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NBA

LeBron James Is Next In A Long Line

Lebron James
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As LeBron James finishes his two-decade quest to become the scoringest scorer in NBA history by passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which is a paltry way to explain their various roles in the sport's history, it might be helpful to remember that this exercise does not make him the best player the game has ever produced. That is an argument for pedants and dullards, because it isn't actually relevant to anything meaningful, unless your definition of meaningful includes bleating loudly about an issue that cannot rationally be resolved to people who wish only that you would shut your cake portal.

The truth is, the NBA is the most dynastic of sports, choosing as it does to follow a succession of royals that reaches back to the sport's infancy. George Mikan the groundbound monolith was followed by Bill Russell the revolutionary (and his necessary foil Wilt Chamberlain, the destroyer of planets), and then Abdul-Jabbar the solitary shaman, and then Magic Johnson and Larry Bird the conjoined gravitational forces, and then Michael Jordan the precursor to Amazon, and now James, the only one of the line to actually fancy being a king.

This construct does not do justice to transitional figures like Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Allen Iverson, Isiah Thomas, Tim Duncan, Stephen Curry, or Kevin Durant, and you can always mention your favorites in the comments because we know the argumentative little brutes you are. Every king has a rival who casts less of a shadow, or is the victim of cruel circumstance, or is just a little less of everything that makes a true monarch.

James will pass Abdul-Jabbar in all likelihood either this coming Tuesday against Oklahoma City or Thursday against Milwaukee (and one of his potential successors, Giannis Antetokopunmpo), and having sat out Monday's chokeslam at the hands of the Nets he almost makes sure that he will score the last of the 117 points he needs in Los Angeles, in the presence of the late-life gracious Abdul-Jabbar and the still hyperkinetic Johnson. Of all the teams in the NBA, the Lakers have adhered most assiduously to dynastic principles (Mikan begat Baylor who begat West who begat Chamberlain who begat Abdul-Jabbar who begat Johnson who begat O'Neal who begat Bryant who begat ... uhh, Lou Williams?) and still operate as though their true duty is find an heir to the throne rather than caring for the crown itself.

Thus their season has really been built around James passing Abdul-Jabbar, because for all its aging glory James could not cleanse the rot in the ceiling and foundation. This looks more and more like the Lakers' 13th year without a playoff assignment, and eighth in 10 years. In that span, they have produced the fifth-worst results in the league, only 4.5 games better than the Sacramento Kings, a persistently failing operation who just now has discovered the joys of being a cheeky upstart, and though James got the Lakers the bubble title, he has not been able to overcome the failings of his surroundings.

Put another way, you would never have seen Abdul-Jabbar on both knees, overcome by the outrage of a no-call at the end of the Lakers' loss in Boston Saturday night. James is not a man begging for relief from the team he cannot carry, mind you, but if a king cannot win the respect and fear of Eric Lewis or Jacyn Goble, what is being a king at all? Abdul-Jabbar had the wisdom and good fortune to see his sunset years with Johnson alongside, and left the year after his last championship. He put down his sky hook, to this day the greatest single shot in the sport (even greater than Curry's three-pointers), and has held the scoring title for nearly 11,000 days since his final game. He is the least mentioned of the game's greatest players (Russell, Jordan, and James being the others), but is as worthy as any of them.

But James's bonafides as the sixth succesor in the line were long ago assured, even before he came west, and even with the bubble title his inability to reconstruct the Laker leviathan speaks far more to those who employed and supported him. His view of the kingdom is now brazenly pointed in his mind toward his son, Bronny, because a man who styles himself the king understands that the image of the crown lasts longer than its tangible effects. He is almost British in that way, the QE II to whatever comes next. Maybe Giannis I, or Wemby I, or the rise of the real Kings after all these years in competitive exile.

And therein lies the death of this already well-tortured analogy. Nobody is ready for a new royalty whose capital is Sacramento. They've got the right colors, but their proletarian roots still shine through.

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