LeBron's out of Sight, but Not out of Mind

For the first time in 14 years, LeBron James is not in the playoffs. And while some teams are relishing the chance to become new contenders, it's impossible to ignore the void his absence has created in the NBA ecosystem.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMay 24, 2019

LeBron James capped the first round of the NBA playoffs with a single, poignant emoji: a watch.

He closed the second round with an emphatic declaration: "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!"

Along the way, James smacked the analytics movementsaluted John Singleton and shouted out Muhammad Ali while his team generated an endless stream of intrigue and controversy.

All told, it's been a fairly typical spring for James—flexing, opining and generally dominating the NBA conversation.

The only thing missing, of course, is actual basketball.

For the first time in 14 years—and that number remains positively strikingthe NBA's preeminent superstar is not a participant in the playoffs. James won just 37 games with the Los Angeles Lakers this season, missing the playoffs and leaving a King-sized hole in the NBA tapestry.

No LeBron hammer dunks in May. No LeBron chase-down blocks in June. No LeBron mini-dramas. No winding, reflective postgame sermons. No leviathan for upstarts to slay.

"It's just weird," the Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green said. "More as a basketball fan than anything: 'Damn, Bron not there.' It's super weird. You always relish the opportunity to play against a talent like that."

It's a jarring sensation, no matter where one resides on the Official LeBron Fan/Hater Spectrum.

The hardcore devotee misses his greatness. The casual fan misses his showmanship. Rivals such as Green miss his artistry. And hardheaded critics miss having him as a target (a certain TV crank is now puncturing Kawhi Leonard instead).

However one feels about James' talent, his game or his persona, he makes the NBA a more interesting place. (A dip in postseason television ratings underscores the point.) And yet James' (presumably temporary) absence has refreshed the NBA palette, allowing new figures and storylines to emerge.

With James off the stage, Leonard and Kevin Durant have jockeyed for the mythical "best player in the world" title, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo have basked in a greater spotlight. And the Eastern Conference—dominated by LeBron's teams for eight straight seasons, four with Miami and four with Cleveland—has enjoyed its most compelling race in years.

"It's definitely open, not having LeBron in the East and not trying to go through him," Antetokounmpo told reporters earlier this month.

And yet with James on involuntary furlough, the NBA is indisputably missing its most compelling protagonist.

He is the game's ultimate measuring stick, both hero and villain, a debate starter, meme generator and narrative creator. He's the superstar every team most wants to beat and the icon the rest of us most want to discuss.

"Every single person that follows the NBA has an opinion about LeBron," said Nick Wright, who hosts First Things First on FS1, as well as a daily two-hour show on Mad Dog Sports Radio.

Also, every person who follows the NBA apparently wants to hear other people's opinions about LeBron. Wright recalls sitting in an office with Maverick Carter, James' longtime business manager, about three years ago, with multiple television sets tuned to sports networks: ESPN, ESPN2 and FS1.

Even though he is not in the playoffs for the first time since 2005, LeBron James has generated plenty of headlines, thanks in large part to the front office machinations in L.A.
Even though he is not in the playoffs for the first time since 2005, LeBron James has generated plenty of headlines, thanks in large part to the front office machinations in L.A.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"And all three shows were having a different LeBron James discussion," Wright said. "I think it was the offseason."

First Things First, which debuted in September 2017, recently experienced a first: four straight days without a single mention of the words "LeBron James." The streak ended when the Lakers' coaching search heated up, pushing Wright and his co-hosts back into full-scale LeBronalyzing.

For his part, James has kept a fairly low profile, other than the occasional tweet: the wristwatch emoji in tribute to "Dame Time" Lillard's breathtaking, 37-foot buzzer-beater to close out the first round; the "heart of a champion" exclamation praising the Warriors after they beat the Rockets; a reaction ("#4 Beautiful") to the Lakers' leap to fourth in the draft lottery.

Even when James is idle, he dominates the news cycle. The Lakers' tire fire of an offseasonfrom Magic Johnson's abrupt resignation to a clumsy coaching search to Johnson's ripping of Lakers general manager Rob Pelinkahas kept James in the news by proxy. Every story eventually becomes: How does this affect LeBron?

Not that James is providing any clues. He attended Monday's press conference for new head coach Frank Vogel but did not speak to reporters. He did telegraph his approval of Vogel (and the hiring of assistant coach Jason Kidd) by "liking" a series of Instagram posts.

"Actually, it hasn't felt like he's not in the playoffs," the 76ers' JJ Redick said earlier this month, about 15 James stories ago. "I think the Lakers are in the news every day. Until you said that, literally the thought [that James was out of the playoffs] hadn't crossed my mind. I swear to God."

At the time, Redick and his teammates were still vying for the Eastern Conference crown that was vacated when James went West last July. The Sixers, Celtics, Raptors and Bucks all entered the playoffs with a legitimate belief they could become the first non-LeBron team to rule the East.

And, for the most part, none of them cared that James was missing. Players and coaches generally adhere to a competitive myopiafixated only on the next game, the next opponent.

"Guys are not sitting here thinking, 'Oh you don't have to go through LeBron,'" the Sixers' Greg Monroe said. "Guys are focused on what's in front of them."

But as a matter of entertainment? Everyone misses LeBron's heroics and theatrics. If you didn't, you wouldn't still be reading this story.

"The playoffs have been for me drastically different," said Wright, a self-professed LeBron fan.

Wright began working in sports media in 2007the year James made the first of his nine NBA Finals, and the second of his 13 straight playoff runs.

"So this is the first time since I've been doing this for a living that he has not been a part of the playoffs," Wright said. "He's one of the only people in the sport where there is a referendum drawn on him on damn near every regular-season game and definitely every playoff game."

This postseason has been packed with thrilling moments, from Lillard's 37-footer to beat Oklahoma City, to the Blazers' four-overtime victory over Denver, to Leonard's four-bounce series clincher in Game 7 against Philadelphia. Durant had been positively ethereal before he went down with a calf injury in Game 5 of the Houston series. Stephen Curry has been brilliant ever since.

But no single player captivates quite like James.

Last spring, James thoroughly owned the NBA space: eight games of at least 40 points; two game-winning buzzer-beatersincluding a spectacular, running bank shot against Toronto; a 40-point triple-double against Boston; and, of course, a 51-point, eight-assist, eight-rebound tour de force against the Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals, a night that is now better remembered for JR Smith's gaffe and James' meme-inspiring apoplexy.

No other single player has so dramatically reshaped and redefined the league over the last decade.

It was LeBron who kicked off the superteam arms race in 2010, LeBron who played the foil for the Warriors' emerging dynasty and LeBron who dealt the Warriors their only playoff series loss of the last four years.

Even in defeat, James helped define the Warriors' greatness. They didn't just win three championships—they did so by beating the best player alive.

So it's an admittedly strange sensation for Green and his teammatesnow preparing for their fifth straight Finalsto be awaiting a new rival: either the Milwaukee Bucks (led by Antetokounmpo) or the Toronto Raptors (led by Leonard).

"It's just weird to look over there to know that you're going to play someone completely different," Green said. "It's kind of a mindfuck."

You could argue that James is at least partly responsible for the Warriors signing Durant in 2016 (following their Finals collapse against James' Cavaliers) and for the Raptors swapping DeMar DeRozan for Leonard last summer (following Toronto's repeated failures against James).

It also was James who denied the Indiana Pacers two shots at the Finals, leading to their eventual breakup and the trade of Paul George, and James who stymied the 60-win Atlanta Hawks before that roster was torn down.

It was James who slammed the door shut on the Boston Celtics' New Big Three era, James who snuffed the Chicago Bulls' brief resurgence and James (with a notable assist from Ray Allen) who dealt Tim Duncan his only Finals defeat.

In a normal spring, James would be crushing someone's spirit right about now and then taking to the podium to provide thoughtful soliloquies about basketball intelligence and blow-by-blow recollections of key possessions. In a normal spring, he wouldn't be tweeting at all, abiding by his so-called "zero dark thirty" policy of abstaining from social media during the playoffs.

We did hear James express his dismay at Magic's resignation, in an episode of The Shop, a show produced by James' media company. Otherwise, this postseason has mostly been devoid of his voice, whether on matters of basketball or social justice.

James has so far declined an open invitation to appear on TNT's Inside the NBA. He also teased fans with the possibility of a Twitter Q&A but never followed up. So we all soldier on without him.

The NBA hasn't had a postseason without James since 2005, his second year in the league. Antetokounmpo was 10 years old at the time. Curry was finishing his junior year at Charlotte Christian High School. Steve Kerr was a TNT analyst. Allen Iverson was the league's scoring champion. Steve Nash was the MVP. The SuperSonics were still in Seattle, the Nets were still in New Jersey, the Charlotte team was called the Bobcats and the Hornets played in New Orleans.

Or, put another way, it was nine Knicks coaches ago that James last missed the playoffs. His presence is missed.

Ratings for the first round were down 18 percent from last year, according to Austin Karp of the Sports Business Journal. Despite stronger viewership in the second round and conference finals, ratings are down 6 percent overall.

How important is LeBron to ratings? Commissioner Adam Silver recently said on the Today show that regular-season viewership was "clearly impacted" by James' move to the Pacific time zone, because of how late his games aired in the East. So a total LeBron blackout this spring has surely hurt.

"He absolutely, absolutely has had an impact on the NBA playoffs," said media reporter Richard Deitsch of The Athletic, citing James' absence. "You cannot argue otherwise, just given his history in the postseason versus the [numbers] we're seeing now. … He's that important."

Maybe there's a silver lining here. After 239 playoff games—the equivalent of nearly three extra seasons—James could probably use a breather. He's 34. His time as the NBA's standard-bearer is surely running down. But the league can take solace in the strength and breadth of his would-be successors: in Giannis and Kawhi, KD and Steph, Joel Embiid and Dame, James Harden and Nikola Jokic.

"I think it's been more than fine without LeBron," said Wright. He added: "The LeBron James era will end at some point. And I feel like this postseason up to this point has reassured anyone and everyone that the league will be in good hands once this era is actually over."

James, who attended the news conference for new Lakers coach Frank Vogel this week, started his summer vacation this year before June for the first time since 2010.
James, who attended the news conference for new Lakers coach Frank Vogel this week, started his summer vacation this year before June for the first time since 2010.Chris Elise/Getty Images

So what is the King doing with all his down time? He's taken the family to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, attended his son's basketball tournament in Atlanta and, according to those who know him, probably watched every playoff game.

While those close to James declined to provide any specifics for this story, one source wryly confirmed the obvious, that James "would give anything to be playing basketball right now" instead of tweeting about it.

"It's different, and I'm sure it's eating at him," the Warriors' Shaun Livingston said. "This is the best time of basketball."

The throne is vacant. The King is on holiday. But in the NBA, the LeBronathon never really ends.

                

Senior Writer Ric Bucher contributed reporting from Oakland.

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.

Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


Longtime veteran, NBA champion and now NBA TV analyst Jason Terry joins Howard Beck to discuss what Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to add to his game, the best fit for Kevin Durant this summer and what he would do if he was commissioner for a day. All that and more in The Full 48. 

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