Today LeBron James turns 31 years old. Just typing that feels weird to me. It seems like just the other day that a 22 year old LeBron decided to put on a one man show against the Detroit Pistons and propel the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first ever NBA Finals appearance. Obviously a lot has happened since then, as his career journey has taken fans through the highest of highs and some crushing lows.
I've often reflected to people how "The Decision" was the best thing to ever happen to me as a basketball fan and as a fan of the Cavaliers. My formative years as a basketball fan were blessed with watching a young, seemingly indestructible kid named LeBron James rise up through all the scrutiny and doubters to become the best basketball player on the planet. His absence from the team allowed me to understand just how fragile the experience of rooting for a team can be. Nothing is guaranteed, things can change in a heartbeat and you can seemingly be left with nothing. The dark days for the Cavaliers allowed me to learn to not live and die with the results of each game, to be able to love the process of getting back to the level the team was once at and to appreciate all of the leagues teams and players in a different light. I even was able to feel happy when LeBron finally got over the hump and became a champion with the Miami Heat.
Now it's a different era for both LeBron and the Cavs. The clock is ticking as the team tries to maximize whatever prime he has left. The days of him consistently terrorizing the opposition on both ends of the court with chase down blocks and ferocious dunks over three guys appear to be in the past. In it's place is a hardened leader, barking out commands and conveying a genuine sense of urgency we haven't really seen out of him to this extent before. While last year's version of LeBron's leadership could seem forced at times, this year it appears far more organic as he enters a stage in his career arc that he hasn't been in for a very long time, a time of doubt.
For the first time in years, the general population appears to no longer believe that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, you could probably include myself among those people. There always seems to be a desire in our society to see the torch passed, and often it results in us prematurely crowning "the next __" far too quickly. Night in and night out Steph Curry steps out on the court with something to prove and puts forward shooting performances the league has never seen before. While LeBron takes his time, conserving his energy and occasionally being passive in order to allow others to try and do things for themselves. Even though he could make things easier for everybody by consistently playing at his top gear, he recognizes the growth from his teammates and the need for the Cavs to improve as a unit is far more integral to success later this season and down the road as he continues to age. While Curry may be the best player this season, there are still nights where LeBron James elevates to a level of play it seems like no other player can reach. He is still able to impact every aspect of the game when he is locked in and really that's all the Cavs need from him moving forward.
The Cavs don't need LeBron to do what he did in 2009, or even what he did in 2014 for the Miami Heat. He shouldn't have to play huge minutes at the highest level out of any player in the league. Maybe the days of winning MVP's are in the past, but with 23 year old Kyrie Irving under his wing and the support of 27 year old Kevin Love he should be able to age gracefully in the twilight of his career. There are going to be times when he tries to do too much and might hurt the team with his hero ball, but that mentality is what makes him great. The team will just need to hope that he continues to recognize where he is at in his career and adapt, as he always has. His vision and feel for the game are nearly unprecedented, especially for someone his size. As his athleticism diminishes, his polished post game and vision as a passer should keep him as a force to be reckoned with for some time. If he embraces these changes and continues to be blessed with good fortune on the injury front there is no reason to believe he can't have a successful post-prime era to his career like Tim Duncan.
But we aren't at that point just yet, but we need to recognize it's coming. At thirty one LeBron continues to amaze and we need to make sure we do our best to enjoy every single moment of it. Whenever the Cavs come out flat one night and mail it in, understand that it's just one of eighty two nights and this team is looking long-term and towards the ultimate goal. It's not worth getting bent out of shape because this is the best team that has ever put on a Cavaliers uniform and the days of LeBron improving are behind us. You won't see a better LeBron than the one in front of you today and we need to do our best to enjoy every last moment of it.
Kobe Bryant is a good reminder of how things can change in an instant, and while LeBron's mentality and approach to the game will likely prevent the bumpy end to Bryant's career that we are seeing, Bryant is only six years older than LeBron. A sobering fact that might just draw attention to how much time we might have left in the LeBron James era and how we should not take it for granted. I didn't enjoy the first Cavs era LeBron years as much as I should have, but I'm trying my best to take in every aspect of this one.
So Happy Birthday to LeBron James, thanks for the memories and I cannot wait for new ones. The Cavs are in their best position ever to win a championship, they finally have their full roster. Let the games begin.