Niyo: NBA has become a soap opera, with LeBron James the leading man

John Niyo
The Detroit News
LeBron James is taking his talents to the West Coast.

The King went quietly in the night, trading one fiefdom for another. But make no mistake, LeBron James said plenty about the growth and popularity of the NBA without saying a word this weekend.

His agreement on a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t announced in a prime-time television special this time. It wasn’t laid out in a magazine exclusive trumpeting his redemptive homecoming. This time, it was simply a one-sentence statement released by his agency, Klutch Sports, Sunday night, as James jetted off to Europe for a vacation with his wife.

And yet the shockwaves still reverberated far and wide, as the world’s greatest player joined one of sport’s most storied franchises in the second-largest U.S. media market. The World Cup’s knockout stage kicked off Saturday, and the Yankees-Red Sox series was a hot ticket in the Bronx, but the LA-Bron news seemed to trump it all.

Only 24 hours later, it was trumped itself, as the reigning champs added another All-Star to their arsenal. Boogie Cousins to the Warriors, for pennies on the dollar? Goodness, that’s evil.

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But this is the new reality with the NBA, a league that has become a soap opera its fans can’t quit — all these wild plot twists and strange bedfellows, all the incestuous fights and petty feuds, even the predictable villains doing diabolical things.

LeBron James used to be one of those villains, and then he wasn’t. Now he may be again, as he takes his talents to Hollywood for what presumably will be the final act of his basketball career, joining forces with Magic Johnson and Jack Nicholson and a superteam-to-be-named-later.

Monday’s news out of L.A. only added more reality-Showtime intrigue with reported deals for James’ former playoff antagonist, Lance Stephenson, and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, among others. (Cue the LaVar Ball rant in 3, 2, 1 …) For now, though, the Lakers are still a massive underdog, along with the rest of the league.

LeBron landing in La La Land was hardly a surprise, going back to last summer, when Golden State reclaimed its title and the four-time MVP started dropping hints about his future. James owns not one, but two $20 million estates in Los Angeles, where the sun and the spotlight certainly shines brighter than it does in Cleveland and where he fancies a post-playing career as an entertainment mogul.

As the world turns

James’ first “Decision” was roundly booed back in 2010, ill-conceived and poorly received — and not just by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert or the fans burning jerseys. Yet for as awkward and ugly as that was, it set the stage for much of what we see today in the NBA, with players seizing control of the game they play — and the games executives used to play — damn the consequences.

And in the process — not “The Process,” though that’s a part of the intrigue, too — James helped create a year-round power play for the NBA, a serial show that league commissioner Adam Silver happily watched unfold, the outspoken players and the unspoken deals and even the unbeatable teams, most recently the Warriors, who took advantage of a salary-cap spike two summers ago and then used it as a shiv.

“I think this league is about celebrating greatness,” Silver said last month as the NBA Finals tipped off featuring the same two teams for the fourth consecutive year.

Mention the problems with a lack of parity and he'll counter with a backhanded critique of the NFL, where a hard salary cap brings everyone to their knees, noting, “You could do more to achieve parity, but you also don't want parity of mediocrity, either.”

They might, soon, if the Warriors insist on making a mockery of the luxury tax and any hint of competition. But keep in mind, Silver was handed a five-year contract extension last week, one that secures his place in charge of the league through the 2023-24 season. That goes beyond those of his peers — Roger Goodell (NFL) or Gary Bettman (NHL) or Rob Manfred (MLB) — in part because the NBA’s current labor deal has the most life left to live.

It's also because of the new-age success this live-wire league has enjoyed since he took the reins from his predecessor, David Stern, in 2014. The NBA’s annual revenue has nearly doubled in that time, to more than $8 billion this past season, bolstered by a $24 billion television deal and record-high attendance figures every year. (The average NBA franchise is now worth $1.65 billion — tripling in value over the last five years — according to the most recent Forbes estimates.)

Shortly after he took over as commissioner, Silver was busy touting the NBA as the league of the future. He even went so far as to say, “I think this game should be a rival to football.” And while that rivalry’s still a mismatch when it comes to the bottom line, there’s no denying the NBA’s demographic advantages.

Only Major League Soccer draws a younger TV audience among U.S. pro sports leagues, according to a recent Sports Business Journal report. (The median age of an NBA viewer is 42, compared to 50 for the NFL and 57 for Major League Baseball.)  And unlike the NFL or MLB, the NBA has encouraged the sharing of league content — highlights and more — on YouTube and elsewhere. Silver talks about offering fans free snacks without having to give away meals, and he’s right about the end result: Everyone’s still hungry for more. But how long till we tire of watching the Warriors feast?

A younger, tech-friendly fan base stays engaged in other ways, following players as much as teams as the NBA’s social media footprint tramples other leagues. (The NBA’s official Twitter account has nearly 3 1/2 million more followers than the NFL’s, and only a handful of those are probably Bryan Colangelo burner accounts) On any given night during the winter, the ratings are up and “Basketball Twitter” is buzzing, often with players stoking the fires themselves.

And now that the league has figured out a way to keep that going, from the playoffs through the draft and into free agency, the debate never ends, on the court or online. Monday, it was the 76ers’ Joel Embiid tweaking LeBron after the Warriors’ latest big splash.

Stay tuned

James made his move quickly this summer, and other stars decided to stay put — most notably Chris Paul in Houston and Paul George in Oklahoma City — but the ripple effects will linger much longer. Where will Kawhi Leonard end up, and when? What happens in the Eastern Conference now that the Cavaliers have effectively abdicated the throne? Is the Celtics-Lakers rivalry officially back? Or will the 76ers spoil the party? And how long can this Golden State dynasty last? 

LeBron’s latest decision only prompts more questions. And in the NBA — a player’s league taking things to an extreme — the drama that follows is worth a king’s ransom, it seems. But at what price?