It certainly was a play to remember.
In what would be considered an unbelievable scenario at the beginning of the season, the red- hot Philadelphia 76ers were at home battling the Cleveland Cavaliers for a playoff position. Up 20- plus points in the first half, the largely unproven Sixers were making a statement.
But what’s a Cavs game without a miraculous LeBron comeback? Deep into the second quarter, LeBron’s inevitable frustration was beginning to boil. Gearing up to take over the game, James grabbed a rebound and pushed out in transition. Philadelphia’s Dario Saric backpedaled on defense to find himself stranded on an island, with nothing left for him to do but make a business decision. No mere mortal can stop a human freight train. No one can jump with the King.
NBA fans have seen this play countless times before. Fifteen years into the LeBron era, these are the type of heroic leaps that are the staple of highlight reels on a daily basis. With one aggressive step into the lane, James cocked it back and rose up…back rimming the dunk.
After a rebound by 76ers veteran JJ Redick and a couple of nifty unselfish passes, the young Ben Simmons cut down the lane and caught the ball.
With one aggressive step into the lane, Simmons cocked it back and rose up…finishing the slam with authority.
It was the signature LeBron dunk, a powerful one-handed tomahawk, completed with the stare- down. In this moment, the rookie had defeated the world’s greatest at his own game. I am not usually one to get sappy, but there was something beautifully symbolic about this play.
One quick sequence had offered a window into the NBA’s future. Ever since his emergence in 2003, LeBron has been the dominant figure, the undisputed best player, the guy who makes the league tick. However, this season marks the first time that fans can see beyond the horizon, and begin to imagine a new era without the King. Friday’s matchup between the Cavs and 76ers, complemented by Simmons’ transition dunk, was a first look at the eventual passing of the torch.
“King James X Fresh Prince #FamilyTies,” tweeted LeBron after the game, alongside a series of photos of him and Simmons, staring eye-to-eye (Twitter, [at]kingjames, 04.07.2018). James, who prides himself on his image of selflessness, has basked in his position as a mentor and role model to the younger generation. The nod to Simmons is more than notable, an important endorsement that inducts him into an elite fraternity of future NBA
superstars. Most significantly, James finally sees himself in another player. As the caption suggests, a potential heir to the throne has been realized.
This is in no way to suggest a direct comparison. Ben Simmons in the present stage of his evolution is not yet among the league’s best. Case in point, Friday’s game did result in the eventual LeBron comeback. Simmons carried his team to the close win, but he was clearly outplayed by James, who remains the most dominant player on the floor at every given moment. Indisputably, it is still LeBron’s NBA.
However, Simmons’ potential is real, and the similarities are striking. Just like James, Simmons is an aggressive presence with special instincts. Just like a young James, Simmons enters the league as a limited shooter, building his game around pure strength and athleticism. He is one of the few who have successfully modeled their game after the greatest.
“Potential” is the buzzword around Philadelphia basketball these days, and special attention has been paid to Simmons since his flashes of it on Friday. The latest cycle of pundit commentary has largely focused on Simmon’s claim to Rookie of the Year over Utah Jazz standout Donovan Mitchell.
“Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent,” said Simmons when asked about the subject (ESPN, “Ben Simmons confident he’s rookie of the year,” 4.08.2018).
When asked a day later if any other rookies have caught his attention this year, Simmons simply answered, “None” (USA Today, “Ben Simmons on other rookies who have caught his attention,” 4.09.2018). The young player not only plays like James, but has also seemingly embraced the King’s signature confidence and candor off the court, combined with the endearing brevity of Coach Pop. Even just in his rhetoric and presentation, Simmons has all the makings of a future star.
Star power is of the utmost importance in the modern NBA, in which an elite group lays claim to dominant roles. At the top, the field narrows even more, to the point where LeBron stands alone.
Fifteen years and counting, it’s hard to imagine another player filling that role, but a few have made their names known. Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be up next, given that his prime will correspond with James’ decline. After that, Simmons is the player to turn too.
There will never be another LeBron James. Yet, as the King begins to show signs of his age, an abundance of young talent is preparing well to challenge the throne.
In its next era, the NBA will remain in good hands.