The LeBron James GOAT coronation just got complicated.For LeBron, this season was always going to be largely defined by his pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record — a mark, at this rate, he should surpass around mid-February. Had things gone to plan, LeBron’s pursuit would have overlapped with a passing of the torch of sorts to Anthony Davis.LeBron, the King, setting the ultimate historical-scoring crown atop his head, while also passing along the mantle of No. 1 on this Lakers team to Davis.This seemed — as A.D. cranked out 40- and 50-point games and the Lakers morphed into a formidable force — to be a reasonable reality.Davis, when healthy, has always been an otherworldly talent — an offensive and defensive maestro who can spend large swaths of games outshining even the brightest of the league’s other stars. And there is precedent for an all-time great like LeBron taking a back seat on a team they could still internally dominate in order to win.
That’s a different kind of greatness, and a harder, more subtle path to pursuing championships. Some can do it. Some can’t.Take Kobe Bryant. Early in his career, Kobe played an uneasy second-fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq got three straight NBA Finals MVPs, but they both got rings. Then, at the twilight of Kobe’s time in the league, things were different. He could not give way to another star, or the idea of taking a back seat to would-be stars, and the Lakers were mired in back-to-back seasons of misery.Steph Curry, at the height of his greatness, played second fiddle to Kevin Durant for the sake of rings and team harmony. Tim Duncan did so at the end of his career for the Spurs and won more titles as a result. After his Lakers run, Shaq won his last championship as a secondary element in Miami where a young Dwyane Wade went bonkers in the NBA Finals to carry the Heat to the franchise’s first title.
There were reasons to hope, perhaps, it might for LeBron this time around, if he were so inclined. Davis the superstar, Russell Westbrook the reborn sixth man, and LeBron in that secondary role that time was always going to make inevitable. Is it perfect? No, but it’s enough of a recipe to give Lakers fans hope.Win some games. Stay afloat in the Western Conference. Make the playoffs. And see what magic an A.D.-LeBron axis, rather than the other way around, might unleash. The Celtics surprised last year after a so-so start. Why not the Lakers in 2023?Then A.D. injured his right foot. And now, for the 30 days or so that he’s expected to miss, a Lakers team in chaos must again turn to an aging King. They are 13-17, 13th in a crowded and formidable Western Conference. This stretch without Davis will go a long way toward deciding whether this season merely measures LeBron’s greatness, or extends it.
He must carry them now. He has to hope, in doing so, that Davis can return and take back the burden. LeBron has to make sure the Lakers don’t fall too far behind so that Davis, if you trust him to stay healthy and stay extraordinary, can take over that role once he’s back.None of this is to suggest that LeBron planned to idly drift into the history books while giving up on this, his 20th season in the league. But having A.D. there to help keep the team afloat, to do the heavy lifting, to save his co-star from extending too much of himself too soon, was always the preference.LeBron learned long ago to properly gauge a season, and himself, and to calibrate his play so that he had enough in the tank to be at peak form come the playoffs. That has become harder as the years have added up for him, and the margin for error will be very, very thin now.
Case in point: The 2020-21 season, when the Lakers stumbled to seventh place, exerting crucial energy for that push, won the play-in game against the Golden State Warriors, and then lost to the Suns in the first round of the payoffs.He may be days away from his 38th birthday, but LeBron can still hoop with the best of them. That said, the magnitude of miracle you can ask from him has lessened. He’s averaging 27/8.5/6.5 this season, he’s playing a lot of minutes, and while his shooting has waned there’s every reason to recognize that his greatness remains.But does it remain enough to carry a mediocre Lakers team? To win games, single-handedly at times, night after night after night in the middle of the regular season, the way A.D. had done before his injury? To be so special that it infuses the ordinary around him to play beyond themselves?
The King’s coronation as the best of all time is coming. Like it or not, passing Kareem will stake LeBron’s claim to that spot. That was always true. History likely won’t remember how or when he passed Kareem. It’ll just know that he did so.The more difficult challenge — the greater GOAT litmus test before LeBron James, even if it is not remembered that way 10 years from now — is whether he can roll back the years one last time and carry a team suddenly in need of an aging savior.We saw it with Lionel Messi and Argentina in the World Cup. We saw it a couple years ago with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We know, for the true greats, it is possible. We know what it looks like.
The all-time scoring record is a lock. But what got LeBron there — that unimaginable talent he’s unfurled for two thrilling decades of basketball — now has a heavier burden to carry. Time to see if he still has the strength to do so.