The highlight thus far of the LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers era came on Wednesday night came with 5:38 remaining in the second quarter of the team's matchup with the Denver Nuggets.
It was at that moment that James caught a pass on the elbow from Rajon Rondo before spinning toward the basket to convert a driving left-handed layup over Denver forward Torrey Craig, who fouled him on the play. With that basket, James surpassed Michael Jordan for fourth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list with his 32,293rd career points.
In many ways, the moment served as a microcosm of James' first season with basketball's most famous franchise.
It would be disingenuous to call the ovation James received from the Staples Center crowd "tepid," but the same to refer to it as "raucous." As Denver registered a slew of substitutions, the 15-time All-Star was acknowledged by his teammates and fans alike before making the ensuing free throw.
James' and-1 cut the second-place Nuggets' lead from 18 points to 15. Denver would go on to win the game 115-99, knocking the Lakers to 6.5 games back of the Clippers for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
To say that Los Angeles' first season since landing James in free agency last summer has been underwhelming would be an understatement. After jumping out to a promising 20-14 record to start the season, the Lakers went just 6-11 as their new star player missed 17 games with a groin injury and have more alarmingly amassed a mere 4-10 record since his return on Jan. 31.
Following its latest defeat, the Lakers fell to 30-35 on the season with even the uber-confident James admitting that the team's playoff hopes are all but over. Los Angeles-based columnists have begun to turn on James and TV talking heads have now spent the better part of the past two weeks discussing what missing the playoffs for the first time since his second season in the league would mean for the 4-time MVP's legacy.
"Oh, it's gonna be a hit. Make no mistake about it," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said on First Take on Monday. "It's not going to be something that's lukewarm, it's not going to be something that's irrelevant, it's not going to be something that doesn't matter -- it matters."
At the risk of disagreeing with one of the great debaters -- sports or otherwise -- of our time, no, it doesn't.
While everybody is entitled to remember James' basketball career however they want to, I have a truly difficult time believing that a young Lakers team that's been hampered by injuries -- including the worst of James' career -- is going to serve as so much as a footnote in the story of his career. Granted, I'm an admitted James apologist who spent his formative years as a sports fan following his rise from high school phenom to superstar player on my favorite team and beyond, but in my opinion, James' legacy will look something like this:
- 3-time champion (including perhaps the most impressive Finals performance in NBA history in 2016) and 3 Finals MVPs
- 8 straight NBA Finals
- Best player of his era (and there's not a close second)
- 4 MVPs
- A 12-year stretch (2006-18) in which he had a legitimate case each season for being the best player in the league.
- All-time leading scorer in NBA Playoffs history
- Arguably the most impressive statistical resume in league history (he currently ranks fourth all-time in scoring, 10th in assists and 54th in rebounds)
- Countless highlight reel-worthy dunks, passes, blocks, buzzer-beaters, virtuoso performances etc.
- Unprecedented charity work in Northeast Ohio, especially his hometown of Akron
- The only player to ever challenge Michael Jordan's status as "the greatest of all-time."
Speaking of Jordan, the easy analogy to make here would be his two forgettable seasons with the Washington Wizards -- but such comparison wouldn't even be entirely accurate.
While 'His Airness' was clearly a diminished version of himself, averaging 22.9 points in 2002 and a career-low 20.0 points in 2003 -- both of his Wizards teams missed the playoffs in a weaker Eastern Conference -- James is still enjoying an extended prime, with averages of 27.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists.
To some, James' current All-Star status actually works against him. After all, very few NBA stars have missed the playoffs in what's considered their primes.
But when you consider that it's been 13 years since James made his first All-NBA team, why should we hold the unprecedented nature of his longevity against him?
Would we really feel better about James' legacy if he was now "sorry," as he put it -- which would be reasonable given his age and the 56,019 regular season and playoff minutes (not to mention three Olympic stints) he's put on his body? Do we really think James' legacy would have been better off had he just retired after leading an undermanned Cavs team to a fourth straight Finals last summer?
If we didn't hold Jordan's Wizards run against him (and we didn't) why would we hold LeBron's stint with the Lakers -- in which thus far, he's playing much better than Jordan did -- against him?
Asked about his own legacy earlier this year, James made headlines when he implied that everything after the Cavs' 2016 championship is gravy to him.
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have," he told reporters in February. "Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake.
"I love the process of everything I go through to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to compete for championships. But there’s nothing I’m chasing or feel like I need to end my career on.”
Regardless of where James' Lakers tenure goes from here, he'll ultimately be proven right.
Admitting as much now, however, might commit the crime of freeing ourselves from being prisoners of the moment.