LeBron James is now the old-school, ultra-serious competitor we’ve always wanted, so are we happy now?

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

1. On LeBron James, the NBA’s old head

LeBron James, 17 seasons in, is now 18 points from usurping Kobe Bryant for third place on the all-time scoring list. Over the course of the three and some years that have passed since Bryant retired, James has also taken another kind of torch from him.

Bryant was once the NBA’s standard-bearer for toughness while James was his younger, softer foil. Bryant played through arthritis, it went, while James made a show of a sore elbow. But a decade has passed since the 2010 NBA Finals, the last time the two could be compared, and so much has changed that James has now taken Bryant’s perch.

There was a time everything James did morphed into a critique of his grit: joining his pals Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat instead of trying to beat them and passing potential game-winning shots to more open teammates. James flopped. Kobe didn’t. James was labeled a choke artist, until the one time he actually did. Even later in his career, James got heat for taking two weeks off midseason. He drove the Cavaliers to their only title later that season.

LeBron James is now an old-school grinder. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Slowly, our tent poles for toughness shifted. The Golden State Warriors lit up the NBA on a formula that married fun with success, and we wondered if the tenet of working smart over working hard could infiltrate sports, too. James himself brought about some of that ideological shift, proving that there was more than one way to be exceptional, which is why it’s ironic that he’s found himself on the other side of the paradigm: The reaction old-head James garners is a parable for a shift that’s occurring across basketball and society, which is also why, for the most part, unlike Bryant and Michael Jordan before him, James’ harshness isn’t held up as a virtue.

James is now the standard for professional athletic excellence. He spends $1 million on body maintenance yearly, so that unlike another, younger superstar, he can aspire to play in every game he’s healthy for. He has become a symbol for durability, and at a time that conventional wisdom and science warn against playing heavy minutes, James is leaning into it, which has garnered concerns that he is risking getting injured from all corners — including this one.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)

James has also caught flack for playing too many minutes, holding on to the ball too much, and berating the kids. He is demanding of young players, and he is impatient and harsh when they don’t live up to his expectations. Just look at Mario Chalmers in Miami. Part of the criticism is understandable, like that time his public advice for the young players in trade rumors for Anthony Davis, a player he openly lobbied for, was to stay off  “social media.” Eventually, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart ended up in a package for Anthony Davis, similar to former No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, who went unmentioned in James’ homecoming letter in 2014, and ended up in Minnesota for Kevin Love later that offseason.

But hasn’t criticism of harshness always been understandable? In sports, it’s just explained away as a necessity, even mythologized in the canon of alpha males who get things done. Imagine how people would react if Michael Jordan’s fistfight with Steve Kerr or Bryant’s tirade against Jeremy Lin happened now.

James himself has changed, too, from embracing load management to seeing the virtues of a regular-season ethos that is trying to institutionalize the idea of pushing through discomfort to succeed.

He used to orchestrate team-wide pregame dance rituals. Don’t get me wrong — the Lakers still look like they have fun. James has his handshakes and walk-off celebrations, and the chalk-toss has become a career-long ritual. But in temperament, he’s a lot closer to one of the talking heads who used to decry his lack of seriousness than he is to the 25-year-old in Cavaliers warmups holding up an imaginary camera to take imaginary pictures of his posing teammates. And it’s understandable why James wants to play around guys who see things the way he does. Between those years, James lost and learned that the demands of victory are higher than most people aspire to, let alone achieve.

In a perfect world, every franchise would run the way the 2014-16 Warriors did. But the Dubs were already full of defensive-minded veterans who were primed to channel the discipline required to run the NBA’s best defense. In most other instances, even as the NBA is seen more like a workplace, it’s unclear how much the new-age lessons of the Harvard Business Review can actually apply to locker rooms full of competing, outsized egos. The Warriors didn’t need to emphasize seriousness because they were already serious. You can’t say the same about the young locker rooms James walked into when he joined the Cavaliers and Lakers, two rebuilding teams that required a great deal of housekeeping. The standards have shifted, but severity still has utility, even if we don’t deify it the way we once did.

2. The three minutes that saved the regular season 

There is something ineffable about athletes like Zion Williamson: Wherever they go, people can’t help but watch them. Williamson sold out games in Spartanburg, South Carolina, before he became Duke basketball’s most enticing ticket.

Maybe it’s the gulf between the body and the production and athleticism. He is the NBA’s heaviest player, diametrically opposed to what the ideal modern player looks like. He’s stocky — not wiry — and has a negative wingspan, but he’s a walking springboard with natural feel.

Maybe it’s his charm. In the third quarter of his debut against the San Antonio Spurs, Williamson smiled all the way down the court as he ambled over to a referee, put his arm around him and half-protested a call — veteran mannerisms in a rookie player. He looks like he’s happy, and that makes the people watching him happy.

Maybe it’s just the electrifying dunks that he can seemingly release on command, which brings us to the most impressive part of the Pelicans’ loss on Wednesday: Williamson enchanted fans despite the fact that he wasn’t putting anybody on a poster.

He scored 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter, nailing four treys, each one with a substitute at the scorer’s table being sent away. With one 3-pointer after another, he delayed his own exit from the game. He was a force that was potent enough to momentarily impede his own minutes restriction, breathing life into a packed arena at the Smoothie King Center. When he eventually sat, a “We want Zion!” chant broke out. Despite the science and logic behind the decision to bring him back into the fold slowly, I found myself wishing he’d come back in too.

When the buzzer sounded, fans booed head coach Alvin Gentry, the man tasked with enforcing an organizational mandate.

How quickly we went from begging for a taste to being upset that it was only just a taste. On ESPN, viewership peaked at 2,777,000. The 1.6 U.S. rating matched ESPN’s highest-rated non-Christmas game this season. Time will tell if Williamson has a game worthy of being mentioned with the greats, but his debut made this much clear: He is as magnetizing as advertised, a midseason elixir for a league reeling from a popularity problem. If he is indeed the next coming, he’ll have a ton of witnesses.

3. Is the NBA’s best rivalry back?

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Lakers and Celtics faced off for the first time this season, and it was the first time in almost a decade that the matchup could have been an unlikely but possible Finals preview.

The Lakers and Celtics have been great at the same time so many times that the combination of green and yellow has become the unofficial colorway of NBA history.

Watching players who actually have the talent to rewrite it steeped the game in a layer of nostalgia, recalling old memories and old YouTube wormholes, serving as a reminder that these games are also going to one day exist in historical context, and giving an extra air of pageantry to moments like Jaylen Brown dunking on LeBron James.

Legacy-building and history-making keep the sports machine churning, but the monotony of an 82-game season can dull that fact. Lakers-Celtics matchups bring that rivalry front and center. We become acutely aware of the point of it all, and that makes the game just a little bit better. 

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