Keith Strudler: Life Without LeBron
If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs so far, well, first, I’m guessing you’re tired, with Western Conference games often ending far after last call. You’ve also seen some exciting play, at least for the first round where better teams tend to overwhelm their more incomplete competitors. Like just last night, when Portland’s Damian Lillard ended Oklahoma City’s season with a buzzer beater taken just south of Neptune. Or when Kevin Durant basically single handedly took over Game 2 of Golden State’s win over the Clippers. That’s only some of what you’ve seen in the first couple of weeks of a playoff run that runs just slightly shorter than a presidential election cycle.
But what you haven’t seen, and haven’t seen for the first time in like forever, is LeBron James, otherwise known as the assumed greatest player on the planet, and some would argue of all time. His Los Angeles Lakers finished far outside the top eight spots in the Western Conference, and thus find themselves participating in the draft lottery instead of the first round. This may feel somewhat unusual for anyone who even casually pays attention to the NBA, since LeBron had made the playoffs for 13 consecutive years until now. Far more impressively, he’s been in the NBA Finals for eight consecutive years. Most NBA athletes – even really good ones – never make a Finals appearance. For LeBron it was like owning a time share.
There are legitimate reasons why LeBron and the Lakers aren’t in the playoffs, although I don’t imagine this was the plan when they convinced him to leave Cleveland last summer. Part of it has to do with LeBron’s injuries this season. Part of it has to do with a roster that looks a lot like a D-League team otherwise. And part seems tied to the relative dysfunction of an organization that only looks good in comparison to the Knicks. But regardless of the above, no one in purple and gold would have gone through the trouble and cost of recruiting James to the West Coast only to be only slightly less awful than last year.
So far, fans have responded in kind to LeBron’s departure, with playoff TV ratings down from last season. To be fair, TV ratings have been down all year for the NBA, not just the playoffs. And compelling fans to watch live sports in an on-demand world is an ongoing challenge. And then there’s Game of Thrones, of course.
But the real issue here isn’t simply a dip in the ratings, or LeBron’s streak coming to an end. It’s the challenge of maintaining interest in a team sport that has historically bet the farm on spectacular personal talent. LeBron James is one the best things that’s ever happened to the NBA. As was Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and any of the other singular stars that made the League and the sport appointment viewing. It’s why everyone worried about the NBA after Michael, which, it turns out, wasn’t all that popular when the biggest names were an oft-injured Grant Hill and a mercurial Allen Iverson.
So now, the League must prepare for life after LeBron. And mind you, he’s not done yet, but the hour glass does seem a bit bottom heavy. That means sooner than later, names like Steph Curry and Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons will have to be leading men instead of supporting actors. That is the life cycle of this and most sports outside of the NFL, where people aren’t much more than placeholders.
But what’s perhaps more challenging now, even more than say the days of Magic and Michael, is that the NBA isn’t simply fighting a turnover in personnel. It’s also combating the very consumption habits of the American public, where watching a whole 2 ½ hour basketball game in real time is becoming as foreign as going to a mall to buy clothes. So it’s not simply that people won’t be able to watch LeBron James play basketball anymore. It might also be that they aren’t as interested in watching anyone play for 2 ½ hours anymore. Which will make it hard for anyone to be the next LeBron James, no matter how good they may be.
Not coincidentally, while TV ratings are down, video and highlight views on Social Media are up globally. Meaning young sports fans might watch one spectacular play, or even a bunch of them, instead the game itself. Which means the next LeBron might be a little less like Mike, and a little more like Cameron Dallas – and apologies for the influencer reference. All of which means our kids will watch the next LeBron for a few minutes instead of few hours. That’s how a lot of young fans watch already, including game mash-ups that can be watched in a fraction of the time. That means viewing at your leisure on a cell phone, not until 1 a.m. on a big screen.
At the very least, maybe now basketball fans won’t be quite as tired.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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