Back to the future with LeBron James

Back to the future with LeBron James
@KingJames, Instagram / Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

When the Alibaba L.A. Lakers traded away their 2038 first round draft pick, as well as Glenn Robinson V and cash considerations, to bring in veteran and two-time champion Vince Carter, it became clear that President of Basketball Operations Maverick Carter made a win-now move to get one more championship ring for LeBron James Jr. this season.

The 16-year superstar has eased off the load in recent seasons while the Lakers have assembled talent to make a last run at a title or two with a member of the James family on the court.

Ever since his father acquired a controlling share of the remaining Los Angeles NBA franchise in 2031, James Jr.’s tenure with the Lakers was secured. 

But Junior has not rested on simply collecting checks. Once Zaire Wade retired, it was clear James Jr.’s generation was not going to have too many opportunities to win a championship, so the talent assembly began, just like when Maverick Carter (then James’ agent) muscled his client Anthony Davis to Hollywood nearly 20 years ago.

While James Jr. has already won one championship more than his father managed, he is still lagging behind him in one category: the Most Valuable Player award.

James won his fifth and final individual accolade in the 2019-20 season, after finishing the season with 26 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists, en route to a 60-win season and a Finals appearance, before the Lakers sadly fell to perhaps the greatest Eastern Conference team ever assembled – but more on that another time.

Of course, narrative played its part that season. Everyone had written off James and warned that his career was beginning to plummet after an injury the previous year, and with the arrival of Davis, most people assumed this would be a passing-of-the torch scenario. But with James recording five triple-doubles (remember when they were cool?) in his first 10 games, it was clear that the Laker had at least one more full throttle year in him.

Some pundits at the time credited the Lakers’ losing in the Finals, during which he missed Game 3 after rolling his ankle in the final quarter of a Game 2 win, to James’ body being tired after going so hard early in the season, unlike the previous several years. He played 80 games that year, when other stars like Kawhi Leonard had started appreciating the importance of load management. 

Even his teammate Davis took time off the court that season. He always struggled with nagging injuries but the two week break going into the All-Star break helped rest his body for the longest playoff run of his career up to that point. 

The starting point guard in that Finals, Rajon Rondo, also sat out two months to start the year, making the offensive load for James even greater.

But his son has learned from that mistake. James Jr. even admitted that a focus on titles earlier in his career – which led to him foregoing heavy minutes during the regular season to preserve his body for playoff runs – was a result of seeing his father’s body break down during the single season they played together in his rookie year. And now, with five championships to his name, James Jr. has the luxury of putting together one more MVP-calibre season. He won’t match the 26, 8 and 10 his father managed in that final MVP-winning season of 2018-19, but rebounding has never be Jr’s focus. If he keeps pace with the 33, 8 and 4 he is on, shooting 50-50-90, James Jr will be the front runner for the 2037-38 MVP award. However, history tells us he is unlikely to chase it for the sake of ignoring the bigger prize at the end of the playoffs.