For almost two decades, LeBron James has been the face of the NBA. But at 37, nearing his retirement, the Lakers’ superstar won’t be able to hold that title for much longer. When that time comes, and James is no longer NBA’s No.1 ambassador, someone else will take over. But who? That’s a conversation Adam Silver is still not ready to have.
LeBron on being the league’s primary ambassador
There may be better players in the league today, but in terms of global influence, LeBron is still at the top. Whether it’s shoe sales, shirt sales, social media presence, or any other metric indicating players’ popularity, no one comes close to the King. It will stay that way for as long as James is maintaining the required level of superstardom, but at some point, the inevitable will happen. When it does, LeBron will be ready to pass the torch.
“I’ve held that title of the ambassador of the league for — nobody ever told me to do it, but I felt like if I wasn’t going to do it, who was going to do it?” James said after the All-Star Game. “I took that with a lot of responsibility, and I’ll continue to do it until I’m done playing the game. It will fall in the hands of the next one, whoever that may be. We’ll see.”
“It’s a responsibility for sure,” LeBron said after the All-Star Game. “Somebody did it before me. And putting it in a position to [keep] it where it was and make it better than it was. Represent the league with the utmost respect. There’s so many generations that look for inspiration. And it’s always cool to see guys who come into our league, and he said, favorite player growing up is LeBron James. That means something to me because I feel like [it] has so much more to do than just playing the game of basketball.”
The next face of the league?
In so many ways, LeBron has shaped the next generation of basketball players. But just like the Ja Morants, Luka Doncics, Trae Youngs, and Jayson Tatums of the world, who all looked up to him growing up, James was also once a byproduct of his predecessors.
Ever since David Stern adopted a player-centric marketing strategy, the league has flourished. As a result, developing the NBA’s brand around one individual created the so-called “face of the league” title that only a handful of guys were able to carry. For almost two decades, that guy was LeBron. Before him, it was Michael Jordan. Before him, it was the duo of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Apart from the latest transition, the change in the league’s No.1 ambassador would always go smoothly. But as we’re nearing the end of the LeBron era, it doesn’t seem that’s going to be the case this time. Adam Silver even admitted -- as of now, he is not ready for it.
“I want to be absolutely clear. I am not prepared to talk about the post-LeBron era. And I don't think it's because I'm in denial. He won a championship less than a year and a half ago. From my standpoint, LeBron is still playing at the very highest level in the league.”
“At some point, a new player or players will emerge, I think, [to] take that leadership mantle in the league,” Silver said to Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "It seems they always do. I'm just not prepared, even in the slightest, to start thinking about the league without LeBron because he continues to be as committed as ever to the competition, to the league overall.”
Silver has said what most of us think; it’s hard to imagine the NBA without Lebron. But that doesn’t change the fact that time is near. That’s why it’s important for the league to start thinking about who will be the next guy carrying the NBA’s brand, both on and off the court.
Steph Curry seems like the obvious candidate, although he’ll hardly match James’ impact outside of the game. Despite being an all-time great, Kevin Durant doesn’t have the necessary charisma. Guys like Giannis Anteotokunmpo, Joel Embiid, and even Luka Doncic are all good enough on-court but don’t seem nearly as involved in off-court stuff as James.
Finding the right guy will be challenging, especially if the league wants to prolong its involvement with social issues. But at some point, the NBA will have to break its addiction to LeBron — at least to the same extent it did when MJ was gone. That day is coming sooner than we think, and when it does, the league better be ready.