Monday, July 15, 2024

The walls outside the Miami Heat locker room are adorned with LeBron James’ name, image and likeness. When Gabe Vincent was a member of that organization, every day, for the previous four seasons on his walk toward the court for home games or up a set of stairs to the practice facility, he had no choice but to see the dozens of pictures of James in the hallways. There are pictures of other Heat greats from Miami’s three championships too, but none of those players are still in the NBA. James is, though — and he’s still great, 10 years removed from leading Miami to its last title. Over the summer, Vincent signed a three-year, $33 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, which brought him back to southern California where he grew up. But it also put him on the same team with a player who was immortalized in the building Vincent had left behind in Miami.

“It’s hard to talk about the NBA without mentioning his name,” Vincent said recently after a Lakers practice when asked what it was like to become teammates with LeBron. “Whether it’s the Heat or you’re in Charlotte, you’re going to mention LeBron’s name.”

Vincent is not alone in experiencing this phenomenon — of experiencing James transform from a two-dimensional image and a name known around the league to flesh, from NBA shrine to jump shooting, sweat-pouring, foul-mouthed, living legend.

When D’Angelo Russell was in college at Ohio State during the 2014-15 season, the Buckeyes’ basketball dressing room had a locker for James, even though LeBron was never enrolled there. The Buckeyes honored James as a major program benefactor, and, by the time that locker went up in Columbus in 2013, he was already a two-time NBA champion and four-time MVP. The two — D-Lo and Bron — joined forces when the Lakers traded for Russell in February.

By this season’s end, James’ illustrious NBA career will be 21 years old — or the legal age to drink alcohol. He is, by far, the Lakers’ oldest player and will turn 39 on Dec. 30. He also is the league’s all-time leading scorer.

It’s the most hallowed individual record in the sport and now belongs to the man who already had been the de facto “face” of the NBA for a decade.

“It was just an adjustment just playing with somebody of that caliber,” said Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ second-oldest and second-most-decorated player at age 30 and with eight All-Star games to James’ 19.

Davis is entering his fifth year with LeBron in Los Angeles — a tip of the cap to time flying by. Davis came to L.A. via a trade that was pushed for by his agent — and James’ agent — Rich Paul, with James’ full backing. They won a championship together in their first season. It was Davis’ first title and James’ fourth.

“Obviously, we made it work,” Davis said. “We continue to try to figure out ways to get back to where it’s working, you know, with me and him and then also with the guys around us,” later clarifying that he meant winning another championship.

As previously hinted, James is still among the best players in the league. He averaged 28.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists for the Lakers at age 38, in the process overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most points in league history. This was followed by a stunning team resurgence of which James was at the forefront.

But his body, while perhaps not failing him the way the bodies of aging superstars often do, has certainly gotten in his way. Injuries, wear and tear have cost him 111 games in five years with the Lakers.

The season that begins Tuesday in Denver will be LeBron’s first in which he’d openly considered retiring when the previous season ended.

James also never had a preseason like the one that just concluded either. He is entirely healthy — which is great, considering the last several years of unfortunate breakdowns — but barely spoke to the press throughout training camp. He violated NBA rules by declining to speak after preseason games in which he played, and beyond that, showed a marked detachment from how he’s handled most of the last two decades.

When he spoke to reporters in Los Angeles on Saturday for the first time in well over a week, he said his “motivation to continue to be as great as I can be and solidify what I want to do in my career and still seeing that Larry O’Brien trophy in my mind on a daily basis” is what’s keeping him going into his third NBA decade.

“Also wanting to be legendary in this game and let my game speak for itself long after I’ve played,” James added. “But this team has motivated me as well. Coming to practice every day, seeing the guys go to work every day, challenging each other, trying to get better every day. Implement what we want to do. And so, that’s been motivating as well.”

The LeBron experience, while ongoing, is entering a new and perhaps final phase. The end date is uncertain, but as he withdraws as the outward facing spokesman for the league, openly ponders retirement and marches toward 40, playing with James, or watching him play, becomes more of an exercise in appreciation of a body of work than dwelling on any particular game or moment.

“That dude has given the game every ounce of his being,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He deserved the chance to get with his family, think about it, have some solace, meditation time and personal time to figure out what it is you want to do and how you want to move forward. It’s on us to be prepared to pivot in whatever direction he decided to do. And fortunately for us, he decided to come back.”

Ham said James is noticeably lighter, not in terms of body weight but in mood, from this fall to last. The casual observer would agree the usual pressures and dramas that often follow James aren’t there.

The Lakers revamped their entire roster at the trade deadline, moving on from Russell Westbrook, among others, to James’ approval. The Lakers’ trip to the Western Conference finals, and strong summer with the addition of Vincent, Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince and Christian Wood as role players, as well as the re-signing of rising star Austin Reaves, put James in a better place with Lakers executives than maybe he has ever been.

If he declines a $51 million player option, James could be a free agent next summer. The serious health issue that befell his son Bronny over the summer and potentially delayed his entrance into the NBA Draft could be the single biggest factor affecting James’ free agency. He would want to be able to play on the same team as his son, if it’s possible, but even if Bronny is in the draft (he intends to play at some point this season as a freshman for USC), most observers believe the Lakers will find a way to make sure that happens in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, James’ already untouchable status as one of the greatest ever to play only continues to rise — among his peers if not among the general public.

“Some guys might say he is No. 2, but other guys like me, I say he is No. 1, and he’s still going,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, putting it plainly that he believes James is the best NBA player ever, ahead of Michael Jordan.

Jordan typically is the favorite in that barbershop argument — he beat out LeBron as greatest, according to a panel of NBA experts at The Athletic two years ago. Last year, in The Athletic’s annual player poll, Jordan again won the vote, but more players than ever picked James over Jordan.

“I think people will look back at that body of work over 20 years or however long it’s been, and when it’s over with, I think they’ll have more respect (for James),” said Damian Lillard, Giannis’ star teammate on the Milwaukee Bucks. “For the guys who are in it like I am, and the rest of us who do this job, got to put our bodies through it and got to deal with it mentally and physically, because we love it that much.”

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