2015-16 NBA season preview

King still dictates storyline

LeBron James, taking a wefie with fans in an Oct 7 pre-season game against Atlanta, says he will bow out when he can no longer give his best.
LeBron James, taking a wefie with fans in an Oct 7 pre-season game against Atlanta, says he will bow out when he can no longer give his best.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

James will further burnish his legacy if he can bring an NBA title to Cleveland, his adopted hometown

If every successful sports league has a leading star to sustain public interest through its annual seasons, then the National Basketball Association (NBA) has been on a 35-year winning run.

For since 1980, it has seen larger-than-life talents grace its stage and also propel its popularity to global levels.

Just look at its compelling cast of leading men since the 1970s ended: The Hollywood grin of Magic Johnson and the gritty genius of Larry Bird in the 1980s, the unparalleled excellence of Michael Jordan in the 1990s, the flawed but entertaining double act of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in the 2000s, and now the LeBron James show that is dominating this decade.

All are vastly disparate characters who happen to play brilliant basketball day in, day out. The NBA has been fortunate to have them for half of its 70-year existence.

As this decade heads into its second half, no one can dispute that "King" James has grabbed hold of the league narrative as effortlessly as his glide to the basket in one of his trademark breakaway dunks.



    Forward, 30, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Why watch him: The player of this generation has one burning desire left unfulfilled - to bring a first-ever NBA title to Cleveland. But the clock is ticking as he turns 31 in December - there may not be much time left before he is past his peak.


    Guard, 27, Golden State Warriors

    Why watch him: The emotional leader of the defending champions faces a defining season. He could either be a one-season wonder, or he could lay claim to being one of the deadliest shooters the league has ever seen, even with defenders geared to stopping him.


    Guard, 37, Los Angeles Lakers

    Why watch him: It could be the final chance to see this five-time champion in action. Bryant has kept mum on whether he is retiring after this season. Most likely, he wants to see whether his rebuilding Lakers can be competitive or not.


    Forward, 30, San Antonio Spurs

    Why watch him: The key piece of a host of outstanding acquisitions by the Spurs this off-season, Aldridge is a natural successor to Tim Duncan. Will he be an instant hit amid the ageing Spurs squad?


    Centre, 22, New Orleans Pelicans

    Why watch him: He can dunk and block ferociously, yet has a silky-smooth shooting touch from anywhere inside the arc. The sky's the limit for this 2.08m-tall talent, who has single-handedly made the Pelicans play-off contenders.



    From Portland Trail Blazers to San Antonio Spurs: In one swoop, the Blazers became mediocre while the Spurs became title contenders.


    From Washington Wizards to Los Angeles Clippers: Homecoming for the LA native who will bring veteran leadership and know-how to a team on the verge of a title breakthrough.


    From Detroit Pistons to Milwaukee Bucks: A move that works both ways - the Pistons deal away a fine player so that Andre Drummond is allowed ample room to develop his talents while Monroe can shine with ample playing time with the Bucks.


    From Atlanta Hawks to Toronto Raptors: An intriguing move - will it hurt the Hawks, who had relied a lot on Carroll's defensive nous, or will his career stall amid the high-scoring Raptors?


    From Indiana Pacers to Los Angeles Lakers: A defensive ace just two seasons ago, he has since slipped into a deep funk. Can a change of scenery help revive a promising career?

  • Chia Han Keong

Since last season, the running storyline has been whether he can bring a first basketball title to the city of Cleveland, whose Cavaliers first drafted him into the league in 2003.

It is a delicious angle not only because James was born in nearby Akron but also because Cleveland has been tortured by near-misses throughout its history across America's "Big Four" sports - baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey.

An NBA title would certainly soothe the agony of previous heartbreaks, including the two Finals appearances that James has already dragged the Cavaliers to - in 2007 as a raw talent and last year as a battle-hardened veteran.

Much has been said about his emotional homecoming after winning two titles with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 but there is also a sense that he is cleverly trying to shape his legacy that the public will remember him by.

Among the NBA's leading men, James' career has been the most "engineered" of all - carefully scripted to provide him with maximum impact among fans.

Johnson, Bird and Jordan relied on their transcendent skills to reach out to supporters.

O'Neal and Bryant had oodles of personality - both good and bad - and provided endless fodder for debate about their greatness.

James' all-around brilliance was never in doubt but in his desire to stand out from all the great NBA players who came before him, he has tried to "craft" his career path.

When he entered the league as a much-heralded 18-year-old high school star, many wondered - probably himself too - whether he could outdo Bill Russell's record 11 NBA titles, since time was on his side.

When it quickly became evident that he could not, the next target was Jordan's six titles in six Finals. That went out the window too after his Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 Finals.

What about beating Johnson and Bryant's five-title achievements? James thought he could do so with his 2010 defection to the Heat, hence his infamous "not one, not two, not three" declaration upon joining Miami.

But with his side-kicks Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh breaking down with injuries, he had to think up another compelling career arc.

Cue his return to Cleveland.

So all eyes will remain fixed on him this season - whether he and his Cavaliers team-mates can keep themselves healthy enough for another long slog to the NBA Finals next June.

Last season's runners-up finish could be a curse, inflating the Cleveland fans' expectations to unrealistic proportions.

What may seem to them a natural progression is not as simple - not with the Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers loading up even more firepower, the Oklahoma City Thunder desperate for one last hurrah with Kevin Durant's impending free agency, and the multi-faceted defending champions Golden State Warriors pumped up to retain their hard-earned title.

Yet, with James turning 31 on Dec 30, he has placed himself in a prime position for an extraordinary final stretch of his career.

He may not win more than Russell, Jordan or even O'Neal (four titles) but those numerical feats will matter little if he can lift the emotions of his adopted home town.

All that remains for James is to decide whether this final stretch of his career is going to drag out slowly or burn out brightly.

He gave an indication last Saturday that he is not one to overstay his welcome: "I haven't got to this point by cheating the game.

"If I'm capable of practising, I will practise. If I'm capable of playing, I'll play.

"And when I'm not able to do it to my level, then I'll quit.

"It's that simple."

If that is so, then it will be the least "engineered" move of his stellar career.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'KING STILL DICTATES STORYLINE'. Print Edition | Subscribe