I remember the summer of 2005 very vividly, and I’m sure LeBron James does, too. While I was getting ready for my first year of college, YouTube was about to upload its first video, and Mariah Carey was in the midst of her biggest career comeback. The aftermath of the Malice in the Palace was the biggest story in the NBA, the Sonics didn’t need to be saved because they were still in Seattle and winning 50-plus games, Shaquille O’ Neal and the Lakers had their own messy off-season drama, and Steve Nash was the toast of the league as he won his first of back-to-back MVPs.
The league was very different that summer, which was also the last time LeBron James missed the NBA Playoffs. While there have been takes abound regarding the Lakers’ disappointing season and LeBron’s subsequent absence from the postseason, on the eve of the 2019 NBA Finals, it would be wrong to pretend that the league even missed the King these past two months because, quite frankly, basketball fans didn’t.
I say basketball fans specifically, because they are very different from LeBron fans. LeBron fans fall into two very specific categories. In the first are people who love the game of basketball and view LeBron as “Top 2 and Not 2” in the pantheon of the game’s greatest players. Then there are the casual LeBron fans, who only know basketball through the eyes of the King and have no interest in watching the game if he’s not involved. You know the type. It’s just like the Michael Jordan fans who lost interest in watching basketball when he finally hung ’em up.
Apparently many of LeBron’s fans fall into the second category. By the time the 2019 NBA Playoffs has reached the second round, Austin Karp of the Sports Business Journal reported that Playoff ratings were down 18 percent across TNT, ABC, ESPN, and NBATV. That’s a big enough drop to make commissioner Adam Silver lose whatever hair he has left.
Without the game’s biggest star sniffing the postseason, playoff basketball has been compelling again, because the health and popularity of the league no longer depends on how far its best player can carry his team.
That drop wasn’t unprecedented, though. When Michael Jordan led the Bulls to the NBA Finals against the Jazz in 1998, the games drew an average of 29 million viewers for the series. When the Knicks and Spurs met one year later after the lockout-shortened season, the games averaged just 16 million viewers.
“Face it, LeBron is one of the biggest stars in the world, and he also played in the East,” Silver recently told The Today Show. “And so the reason I look a little bit tired is a lot of our games are in the West, and it’s late at night. And I recognize most people choose to go to sleep at a reasonable time. And so, from a rating standpoint, not having LeBron in the playoffs, not having him in the east, has clearly impacted ratings.”
Silver doesn’t look stressed, though, because the drama has been better without the inevitability of LeBron dominating an entire conference for the ninth straight season. Certainly, the NBA would’ve soaked up the ratings and intrigue of a coming-of-age team taking a LeBron-led team out in the playoffs. But the current standings prove that the league is in great hands, even without the luxury of LeBron James on TV every other night.
Think back to the Jordan years, and the postseasons that followed his second retirement. As Jordan faded to black, there were no superstars ready to take the throne. The Kobe and Shaq-led Lakers dominated the early 2000s and kept the league popular, even though they played in Pacific Standard Time and close to 58 percent of the general NBA watching public is on Eastern Standard Time. After that, the league suffered through the star-less Spurs’ and Pistons’ championship runs before its uptick in star power coincided with Kobe’s Lakers, the Big Three Celtics, the Heatles, and the Warriors.
Without the game’s biggest star sniffing the postseason, playoff basketball has been compelling again, because the health and popularity of the league no longer depends on how far its best player can carry his team. This is especially true in an era with so many other superstars and super teams. It seems like every week you can make a different, valid argument for who the current best player in the world is.
For a good amount of the playoffs, the consensus seemed to be Kevin Durant. After he went down with a calf injury during the Western Conference Semifinals, Giannis Antetokounmpo staked his claim after dismantling a Boston Celtics team with as much intriguing young talent as anybody in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard didn’t just take the throne as the King of the North; he somehow made Giannis’ eventual coronation of league MVP look fraudulent after dominating him on both sides of the ball. Oh, yeah, and he impeded the next step of “The Process” by becoming the first player in NBA history (!) to win a Game 7 on a buzzer beater.
In the Western Conference, just as Dame Time was picking up steam with logo-length trey balls and claimed that he deserves to be considered one of the game’s best, Stephen Curry silenced all that “overrated” talk by giving the Blazers the business, and then stomping out another MVP candidate in James Harden in the second round. While something new isn’t always something great, the 2019 NBA Playoffs have proven that even without the King playing center stage, the NBA is in great hands.
Still, let’s not front like off-season LeBron isn’t awesome, too. Would watching LeBron take a haphazard Lakers squad through the playoffs been as fun as watching #DadBron have 3-point contests with 14-year old AAU prospects? No. Would LeBron plowing through a Denver Nuggets defense and kicking to wide-open Rajon Rondo, only to brick a wide-open three, be as fun as LeBron James talking about sports, race, politics, and music on HBO with Pharrell, Don Cheadle, Travis Scott, Seth Rogen, and Jimmy Iovine? No. Hell, LeBron’s kid launched a new Instagram page, and I and close to one million other people are just as invested in that as they are in anything that the King himself is up to these days—word to Taco Tuesdays! This is all to say that the lack of postseason LeBron for the NBA is like Adam Silver winning a game of Uno without having to use his Wild Draw Four cards.
I wouldn’t get used to LeBron sitting on the sidelines in future Aprils, Mays, and Junes quite yet, though. Much like the year-long wait and anticipation for Avengers: Endgame, LeBron is hoping that all of the drama surrounding himself, Rich Paul, Magic Johnson, the Buss family, and Rob Pelinka will crescendo in the Mighty Lakers’ return to the postseason in 2020, bringing the game’s best player and most glamorous franchise back to the ultimate spotlight. As evidenced by the struggles on the court and off, the Lakers and LeBron have a whole new set of challenges to take on before he rides off into the sunset and his time in Hollywood is deemed a success. But just in case the Lakers remain trash, basketball fans will be aight.