LeBron James didn't have to do it all last night. As the Cavaliers steamrolled the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he was exceptionally efficient in just 28 minutes, going 11-of-13 from the floor, with almost all of his shots coming at close range. The Cavs have to hope that a game like that was a glimpse into their future.
There is a debate at the moment about who is currently the best basketball player in the world. Some would argue that it's the two-time reigning MVP, Stephen Curry. Others, including Raptors' coach Dwane Casey, believe it is still LeBron, because he can get to a level nobody else can when he needs to.
I am not interested in definitively resolving the debate. The reality is, regardless of whether LeBron is currently the best basketball player or not, he is 31 years old. Even for a player who takes tremendous care of his body, decline is imminent.
As a fan, it is difficult to accept the idea that LeBron's best days are mostly behind him. The harsh reality is that, someday soon, he won't be good enough to carry a team to the Finals the way he did last season. That's a scary thought, because we've come to enjoy the idea that winning the East is a minimum requirement for a successful season.
Last night demonstrated that, even as LeBron gets older, the Cavs can still be really good.
LeBron's lower usage and burden has implications that go beyond the next month. Easier to imagine him sustaining this for four-ish years.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) May 18, 2016
Indeed, as Kyrie Irving continues to establish himself as an offensive force, it is much easier to imagine LeBron's role slowly shifting over time. The offense won't need to run through him constantly, and he won't need to play as much on the perimeter.
This is also consistent with the NBA's general trend towards small ball. There have always been questions about LeBron's willingness to play the four, but as the league changes, playing the four doesn't necessarily mean having to bang down low with bigger power forwards all the time.
So it's not hard to imagine that two or three or four seasons from now, when much of the athleticism that made LeBron who he is disappears, he can still be a highly effective player on a team where Kyrie carries more of the offensive load. Many of his future minutes may end up coming at the four, which means that the team will have to figure out how to handle a frontcourt of LeBron, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson.
But there is plenty of time to figure out the precise logistics. Those are ultimately questions for the future, not questions for today. Because today, there is little doubt that LeBron can still be a force capable of carrying a team all the way on his own. It's just nice to imagine that he doesn't necessarily have to.