LeBron’s Playoff absence is the NBA narrative we all need

I began my last piece on Dame Lillard with a spoiler-friendly Avengers: Endgame reference, which was on its second day in theaters at the time.

It’s been almost three weeks since then, but allow me to begin with another Endgame reference. This time of the spoiler variety. If you haven’t seen the film yet, allow me to Bandersnatch you through this next portion:

Your Choices Are:

1. Continue Reading

2. Watch Avengers: Endgame, save this link, and come back here afterwards.

If you chose #1, then I can almost 100% confirm that you’ve seen the latest Avengers film. To the two people in world who don’t follow the MCU… welcome, I guess.

And if you chose #2, Welcome back!

By now, most of you should know one of the film’s biggest spoilers: Iron Man is dead.

Through several films in the series, Iron Man’s arrogance, riches and heartlessness have combined perfectly with his charm, wit and the actual presence of legitimate emotion. They have made him become both the most polarizing and universally beloved Marvel superhero.

But as of the last film, he’s supposedly gone. His death has caused a wave of emotion to flood the emotionally-invested fanbase of the cinematic universe, such as the sadness of this kid, who wasn’t even alive to see either of the first two Iron Man movies.

It remains to be seen whether Robert Downey Jr.’s character will continue to make appearances in the coming movies of the series, but it’s safe to say this: Iron Man was awesome. So damn awesome. And no matter what anyone says about him, his character is going to go down as one of the greatest superhero characters of all-time.

So you know where I’m going with this, right?

Yup, Iron Man’s death and the aftermath of which draws stark similarities with LeBron James’s 2018-2019 regular season failure.

James has celebrated several untouchable years as the undisputed King of the NBA, reaching the NBA Finals a superhero-esque eight straight times, and sparking the debate of whether he has reached GOAT levels alongside his number 23 numbersake. His success on the court even pivoted off of it, as he’s done ventures in sports media with Uninterrupted and built a school in his hometown. These have made him the respected and equally beloved human being that Iron Man has become to MCU followers around the world.

So when James missed the playoffs for the first time since 3-megapixel camera phones were a big deal, people lost their minds. Many pundits couldn’t rule out a miraculous Lakers comeback until they fell into the depths of lottery team purgatory. The debate began — and still exists — as to who may dethrone The King as the Best Player in the World.

And, of course, how will the excitement level of the NBA Playoffs change without its most battle-tested combatant?

Well, we’re about a month since “losing” James, and I’d say everything is absolutely fine. If anything, I firmly believe his playoff absence is great for the NBA.

That’s not to say that it’s great for the league from a business standpoint. I’m sure the league would’ve preferred their poster boy either shocking the world with a first round upset or creating some sort of team-related controversy over watching the Blake Griffin-less, fake playoff team in Detroit. The King alone would’ve probably raked in three to four times the revenue.

When I talk positively of LeBron’s absence, I’m talking purely from a basketball fan’s perspective; I’m talking about the perspective of the basketball narrative lover in me.

I’ve got three reasons why.

The Battle for Best Player in the World

Unless you’re a Kobe-cult follower, you’ll agree that LeBron has been undoubtedly the best basketball player in the world for the last decade. He was still the best when Derrick Rose was MVP in 2011. He was still the best when Kevin Durant won it a few years later, or when KD’s eventual teammate, Steph Curry, won back to back MVPs in 2015 and 2016.

The debate against him being the Best Player in the World never even existed until this season. And now, there are several players making their case for the label.

Most people will point towards Durant as the heir to the throne, and for good reason. He’s been absolutely amazing in this postseason (Get well soon, KD!). But with the Warriors having struggled through both the Clippers and the Rockets, the rest of the field definitely can’t be ignored.

Every semifinalist west of Philadelphia (with all due respect to Joel Embiid, and with no due respect to Kyrie Irving) has at least one player that has submitted their application for best player in the world.

Durant’s latest opponent, James Harden, had an eye-popping regular season stat line that has put him in the running for a second straight regular season MVP. And even though the Rockets fell short in six games, Harden battled his former teammate to virtual stalemate through the initial four and three quarters games that they faced off in.

Harden’s closest MVP rival has also reinserted his name into the Best Player in the World conversation with his recent play. The Milwaukee Bucks are 8-1 so far in these playoffs, and were the first team into the Conference Finals round thanks in no small part to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Kawhi Leonard’s playoff revival has proven true, and yesterday’s bounceroo series walk-off was a gargantuan exclamation point to an already spectacular run.

All this happened while Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard simultaneously proved their doubters wrong in their seven-game slugfest that was one of the best series of the 2019 playoffs.

LeBron’s presence probably wouldn’t have stopped many of the other superstars to show out. But their individual performances wouldn’t be put under lights as bright if the King were there to steal some of the shine. Had he dragged that depressing Laker team into the playoffs, no way we’d be having this debate.

Not Better, But Different

Have you ever taken a different route home from school or work just for the sake of novelty? The daily grind is so routine that some sort of excitement can be found simply by taking a different route to and from your destination. Most of the time, you’ll find the journey to be worse, maybe more time consuming than your usual path, so you immediately revert back to your norm.

But maybe in that journey, you stumble upon something new. Maybe a new hole-in-the-wall you’d never knew existed. Maybe a nearby gym to officially stop you from excusing yourself from daily exercise.

That’s what this LeBron-less playoffs gives to us.

We’ve already found our gems in the several great players to follow. But more than that, we’re finally going to be gifted a change in the NBA Finals competitors for the first time in half a decade.

The Rockets just milked everything out of the Warriors, which only makes it more interesting to see how the Warriors will fare against the chip-on-their-shoulder, nothing-to-lose Portland Trail Blazers, and the gigantic limbs of the East’s two remaining superstars. Giannis, Kawhi, or Dame and CJ may not provide the semblance of hope that a squad sporting LeBron provides, but what matters right now is that they’re different. And sometimes, different is better than… better.

LeBron’s Comeback

If you think I’m a LeBron-hater, then let me say this: This is my favorite narrative of them all.

Just imagine a 35 year-old James suddenly recapturing his form (and playing defense) en route to the Lakers miraculously snatching a top three seed in the Western Conference. Love them or hate them, that would one of the best stories in the NBA.

I understand that the offseason will play a huge variable as to what the make up of the Lakers roster will be next year. Will we see Anthony Davis with LeBron? Durant? Irving? Klay Thompson?

Regardless of that, the demise of LeBron’s 2018-2019 season may just be the perfect Hollywood story for LeBron’s legacy in La La Land.

The loss of Iron Man has left a major dent in the MCU’s superhero list. But his death has opened the door for new superheroes, and a change in the storyline for the franchise. Likewise, his death coupled with Spiderman’s maturity, and the integration of time manipulation into the storyline has left an opening for unique ways for Iron Man to still make his own personal comeback in the MCU.

Because the end of an era does not stop at the closing of its’ door. The beauty of every ending is the uncertainty, and the novelty, of a brand new narrative.

And if we’re at the transitory phase before the next chapter of the NBA’s next narrative, then I’m here for it.

Photos from Getty Images