LeBron James poised to extend golden legacy after the most turbulent NBA season in history
The drama-filled 2019-20 NBA season provided a roller-coaster of emotions, but the one constant was LeBron James’ excellence.
In an extended season that featured a diplomatic stand-off in China, the death of Kobe Bryant, the coronavirus pandemic, and protests against racial injustice, the 35-year-old basketball star never took his eye on the prize.
James led his Los Angeles Lakers to a first title in 10 years - and a fourth personally - courtesy of a 4-2 NBA Finals series win over his former franchise the Miami Heat.
As the new season approaches on 22 December, leading to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, we take a look back at what was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic periods in the history of the sport, and how James secured his legacy both on and off the court as a giant among men.
The NBA’s most turbulent year ever?
The Lakers' campaign started in October 2019 with some preseason games against the Brooklyn Nets in NBA-obsessed China.
But what was initially an exciting growth opportunity for the league quickly turned into political chaos when former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey angered the Chinese government by tweeting his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
The two teams had their public appearances cancelled and Chinese broadcasters announced that they were pulling NBA games off air - a decision that remained in place until Game 5 of the Finals.
The next blow to the global basketball family came in January 2020 when Lakers legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter accident.
The devastating event rocked the world, and the Lakers ensured that his memory was a constant theme for the rest of the season.
"I think Kobe and Gianna have guided this team the entire year," Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said after they clinched the title.
If the league was looking for some respite following the difficult start to the season, they were to be disappointed.
With the NBA’s finances having already been dealt a blow to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars due to the Chinese broadcasting stand-off, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The season came screeching to a halt in March, and many wondered if there would be a conclusion.
But players, staff, and administrators persevered, creating the Orlando bubble where teams could safely resume games behind closed doors.
Plans for the restart were confirmed, and just when things were starting to look a little brighter, games were postponed amid protests against racial injustice.
The decision to not play started with the Milwaukee Bucks, who didn’t emerge from their locker room before their playoff matchup with Orlando Magic.
Questions were raised once again after players held a meeting with the NBPA to discuss their opinions if they decided not to continue with the season.
After days of discussions, the decision was made to continue and use the opportunity to raise awareness of social injustice in the USA.
NBA Finals heroics
It may have been LeBron's fourth championship ring, but surely the 2019-20 Finals were even more challenging than the Cleveland Cavaliers' amazing come-from-behind victory against the Golden State Warriors in 2016.
However, he showed no signs of fatigue at the end of the 12-month long season, averaging 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists in the series, to be named Finals MVP for a fourth time.
In the clinching Game 6, the Lakers’ talisman recorded 28 points, 14 rebounds and ten assists, making it his 12th NBA Finals game with more than 25 points, ten rebounds, and five assists. For comparison, nobody in NBA history has more than four such games.
The amazing records don’t stop there.
There have only been five occasions in NBA history where a player has recorded 150 points, 50 rebounds, and 50 assists in a Finals series. James was responsible for four of those, while his 2020 rival Jimmy Butler also managed to join the club.
It was perhaps understandable that when Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokunmpo was named overall MVP earlier in the season, a clearly emotional James made it clear to reporters that he didn't think it was the right decision.
But like the true champion he is, James did the rest of his talking on the court, producing performances that he knew no other man could match.
LeBron James’ legacy
Some players are known for their ability to rise to the big occasion.
While James is certainly one such individual, it’s his consistency over his 17-year career that really makes him stand out from the rest.
The Ohio-born forward has played in 260 career playoff games and is the only player to win Finals MVP with three different teams.
However, with such success, he has naturally also managed to accumulate some detractors.
LeBron James' decision to move to the Lakers didn't come lightly. Fans called him out for chasing a ring, while others thought this would end his career.
LeBron was open and honest about his move and clear on what he wanted to achieve with the Lakers in 2020.
He almost single-handedly changed the fortunes for many of the Laker players and silenced those doubters with another championship ring.
"He's the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after the series clinching win over the Miami Heat in Game 6.
"And if you think you know, you don't know, okay? Until you're around him every day, you're coaching him, you're seeing his mind, you're seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group."
"You think you know; you don't know." - Lakers coach Frank Vogel on LeBron James' impact to the team
"It's just been a remarkable experience coaching him and seeing him take this group that was not in the playoffs last year, the roster was put together, you know, overnight, and just taking a group and leading us to the promised land, so they say."
James' Olympic impact
James made his debut for the USA national team at the Athens 2004 Olympics, but primarily played off the bench in a campaign that ultimately ended with a bronze medal after being eliminated by Argentina in the semi-finals.
In the run up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, while he had secured a greater role in the team, LeBron’s allegedly disrespectful behaviour towards staff members was questioned by coach Mike Krzyzewski, who gave him an ultimatum to improve his attitude.
He heeded the advice, and put up 31 points against Argentina at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, which was the most ever by an American in an Olympic qualifier.
A year later, Team USA secured an undefeated 10-0 record at the Olympics to win the gold medal.
James teamed up with Bryant to lead the team at the London 2012 Games, where they beat Spain in the final to defend their Olympic title.
During that tournament, James scored the first triple-double in US Olympic basketball history, and became his nation’s top international point-scorer ever.
He also joined fellow two-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Jordan in becoming the only players to win an NBA MVP award, NBA championship, NBA Finals MVP, and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. In terms of legacy and the eternal debate of ‘Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?’, the only definitive answers are that it is a two-horse race and it is impossible to separate them.
And he's not done yet.
Reduced 2020-21 season and Tokyo Olympics
While the coronavirus pandemic continues, the 2020-21 season opener is approaching.
The NBA draft will take place on 18 November, while free agents can start negotiating with teams and will be able to sign deals from 20-22 November.
As a result of the delays to last season, the NBA and its players’ union have agreed to a reduced 72-game schedule that will begin on 22 December.
This will ensure that the NBA season is wrapped up before the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which begin on 23 July 2021.
LeBron will be 36-years-old next season, and despite showing no signs of slowing down, it is rumoured that he may sit out pre-season fixtures and possibly even some early in-season action in order to rest up.
The fact that he’s closing in on two decades of dominance and a potential fourth Olympic Games in Tokyo is a true testament to his greatness.
Changing lives away from basketball
LeBron’s achievements in basketball will go down in history as some of the greatest ever, but a large part of his legacy will be his impact in the community.
In 2018 he founded the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, aimed at supporting at-risk and disadvantaged children.
During the 2020 NBA Finals, James told reporters that this was his most important work.
"What I do off the floor is what means more to me than what I do on the floor,” he said.
"The game of basketball will pass me by. How I move, how I walk, what I preach, what I talk about, how I inspire the next generation is what matters to me the most. And if you appreciate my game, then cool. If you didn't, then that's cool, too. That's what it boils down to."