Two impossibly advanced robots that look indistinguishable from humans designed solely for brutal, efficient victory. Constructed for a single purpose, two cybernetic organisms battled their way across the city of Los Angeles in 1991 in James Cameron’s action masterpiece Terminator 2.
The narrative arc of this prophetic and impossibly valuable cultural artefact is also exactly what we’ve witnessed in the 2019/2020 NBA Season with the Lakers and the Clippers. The younger Kawhi Leonard coming off a championship in Toronto and moving to Los Angeles immediately raised questions in the media over whether he could become the first player to win a championship as the star player for three different franchises.
Even before the season started, Kawhi’s steely resolve and quiet, almost cold outward demeanour raised questions over whether Kawhi was an advanced terminator prototype.
But just as we saw play out in 1991, the older model — in this case LeBron James has won the battle of Los Angeles with his Lakers now one game up in the NBA Finals. Indeed it looks like he may, in fact, become the first player to achieve what was preemptively being discussed for Leonard. Despite his generation having already been and gone, it was the T-800 who was the real focus and hero of the movie and that looks like it may play out in these NBA Finals too.
“I have detailed files on human anatomy.”
For all his talents and his brain (more on that later) as a basketball player, the physicality that LeBron has been able to impose on basketball games since he entered the league is undeniable. His combination of size, strength, speed and coordination is likely matched by few others on earth even before he’s stepped on a basketball court.
But this isn’t entirely just through natural athleticism. It’s been widely discussed in the media that LeBron James spends in excess of over $1.5 million per year keeping his body in elite shape. With this being his 17th NBA season, he is already arguably the best player the league has ever seen for this duration of time.
“I sense injuries. The data could be called ‘pain.'”
Hand in hand with his physical performance is the inhuman availability for his teams that LeBron has displayed over the course of his career. For someone playing the sheer number of minutes that he has, even the law of averages would suggest that a tweaked ankle here, and an awkward landing there would have kept him out longer than he’s actually missed.
I can think of only a single player in the years I’ve watched basketball who could be compared to LeBron in terms of stardom, seasons, minutes and availability and that is Karl Malone. Malone was known as another obsessive, some might say robotic advocate of gruelling workouts and staying in elite shape year round. Malone only eventually succumbed to an injury in his age 40 season with the Lakers. This is perhaps an ominous sign for Western Conference rivals looking at the Lakers today.
“I need your clothes, your boots and Alex Caruso.”
After joining the Lakers, LeBron threw the gauntlet down to stars, important role players and veterans around the league. “Come with me if you want a ring”. Anthony Davis rallied to the call, forcing his way out of New Orleans and immediately creating an inside-outside duo to rival any other in the NBA
With his main running mate in place, the Lakers (no doubt heavily influenced by LeBron’s preferences) have pieced together a roster that has proven effective, despite not necessarily having the depth at first glance you’d expect from a championship roster.
But over the course of his career, this has become something of a specialist skill for LeBron. Able to glance at players, analyse them through the advanced super basketball computer he has for a brain and see their strengths and weaknesses. The internet looked at Alex Caruso and saw a meme. LeBron saw a championship contributor.
There have been doubts over many Lakers such as Danny Green and Dwight Howard being able to contribute at the required level if relied upon – but playing alongside a playmaker who can run 3 billion lines of code a second to calculate success rates on every possession has a way of improving your game. On multiple teams that have made it to the Finals, LeBron has been able to extract significant contributions from players either discarded by other teams or for which that would be their career highlight.
LeBron James even led the NBA in assists this season despite having never been a true creative or visionary in the mould of a Steve Nash who could create space from nothing and find passes no one else could see. Instead, you see LeBron scanning the court, knowing every offensive and defensive system in place, the tendencies and strengths of every player and where each player is looking at a given moment.
The brutal efficiency of LeBron constantly seeking and returning to the matchups his opponent tries to mitigate, driving into the space they try to protect, anticipating defensive rotations perfectly and having the strength and ability to finish through even the toughest of contact himself is a combination never seen before in the NBA.
“My CPU is a neural-net processor; a learning computer.”
LeBron’s incredible learning capacity doesn’t only apply to his individual oncourt performance and ability to enhance the play of his teammates. Despite having the kind of online haters anyone of his stature inevitably has these days, for his altruism, politically-minded commentary and example as a father and husband he is generally as beloved as an athlete of his stature could possibly expect to be. But this wasn’t always the case.
LeBron is familiar with being cast as the villain – both in the eyes of Cleveland fans when he left for Miami, and even now with his cooled relationship with Pat Riley and playing against his former team in the Miami Heat. The anger and derision cast at James following “The Decision” in 2010 put him firmly somewhere between pantomime villain, professional wrestling heel and perceived as being entitled and out of touch.
Through his incredible play and a meticulous approach to media and personal brand building, James learned instantly from that one event and never slipped up again. Again, we see this mirrored in T2.
The model T-800 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger was actually the villain of the original movie but in the masterful sequel became the hero as he battled the newer T-1000 model to ultimately determine what the future would be. Again, the parallel I’d like to draw here is that LeBron is fighting for a cause he has been programmed to pursue from the moment he entered the NBA. Chasing ghosts. And I’d challenge even the most cynical of basketball fans not to believe they are watching something important unfolding before their eyes.
“The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
A lot of Terminator 2 is a philosophical debate around the concept of fate. It’s about growing up believing in a particular destiny for yourself, but also the contradictory belief that you have the individual agency to shape and mould that future. It’s about questioning whether everything is predetermined or whether even seemingly insurmountable odds can be overcome.
LeBron James entered these finals already an all-time great. An undisputed resume and an unquestioned reputation both on and off the court. But Father Time remains undefeated. Eventually. As we enter what will likely be the final scenes of LeBron’s career over the coming seasons, he knows he is still in control of how it plays out.
It isn’t just a ring at stake for LeBron James in these Finals. It is true, unquestioned immortality. An impossible dream.
The GOAT debate is hallowed ground. Basketball fans debate each other passionately and with the kind of reverence for their player of choice that in times past would have been reserved only for the Saints. When LeBron James eventually retires, there’s a genuine chance we never see a player walk this ground again for decades.
But jilted Cavs fans, Heat fans and fervent MJ loyalists I can hear you already. And that’s fine. That’s the beautiful thing about sports. Subjective opinions fuel our passion.
At the culmination of Terminator 2, Sarah Connor was forced to reconcile the fear, the mistrust and the hatred she had for the model T-800 with how important it had been in shaping the world and how much she owed it. Symbolically extending her arm to shake hands before it was gone forever.
Whatever your stance on the GOAT debate, and whether the result of these final games of the 2019/2020 season influences your opinion or not. Just take a moment and also, (metaphorically) extend a hand to LeBron to recognise the greatness we’ve witnessed.
Even if it’s still (17 years in) too soon for you. Win or lose, if there’s one thing regarding the NBA Finals and LeBron James we can put money on.
It’s that before he’s done, he’ll be back.