining proposals in free agency, parading around with a championship trophy, or sitting down for long profiles.

It’s not as though he went radio silent, either. The gymstagram posts, the shady tweets — they were out in full force. But other stories got more attention. Hell, #HoodieMelo and #ChinaKlay got more play than LeBron’s inner musings. Unless he was calling Donald Trump a bum, he was decidedly in the backseat.

His absence was accompanied by what seems like a sense of diminished power. Is Kevin Durant now the best player in the world? Why did his sidekick, Kyrie Irving, demand his way out of town? And why did he make fun of LeBron’s gym posts with LeBron’s biggest rival? LeBron’s preeminence is being questioned in ways it hasn’t been questioned since his first year in Miami. And even then, when his public perception was at its ultimate low point, we all knew he was the best player on the universe.

We just didn’t like him very much.

This time around, though, the critiques have been reasonable. That Irving bristled at the Daddy LeBron routine was an open secret, yet LeBron continued to antagonize him. The notion that he’s not the best player in the world anymore? Durant’s dominance in the Finals, in Golden State’s whip-smart operation, makes that a reasonable question for the first time in nearly a decade.

Read More: Will Joel Embiid really be the future of the 76ers?

Under-the-radar is a relative term. We’re talking about LeBron, after all. What’s significant is this: it feels as though, for the first time, he is just like any of the league’s superstars, on the same Sisyphean quest to take down the Warriors.

LeBron has heard and seen this all — we know this, because we know him. He is a smart and savvy brand manager, hyper-aware of his perception. Which is why I watched his first press conference of the season with unusual interest. I was curious: How did he feel about it?

First off, he doubled down on Daddy LeBron, referring to Irving as “the kid” multiple times. On the subject of Donald Trump, who LeBron prefers to refer to as “bum” or “that guy,” here’s what I thought stuck out:

“We have to figure out a way how we come together and be as great as we can be as a people. Because the people run this country. Not one individual. And damn sure not him…  And we’re not going to let — I’m not going to let while I have this platform – to let one individual, no matter the power, no matter the impact that he should have or she should have, ever use sport as a platform to divide us…. So, as I got this platform and as people I have a way to inspire and I have a way for my word to be bond, I will lend my voice, I will lend my passion, I will lend my money, I will lend my resources to my youth and my inner city and outside of my inner city to let these kids know that there is hope. There is greater walks of life. And not one individual, no matter if it’s the President of the United States or if it’s someone in your household, can stop your dreams from becoming a reality.”

A tribute to all that he does and will continue to do for the betterment of the world, to the separation of powers and the ingenuity and triumph of American individualism, sure, but what I couldn’t get past was the sheer defiance in his tone, his response to the notion he has lost his footing: Not on my watch, kid.

LeBron wields gargantuan influence for a professional athlete, and he’s leveraged it into a two championships in Miami, a multi-million dollar business enterprise across multiple industries, and the final, elusive ticket: doing what no prior athlete had done, and bringing one home for Cleveland. He did it his own way there, as he has everywhere else. And the truth is, in the past, LeBron has been able to get away with meticulously crafting reality to his own demands because, whether or not it has hurt his teams, he’s always been good enough to make up the difference.

It turns out, he can piss Irving off to the point that the scale tips in opposition to his talent. He can’t lounge around defensively and a make a last-ditch effort to control Durant. Thanks to the dominance of Golden State, and LeBron’s slowly — very slowly, I might add — diminishing talent, he might have to operate in the real universe, where causes are followed by effects, where actions have consequences. He might have to, you know, compromise. On the other hand: Not on my watch, kid.

In the many, many moments in LeBron’s career that his head has been level with the water, the question was not whether he had the talent to surmount it. Talent, with LeBron, has always been a given. It was whether he could slay those internal demons, the paralysis-by-analysis so heavily associated with his worst performances, and harness all of his abilities at once. That’s not the issue anymore. LeBron, aside from some occasional hiccups, has full control of his abilities. He can toggle back and forth with relative ease.

The question, now, is whether LeBron’s best will be good enough. Will he be forced to tap into a heretofore unknown reservoir? Will he have to modulate certain parts his game,  rather than merely tapping into the totality of his ability at a consistent rate?

In general, aging stars losing their grip on reality tend toward inefficiency — last ditch, full-throttle attempts to take back what they believe is their own, measured in sub-40 field goal percentage and a barrage of bad shots. But — man, I’ve said this too many times for one article — this is LeBron we’re talking about.

The best player in the universe finds himself in a position he’s never been in. I’d tune in.

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