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This Is The First NBA Finals In 9 Years Without LeBron. (A Lot Has Changed.)

When Lamar Odom heaved the ball down-court to drain away what seconds remained between the 2010 Los Angeles Lakers and a championship, few realized that it marked the start of a new era. The period that followed was defined by who wasn’t in L.A. that June night: LeBron James. For each of the next eight seasons, a James-led team would make the NBA Finals — a streak of contesting the championship that won’t technically end until Thursday’s Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors.

As the confetti filled the Staples Center air, there was little sense of just how profoundly the game was about to change — some changes because of James himself, others just moving on a parallel track to the game’s biggest star. With the benefit of hindsight, then, let’s take a look at exactly how many huge developments have transpired across the league since the last time we had an NBA Finals without LeBron James.

From ABC News:


LeBron’s GOAT turn

Going into the summer of 2010, James’s future was as uncertain as it would ever be. He had just suffered the most high-profile failure of his career, inexplicably struggling as his Cleveland Cavaliers were bounced from the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. He faced a looming free-agency “decision” — would he betray his hometown Cavs? — and persistent questions about whether he could lead a championship team. Statistically, James’s career was off to a stellar start, but by the NBA’s ring-obsessed standards, his path toward GOAT status was wobbling.

Nearly a decade later, James is still not universally hailed as the greatest ever. (Michael Jordan’s shadow looms large.) But he is generally placed right in the conversation with MJ. He answered postseason critics with eight straight conference titles and three rings, including one that involved: a) one of the greatest NBA Finals comebacks ever; b) upsetting the winningest regular-season team in history; and c) ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought. At the same time, James has climbed up the all-time statistical mountain in countless categories, including passing Jordan on points in March. If James isn’t the GOAT, he has at least become the defining player of his generation — and in some ways, he even redefined the role of a superstar and the criteria we use to judge all-time greats.

The rise of the Warriors

The 2009-10 Golden State Warriors won only 26 games and got their coach, Don Nelson, fired. (The team would go through two more coaches before finding current boss Steve Kerr.) Few vestiges of Nelson’s 2006-07 “We Believe” Warriors — the franchise’s high-water mark for postseason success since the early 1990s — were still on the roster anyway. Newcomer Stephen Curry finished second in Rookie of the Year voting but gave scarcely any clues that he’d eventually become a transformational player. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were still 20-year-old college kids. From these not-so-promising beginnings, the single greatest dynasty in basketball history1 would be formed.

Every dynasty requires a series of unlikely breaks to fall its way, but it’s difficult to overstate just how surprising it was that Golden State would barge into an NBA championship club that included just eight franchises (the Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Rockets, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Spurs) hoarding the 31 titles up for grabs from 1980 through 2010. Before they added Kevin Durant in free agency, the Warriors were a testament to the power of drafting home-grown stars and locking them up on team-friendly contract extensions. After inking Durant, they became the scariest collection of talent ever assembled. And it would all come completely out of the blue, from the perspective of a neutral observer in the summer of 2010.

The superteam craze gets crazier

In conjunction with James’s emergence as arguably the best player ever (see above), he also helped usher in an era of star players dictating the direction of the league on their own terms. The Age of the Superteam had already gotten underway with the 2008 Boston Celtics’ title-winning team-up between Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. But James pushed the trend even further when he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a trio of prime-age superstars on the 2011 Miami Heat. Ever since, most of the game’s highest-profile moves have been designed to either counterbalance or mimic James’s original flight of fancy made good.

The league’s power balance, of course, has almost always been about an ever-escalating arms race between Big Twos and Threes. The difference this decade has been about who gets to choose both how and where those combinations form. Encouraged by a salary structure that prioritizes nonmonetary benefits and empowered by what strange quirks of the system do arise, superstars (and their agents) have become every bit as powerful in team-building as general managers. You can’t fault them for it, either: Rings are how players are judged, and star recruiting is the most sensible path to a title in the NBA. This was bound to happen eventually — and the past decade has only solidified the trend.

Pacing and spacing

The Warriors didn’t just break the mold of dynasty-building — they helped redefine how a championship team plays the game. Before Curry and Co., the conventional wisdom was that a team who lives by the 3-pointer would eventually die by it before the playoffs ended. During the 2015 playoffs, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson famously tweeted a critique of jump-shooting teams during the 2015 playoffs; Charles Barkley voiced the same sentiment around the same time. The Warriors’ title that summer felt like a retort, invalidating any preconceived notions about what kind of great team could successfully win a title.

Although the rise of the 3-point shot was set in motion long before Golden State formed its dynasty, the Warriors became its symbolic standard-bearer — even after they shifted away from small-ball lineups a bit and were surpassed by many other teams in their actual use of the 3-pointer. Whether influenced by Golden State or not, the league’s obsession with speed, spacing and shooting has intensified greatly over the past decade. Pace factor is up 8 percent since 2010, and 3-pointers per game are up 78 percent. (Huge dinosaurs still roamed the paint back in 2010; today’s game looks very different.) Offenses are the most efficient they’ve ever been, and the range at which players can reliably make threes is expanding constantly. James’s own development even mirrored these changes: Once criticized for a lack of shooting touch, he improved to eventually become one of the game’s best deep 3-point bombers by the end of the decade.

The evolution of tanking

In addition to the LeBron-influenced spate of superteams, one of the league’s other primary off-court concerns this decade has been how to prevent teams from tanking — deliberately building bad (and often dirt-cheap) rosters in order to get high picks in that summer’s draft. The tactic is nothing new, but back in 2010, it still hadn’t been fully explored to its cynical conclusion — that wouldn’t truly come until Sam Hinkie took over the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013.2

Hinkie’s “Process” — designed specifically to acquire a franchise-altering talent like James — left a controversial legacy. It helped Philly eventually acquire many building blocks for their current contending squad, even after missing on a number of their high picks. It also produced some of the worst basketball ever along the way, and the results underscored the complete lack of certainty inherent in hitching a franchise’s fortunes to a randomized lottery system. Neither of this year’s NBA Finalists were built by tanking — in fact, Toronto methodically built a solid team until a superstar (Kawhi Leonard) fell into its lap. And the league readjusted its lottery odds this year anyway, flattening out the rewards for poor records and further discouraging intentionally bad roster construction. Unlike the dreadful 2002-03 Cavaliers team that drafted James, the next LeBron might not even enter the league with a team that lost on purpose to get him.

The end of ‘Lakers exceptionalism’?

Perhaps the starkest contrast between 2010 and the present is in the state of James’s current club, the L.A. Lakers. With a core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Odom and young center Andrew Bynum, coached by Jackson, Los Angeles had just won its second consecutive title — and they appeared poised to contend for even more over the next few seasons. But Jackson retired from coaching in 2011; Bryant and Gasol got older; Bynum couldn’t stay healthy; Odom was traded; and the front office struggled to upgrade the supporting cast.

An attempted superteam of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Bryant and Gasol failed miserably. It also represented the last time the Lakers made the playoffs. Ever since, the team has tried desperately to replenish its once-endless supply of Hall of Famers, whether through the draft or in signing James, the game’s biggest star. But at the same time, L.A. has been hamstrung by ineffectual management, a story that extended to this week’s ESPN report about dysfunction between Magic Johnson, former president of basketball operations; general manager Rob Pelinka; James’s agent, Rich Paul; and the rest of the team and its staff. The Lakers still figure to aim for another huge star acquisition this offseason, but the era of what SB Nation’s Tom Ziller calls “Lakers exceptionalism” — the idea that L.A. is entitled to always dominate the NBA — is over, difficult as that would have been to believe in 2010.


In many ways, it’s fitting that these 2019 finals would pit two of James’s longtime foils — the Raptors (who could never beat him in the playoffs) and the Warriors (whom he could seldom beat) — against each other. James’s shadow hangs over the series in absentia, if not simply for what his vacancy signals. He may return to the championship stage again sooner than later, particularly if the Warriors’ hegemony is threatened this summer. But for now, this series marks the end of an era — and the culmination of all the many changes that have remade basketball since the last time we weren’t debating James’s chances of adding another ring to his collection.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. If not all of sports history, if you compare their run to those of greats from other leagues.

  2. Perhaps the SuperSonics/Thunder of the mid-to-late 2000s could also be seen as a precursor to Hinkie’s Sixers, but even those teams were not as brazen in their tanking efforts as Philadelphia would become.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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