For the first time in who knows how long, LeBron James enters an NBA season without being the player with the most pressure on his shoulders.
The one carrying the biggest burden heading into the 2016-2017 NBA season is Kevin Durant, naturally. Someone who is on the MVP-but-no-ring list is always going to feel pressure. Leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder in order to chase that ring, joining the Golden State Warriors of all teams, takes the pressure to succeed up a couple of notches, if not more. So does this mean James is off the hook of the public court, for good?
Probably not. Winning his first championship in Miami didn’t do it. Winning his second championship in Miami didn’t do it. Winning his third NBA title, making it a first for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the first in a few generations for the city of Cleveland, isn’t going to do it. James is always one Finals loss away from being called a loser, choker, primadonna and anything else the most creative minds of NBA fan bases, “haters” or simply neutrals to the LeBron phenomenon, can come up with.
This season, the only difference is Durant taking some of that rage and hate that is so often directed at James with him to the Bay Area. LeBron may have checked the box next to “win a championship in Cleveland”, but the way we judge him is different than anyone else. James is constantly compared to those breathing down his neck among active players, but there’s the parallel race, in which he’s competing against the greatest of all-time.
Best Small Forward ever? Best player ever? James vs Michael Jordan, LeBron vs Kobe, LeBron = Magic Johnson? From the day James stepped on an NBA court, he was presented as the next big thing, times a 100. Probably the most heralded arrival into the league since Shaquille O’Neal. Along with Shaq and Tim Duncan, he is one of the three most influential players to enter the NBA since the 1984 Draft Class. And with that in mind, the standards for what counts as success were always different for James.
To those who claim players are only good as the number of championship rings they have on their fingers, James will always be inferior to Jordan and Bryant, but also to Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher and Robert Horry, if that’s the logic we’re following. To the ones who see his Finals record (3-4) as the ultimate proof that James is a failure, nothing James does from now will ever be good enough; he and his teams lost four times in NBA finals.
Who knows, maybe he wins two or three more championships in the years that remain for him on the NBA courts, as a leading man or in a reduced role. He can’t be the best player in the NBA forever. Maybe he no longer is, although his third Finals MVP award begs to differ. James will always be hated as much as he is idolized and loved. The Decision 1.0 took care of that, along with Finals losses and the perception that he’s a general manager, agent and a few other things. But maybe for the first time in forever, he doesn’t really need to care. The NBA has a new villain, on a new team everyone loves to hate. The dark tower, Barad-dûr, inexplicably relocated, an NBA fans who just love to hate, or simply creative meme makers, have a new face and name to type when they’re feeling the darkness flowing through them.