Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Pelicans sagged off LeBron James on the perimeter, and the living NBA legend couldn’t stand for that.
The Los Angeles Lakers forward made New Orleans pay by hitting three straight 3-point shots — including two from the midcourt logo — as part of a stretch where he scored 11 consecutive points in the second quarter Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena. Twenty-one years into his professional career, James had one of his most efficient games ever in the Lakers’ 133-89 slaughter of the Pelicans in the NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals.
“You know me, I’m a simple guy so I just think one word — extraordinary, otherworldly,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said afterwards. “That’s two, I know. He’s a one of one.”
The four-time NBA champion and MVP is back at it again and now defying the laws of time considering he’ll turn 39-years-old later this month.
James will look to add to his legacy at 5:30 p.m. this evening at T-Mobile Arena when the Lakers take on the Indiana Pacers in the finals of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.
He hopes he can come close to replicating the effort of Thursday’s 30-point, eight-assist, five-rebound (all in just 23 minutes) night for what could be the first of many personal milestone moments in Las Vegas.
James isn’t just up to his old tricks on the floor locally. He’s also back on the campaign trail when he steps off of it.
Almost as soon as the Lakers stepped off their team plane and arrived in Las Vegas earlier this week, James was re-iterating his desire to one day own an NBA franchise in the area.
“You look at the Aces, and you look at the hockey team, you look at the Raiders,” James said, “I heard the A’s are coming here soon. Obviously (NBA) Summer League has been here for years. We just had F1 here over Thanksgiving. It’s a sports town. Hopefully I can bring my franchise here some day. That’s the ultimate.”
James has publicly expressed that desire so frequently that it’s become a running joke among his peers. Even his superstar opponent in today’s championship game, Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton, couldn’t help but reference it when asked about Las Vegas after his own team’s 128-119 win over the Bucks in Thursday’s first semifinal.
“The guy on the Lakers, he talks about bringing a team to Vegas every other day,” Haliburton said with a smirk.
It’s soon to be no laughing matter though. As Pacers coach Rick Carlisle put bluntly, it’s “like the worst-kept secret in the world that this is eventually going to be an NBA city.”
Plans are expected to progress at the end of the 2024-2025 NBA season, after the expiration of the league’s current media rights deal. There will be, and surely already are, several suitors lining up to pay the expected multi-billion dollar expansion fee to get their feet down in what’s quickly become one of the most exciting sports markets in the world.
James, or at least a group including him as the public face, should cut to the front of the queue. And his preferential treatment should be celebrated locally.
The reasons are plentiful, but this might be the biggest one — He wouldn’t let the new team fail.
Given everything we’ve learned about James over the last two decades, he would work tirelessly to make sure the product on the court was respectable as quickly as possible.
James will always have his critics because of the way his every word and move is scrutinized. Sometimes, he doesn’t do himself any favors and comes off as corny — like in his earlier quote referring to Las Vegas’ sports growth as “we” despite currently not having any real ties to the area.
But most of the gripes are truly that insignificant. This is the rare superstar athlete who became a household name before his 18th birthday and somehow eclipsed the mountain of expectations put in front of him, all the while never getting into any sort of trouble or serious controversy.
He’s won more Sportsman of the Year awards from more outlets than he can count because of his philanthropic and charitable endeavors. He never hesitates to speak from the heart on societal issues.
He’s created a business empire away from basketball — having recently made Forbes’ billionaire list — and has spoken in the past about how his background and rough upbringing in Akron, Ohio, pushes him to make sure he’s personally involved in every venture.
James won’t make the same mistakes his childhood idol Michael Jordan did when he served as a negligent majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets from 2010 to 2022.
Just look at the way James has handled his basketball career. When Jordan turned 39, he was on a dreadful Washington Wizards team and heading into his third and final retirement.
James, on the other hand, looks like he could pull a Tom Brady and be competing for championships into his 40s.
He reportedly spends $1.5 million per year on his own training, recovery and nutrition team to ensure his longevity.
This isn’t meant to single out Jordan. Look at any of the all-time greats James is compared to, and then dig into how they were playing at 39 years old.
Spoiler: Many weren’t out there anymore at all and the others, for the most part, were shells of their former selves.
They certainly weren’t sacrificing their bodies to take a charge from a 6-foot-6, 285-pound monster like the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson as James did while Thursday’s game was still competitive.
When asked if he was too old for that sort of physicality, James smiled.
“Listen man, not for that $500,000, I ain’t,” he responded.
That’s the amount each player on the winning tournament team will receive Saturday night. It’s pocket change to James, who certainly would prefer to etch his name further into history by being the first player to lift the new NBA Cup.
His will to win and strive for greatness, to call back to one of his old Nike marketing slogans, was a sight to behold Thursday night in Las Vegas. The city should be honored and excited that he wants to showcase that drive here on many more occasions in years to come.