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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

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Enjoy the glorious twilight of LeBron James’ NBA reign

Plus, Ben Simmons is dominating without a jump shot.

Surrender yourself, for a brief moment, to the notion that LeBron James and the Cavaliers can’t win a championship this year.

Consider the dominance of Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. Consider Kyrie Irving getting another chance to thwart them. Consider him doing that with the Boston Celtics. This week’s matchup between the Warriors and the Celtics gave us a window into that possible future. It’s an increasingly plausible NBA Finals scenario, and one that doesn’t include James.

Future NBA Finals matchup?

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Between Miami and Cleveland, James played in seven straight Finals. He has become a semipermanent fixture in June.

Consider the Cavs’ brutal defense, and the fact that it doesn't project to improve any time soon. Consider the roster’s age, and injuries. Consider that, in his 15th season, LeBron leads the league in minutes. He's carrying a heavy load, yet the Cavs are still 8-7.

Play the tape out to the end.

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Warriors put a knife in LeBron’s inevitability. These days, the Celtics are twisting it. There is simply too much to surmount. Even the expectations that have always burdened him — more than any superstar of the era — have withered.

For the first time in his career, it’s possible to watch LeBron without worrying about the legacy implications. He will go down as one of history’s best players, perhaps the best, with the most versatile, athletically destructive game fans have ever witnessed. He will go down, most of all, as a player who shifted what it meant to be a superstar wing, making hay by becoming the best passer of his generation and dominating defensively. Where he sits on that proverbial Mt. Rushmore is a matter of personal preference. At this juncture of his career, legacy implications have diminishing returns. His legacy can only shift marginally.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Dallas Mavericks Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Some already assume he is approaching the second act of his life, with designs on moving to Los Angeles to focus on expanding his burgeoning production company. The telling difference, between where LeBron is today and in the height of his prime: It would be hard to blame him. The Cavaliers are markedly worse this season. Dan Gilbert and LeBron have always been at at odds. The franchise didn’t retain GM David Griffin, in the middle of free agency, leaving LeBron yet again mired in dysfunction.

Compare this atmosphere to The Decision era when LeBron’s fans — perhaps not as enlightened or empathetic as they would become today — turned on him because, on some level, they had projected every single one of their hopes onto him. In the years since, he has become truly infallible, in part, because we know the story is coming to a close.

In the end, he took the Cavs to the promised land. What more could he accomplish in Cleveland? Hell, what more could he accomplish in the NBA?

From LeBron’s perch, the only thing left to chase is Michael Jordan. Winning a championship again would merely be another point in an argument that we'll tirelessly legislate for as long as the NBA exists, one that could never be settled by tacking on another title.

Because the root of Jordan’s legacy wasn’t truly about his six titles. Six was just a number. Five would have done the trick, so long as he went 5-0. Quantity doesn’t tell a story. Perfection does. And LeBron, with his messy Finals history, could never hope to paint over the perfection.

LeBron’s career has never been about accolades collected and checks marked. It has been about redefinition.

Consider The Block. Consider the Nike ad. You know it.

“You’re not supposed to make a defensive play the defining moment of your career.”

When LeBron traversed the court in four seconds and stopped Andre Iguodala’s layup attempt in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, setting the table for Cleveland’s eventual win, it was a moment of destiny fulfilled. His signature defensive move, playing out with incalculably high stakes. It was the story he was born to live out.

History is never as clear in the moment as it is in hindsight, on the pages of books. LeBron’s arc is especially confounding. Things aren’t supposed to matter 15 years in. The Block put a cap on LeBron’s 13th season, just as Jordan’s Last Shot to put the Utah Jazz away and cement his sixth title came in his 13th. With Jordan, we didn’t have to deal with an extended epilogue — eventual Wizards return aside. In the coming seasons, I think we’re going to realize that for LeBron, the block was the end. And it makes sense. In the aftermath of his defining moment, how can anything matter as much again?


The hallmark of dominance is being able to do exactly what you want, even when the defense sees it coming. For Ben Simmons, when you consider that he has a discernible weakness in his jumpshot that opponents should conceivably be able to pivot to, the level of difficulty doubles.

Lost in Joel Embiid’s historic performance against the Lakers on Wednesday was that Simmons put up a game of his own, finishing with a triple-double. He dunked all over the place, despite the attempts of multiple defenders — from Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — to resist his assault to the rim.

He has done this all season. When opponents consistently sag off him, he consistently beats them to the spot. Right now, he ranks among the league leaders in the NBA in dunks, at 30. He has been topped only by big frontcourt players like Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan. The next wing on the list? LeBron.

For a rookie, he understands exceptionally well how to counter everything the defense tries to take away from him. When Simmons has the ball in his hands, opposing guards will sag off and prepare to go under the screen. With his killer first step and long stride, Simmons has exploded away from the screen and landed at the rim time and time again.

When his opponents ignore him off the ball on the top of the floor, he leverages his cutting abilities. More often than not, Embiid — who fires exceptional lead passes — will find him in stride. When opponents sag off in the corner, Simmons sneaks into the dunker spot and awaits the spoils.

Regardless of his shot, Simmons has proved he’s too athletic and intelligent to ignore.

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