You would have seen a big smile on Lakers fans’ faces when the trade news came through, as their storied franchise became the new Vegas title favorite. You would have seen a bigger smile on LeBron James’ face, as the three-time champion was awarded the horsepower necessary to continue chasing Michael Jordan. But the biggest smile likely belonged to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who just presided over his fifth NBA season.
A season, mind you, that the casual fan didn’t seem to care about.
Saturday afternoon, it was announced the Lakers acquired six-time All-Star Anthony Davis from the Pelicans in exchange for three players and three first-round draft picks. The move made the Lakers instant championship contenders by pairing James with who may be his most talented teammate yet.
More significantly, it likely saved the NBA from a ratings dip that would have continued had James not gotten help. The truth is this: That league still relies on LeBron.
Spend a couple hours a day on social media — where it seems the NFL is consistently bashed and the NBA consistently praised — and you’d think the hardwood might be gaining on the gridiron in terms of popularity. In reality, this NBA season — particularly the playoffs — was among the least watched of the decade.
When James moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles, East Coasters who had to rise early in the morning couldn’t watch him as often. And when it was clear the Lakers weren’t going to be in the postseason, general interest dropped off all the way through the Finals.
Some numbers: NBA regular-season games broadcast across ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV this year were down 5% from last season. Through the first two weekends of the playoffs, ratings were down 18% from last season, and the 2.66 million viewers the league brought in over that stretch were the lowest since at least 2011, when NBA numbers were first made available.
Moreover, the Nielsen dip for the Finals — which included James in each of the previous eight years — was particularly salient, as the viewership was down 15% from last season and lower than any other year since 2009. Yes, record Canadian numbers marked a rise in total viewership, but that was almost exclusively due to the Raptors reaching the Finals for the first time in history.
The bottom line: When the league is without its most celebrated and polarizing star of the past two decades, the number of eyeballs are going to wane. When millions of James’ fans can’t watch him chase Jordan’s legacy, and millions of his haters can’t watch him fail on the grandest stage, interest is going to plunge.
His value to the NBA is inimitable among today’s stars. Which begs the question: What’s the league going to do when he leaves?
James to basketball isn’t quite what Tiger Woods is to golf, but it’s about the closest thing you’re going to find in sports. Like Tiger, LeBron was anointed as the Chosen One before he turned pro, drawing copious national coverage while he was still in high school. Like Tiger, James managed to somehow surpass the hype, winning four MVPs and producing historically efficient seasons while dazzling nightly. Like Tiger, James sullied his reputation, as he spurned Cleveland on ESPN by announcing he would be joining the Heat. And like Tiger, he found redemption, returning to the Cavs and bringing home a title.
This is a story line that nobody else in the NBA can replicate. That’s why it doesn’t matter how deadly James Harden is in isolations, how strong Kawhi Leonard is as a two-way player, how revolutionary Stephen Curry is as a three-point shooter, or how freakish Giannis Antetokounmpo as an athlete. Narrative is every bit as important as talent when it comes to drawing fans. Just look at mixed-martial arts. Have there been several female fighters who have topped Ronda Rousey’s skill level? Yes. Has her division been anywhere near as hyped since she retired? No.
This is why the Davis acquisition has the potential to be a godsend. If the Lakers win or even contend for a title, Davis may choose the purple and gold in free agency next summer and keep LeBron relevant. He doesn’t have to be the best player in the league for fans to tune in, but if he is among the best and on a championship-caliber team, the intrigue will remain.
If Davis leaves after next season, though? Trouble.
The best hope the NBA has going forward is future No. 1 pick Zion Williamson blowing by the hype in the same manner James did. There have always been myriad stars in this star-driven league, but that ratings dip between Jordan and James proved that it needs singular talent mixed with a plot line to keep fans hooked.
For serious basketball fans, these playoffs and Finals were replete with entertainment, drama and indelible moments. For a lot of casual sports fans, though, they never happened.
LeBron needed Davis to come to L.A. so that he could return to glory. Silver needed Davis to go to L.A. so that his league could, too.