Every pro basketball career is either on its way up or on its way out. Each day is either a step towards improvement and reinvention, or a stumble towards decay. LeBron James has spent the bulk of his career enjoying that first stage, rabidly discovering new ways to stretch his domination longer than anyone before him ever has.
In so many ways LeBron molded the NBA to his liking, from one stylistic era to the next. But now at the age of 35, LeBron’s authority will soon be a folk tale. Irreversible decline comes for every athlete, and so much about LeBron’s future — particularly how he embraces it — is unknown.
When will LeBron’s undoing occur? Will he face it with iron-willed stubbornness in an attempt to delay the inevitable as long as he possibly can? How will it diminish his magnetism in an NBA that’s less prestigious and appealing without him? Endings are always messy, so what will it be like for perhaps the greatest player ever?
This isn’t a crisis, yet, even though the passage of time can sometimes feel that way. Last year was deflating, but LeBron maintained his numbers while surrounded by a suboptimal supporting cast, all without being selfish. Before Christmas he was an MVP candidate, as eerily consistent as ever, and there are reasons to believe he can still be the best player in the world — especially coming off the longest vacation of his career with Anthony Davis as a teammate.
His game, based on intellectual excellence, was built for old age. But fading gracefully isn’t easy. When a strained groin cast doubt on his legendary physical fitness, he responded by cradling a glass of wine and insecurely reflecting on the GOAT debate. His move to Hollywood was catnip for cynics and critics, who were eager to portray him as someone more satisfied than humbled. To their credit, it’s hard not to feel like LeBron is betraying his younger, more insatiable self when he retweets Space Jam 2 casting news and Blaze Pizza promotions.
When David Griffin, LeBron’s former general manager, said “I don’t think he’s the same animal anymore about winning,” it amplified what so many are thinking. That desire to spread his wings and be “more than an athlete” is, of course, his right and totally OK! Priorities change as we grow old, and LeBron deserves the praise he’ll receive for the rest of his life. But if perception is reality, this pill is tough to swallow for those who spent the past 15 years watching him fulfill his destiny. Nobody wants to see a lion take a nap during hunting season.
But if LeBron does still see himself as someone who’s driven by championships, his psychological struggle may be just as arduous as the physical one. This idea is tied to something I came across while reading Maria Konnikova’s splendid The Confidence Game. Just like every other well-adjusted human being who read this book, I thought about how it relates to LeBron’s current predicament.
In 1958, an Austrian psychologist named Marie Jahoda defined a healthy psyche “as one that can perceive the self as it is in reality, without skewing it to fit a certain image or desire.” Nine years later, her contemporary Harold Kelley added that an accurate perception of ourselves allows people to effectively function. But in the 1970s, “that emphasis on accuracy started to shift.”
Further research uncovered the extent that people are incapable of seeing themselves, and that those who actually do see themselves for who they are often fixate on the bad. “We want to affirm our best, most deserving self ... not the unvarnished original. And so we systematically represent ourselves and our reality in a way that favors our preferred version.”
In other words, all of LeBron’s accomplishments may prevent him from conducting a realistic assessment of where he is, and how difficult the road ahead will be. His childhood was steeped in hardship, including the difficulties of being black in the United States of America. But, for the most part, his adult life has deftly avoided obstacles. That will soon change when he’s confronted by signs of the same end that comes for all NBA stars.
If LeBron wants to continue as an NBA Goliath, desperation may very well be his best source of motivation. To channel it, he first must acknowledge where he stands in a league that employs other alpha predators who are impervious to his intimidation. Supreme confidence is a requirement to stay on top, but LeBron will also need to accept a future when he isn’t consistently the best player on the floor.
This truth was shoved in front of our faces when the Los Angeles Lakers tried to sign Kawhi Leonard, and failed. The aftermath of that rejection yielded a tension. Instead of teaming up with LeBron, the two-time Finals MVP decided to challenge him for top-of-the-food-chain distinction. One reason why? LeBron needed Kawhi — a 28-year-old smack dab in the midst of his prime — more than the other way around. In persuading Paul George to move from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, Leonard added insult to injury by doing exactly what LeBron could not last summer.
Beside Kawhi stands Giannis Antetokounmpo, a metaphysical triumph who is more obsessed with annihilation than allyship. Those two — and more — are fighting for the stature LeBron has enjoyed for so long. An argument can be made that they might have already passed him.
As age eats away at LeBron’s physical advantage, will he recognize that he may never get it back, or continue to see himself as a historical marvel? Nobody has averaged 35 minutes per game by their 35th birthday and still been so good. But I am not nobody. Will he feel the walls closing in and act accordingly, or will his self-belief block them from view? His body control, craft, and patience were magic acts even after he returned from last year’s injury (LeBron’s 21 games were a middle finger to Father Time). Even if those parts of his game are evergreen, are they enough to keep LeBron playing like LeBron when his first step is half a second slower and he’s no longer able to lift his chin over a 10-foot rim?
For the past 20 years, LeBron was either at the top of basketball or destined to get there. In the public consciousness, he has only ever been the King. Now, just holding on as the NBA’s most important and powerful figure, the uncertainty around his transition towards something else is palpable.
Regardless of how the next two or three years play out, no narrative deserves more attention from an audience that has invested so much in his mythology. LeBron’s time with us is fleeting and should not be taken for granted. Whatever happens next probably won’t impact his legacy, but the opportunity to further expand it — if that’s what he wants to do — exists. If anyone can make a fall from the throne look smooth, it’s LeBron James. And until the day he retires, we are witnesses.