This is a magical moment for the Lakers but a defining one for LeBron James. If this newly assembled team advances past the Western Conference finals, which start Tuesday, history will remember the 2023 NBA Finals as LeBron’s 11th trip and the one that cemented him as basketball’s GOAT.
That’s not just me talking, that’s history.
To be honest with you, earlier this year, I didn’t think I’d even care about Conference finals. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a lifelong NBA fan. But I was rooting for James and the Lakers, and after their 2-10 start to the season, it looked as if the team would miss the playoffs — again.
The struggles of the Lakers’ season were the backdrop for James’ climb to the top of the league’s all-time scoring list, a pinnacle he reached in February when he displaced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was easy to admire James and almost forget his team. For much of the fall, it felt as if every ESPN broadcast started with how many points James scored followed by the words “and the Lakers lose.” The night he set the scoring record, the Lakers gave up 133 points in a home loss and were comfortably in 13th place.
That was Feb. 7.
The following two days, that roster was busted up via trades.
When James and company eliminated the defending champions last week, they became just the second in NBA history to reach the Conference finals after beginning 2-10.
That is not normal.
James is now four wins away from an 11th NBA Finals appearance.
That is not normal either.
To put it in perspective, there are players in the Basketball Hall of Fame — including Lakers legend George Mikan — who did not even play 11 NBA seasons, let alone find themselves in the championship round that many times.
The only reason this Lakers team is not being talked about as a Cinderella story is that a team with James is rarely viewed as an underdog, no matter the circumstances. If you need a reason to watch the series, here’s a good one: seeing if the “old man” (at 38) can pull this off.
At the beginning of the year I thought I wouldn’t care. Now I can’t imagine not caring.
It’s true that James hasn’t been successful in every finals appearance (with the Cavaliers, the Heat and the 2020 Lakers). In some fans’ eyes, going 4-6 in the finals is a demerit on LeBron’s record and shows why Michael Jordan (who went 6-0 in the finals) is the better player. For me, dinging James for that is stupid. Regardless of where you land on the proverbial GOAT debate, there are only three NBA franchises with more finals appearances than James, and the Chicago Bulls is not one of them.
While James is credited with (or blamed for) ushering in this era of superstar player movement, too many critics overlook his consistency in the midst of the chaos. Not just in terms of numbers like scoring but also in leadership. It’s a trait that’s hard to quantify.
Being able to get a bunch of strangers to forge a cohesive unit as quickly and effectively as he does is not something analytics can explain. True, James has been fortunate to have very talented teammates in his career. But talent alone does not breed winning. Just look at the Clippers. That’s not meant to throw shade as much as shed light.
I can’t stress this enough: None of this is normal.
According to Stats Perform, this is the first time a major North American sports team managed to finish “in last place outright in their division yet be among the final four teams remaining in the playoffs that season.”
That’s because the lineup that stunk up the first part of the season no longer exists. Consider this as they head to Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets this week: The last time the Lakers faced Denver was Jan. 9. There are three players who started that game for the Lakers who are gone. So while the phrase “don’t take it for granted” is uttered a lot in sports — particularly in reference to athletes in the twilight of their careers — when it comes to James and this Lakers squad, it’s not a throwaway line.
James is expected to compete for a championship every year, and when his teams fall short, he’s dinged. Even when his running mates are injured, even when his teams aren’t as talented, even when the front office Etch A Sketches the roster in the middle of the year. That was the case in Miami. That was the case in Cleveland.
The first NBA team to advance this far after starting a season 2-10 was the Seattle SuperSonics in 1977-78. Coincidentally that team also faced the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals (and won).
What isn’t a coincidence is a team led by LeBron James playing in May. Despite a midseason roster reconstruction, seeing James headed to a championship feels normal.
Even when the Lakers being here clearly is not.