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Revisiting LeBron James' legendary NBA career as he enters Year 21

Revisiting LeBron James' legendary NBA career as he enters Year 21

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James is entering Year 21 in the NBA, becoming just the sixth player in league history to play 21 seasons – joining Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Willis and Robert Parish. Carter currently holds the record for most seasons played with 22.

With James still performing at an unprecedented level for someone his age, coupled with recent reports of his desire to still play several more years and his public goal of playing with his McDonald's All-American son, Bronny James, he certainly seems like a lock to tie, if not break, Carter’s record. 

James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record earlier this year in February, adding a major accolade to his G.O.A.T. argument. With the seasons-played record in sight, let’s take a look at how “The King” has accumulated arguably the greatest legacy in NBA history over the last two decades.

The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted the kid from Akron with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. James was the talk of the country at the time, being dubbed "The Chosen One” and dawning the cover of Sports Illustrated at just 18 years old. With the weight of the world on his shoulders, basketball fans waited in anticipation to see if James could possibly live up to the expectations.

The young phenom did not waste any time. Debuting against the Sacramento Kings, James would go on to score 25 points while adding 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals. The King would not slow down, averaging 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds in his first NBA season.

LeBron would spend the next six seasons in Cleveland, winning back-to-back MVP awards in his last two seasons with the team, while reaching the playoffs five times and the NBA Finals once in 2007. With no championship after seven seasons with the Cavs, the two-time MVP became a free agent in the summer of 2010 and infamously decided to “take his talents to South Beach,” joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form the “Big Three” on the Miami Heat. 

The decision by James, which happened to be made on live television on an ESPN special dubbed “The Decision," sparked outrage amongst Cavaliers fans. Videos spread online of fans burning the once-hometown-hero’s jersey, rooting for his failure in Miami. While James was used to feeling pressure, this was different; James was receiving backlash from a fanbase that once loved him, and a growing population of people were actively rooting against him. This brewing tension had fans waiting in anticipation, this time to see if LeBron could overcome the weight of the world once again. 

In LeBron’s quest to do the impossible again, a trip to Cleveland brought The King back to the scene of his crime in a game against the Cavaliers in December of 2010. The fans in then-named Quicken Loans Arena brought their all that night, booing LeBron from the moment he was introduced and whenever he touched the ball on offense. However, this just seemed to add more fuel to the fire for James, as he went on to score 38 points en route to a 118-90 blowout of his former team. 

This marked a new era for James, and he would embrace his role as the “villain” of the NBA. Fan perception was one thing, but with James’ new team came a new energy. Now, he was a proven veteran and he was coming into his own as a player, adapting this almost meticulous style and pace of play alongside his new All-Star-caliber teammates in Wade and Bosh. James would go on to win back-to-back MVP awards again in 2012 and 2013, and the trio would prove to be a problem for the league, with the Heat even going on a 27-game win streak in 2013. During his time in Miami, James would evolve as a player, bulking up and playing more minutes down low at power forward and even center.

The bonafide “super-team” would spend four seasons together, reaching the NBA Finals in all four. Winning back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, with LeBron winning Finals MVP of both, the stars' decision to team-up was a success and ushered in a new era of player movement and empowerment.

The kid from Akron would then shock the world in the summer of 2014, with James departing the Heat and returning home to rejoin the Cavaliers. The two-time champion had some unfinished business and was determined to bring a championship to his city. 

LeBron brought his adapted and seasoned style to his former team. His impact extended into the front office, as he now had significantly more say in roster decisions. He wasted little time and used his newfound influence to encourage the Cavs to trade their No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins, for a proven star: Kevin Love. Suddenly, James was part of another Big Three, this time with rising star Kyrie Irving and Love.

In Year 1 of LeBron’s return home, he led the Cavs back to the NBA Finals, where they faced off against the Golden State Warriors, led by league MVP Stephen Curry. While LeBron led Cleveland to a 2-1 series lead over Golden State, Irving and Love both went down with injuries. This proved to be too much for LeBron to handle, and the Warriors would defeat the Cavaliers in six games. James failed in his mission, but the wait would prove to be worthwhile the following season.

The 2016 season would see a rematch of the Cavaliers and Warriors in the NBA Finals. Curry was coming off of his second-straight MVP award – becoming the first unanimous MVP in history – and the Warriors achieved an NBA-record 73 wins that season. The odds were stacked against LeBron and the Cavs, and it only got worse when the Warriors took a 3-1 series lead. Teams in the NBA Finals were 0-32 when facing a 3-1 series deficit. Once again, LeBron was trying to do the impossible. 

Once again, The King responded. 

Dropping 41 points in both Game 5 and Game 6, James led the way in tying the series at 3-3. In Game 7, the Cavaliers would go on the road and defeat the Warriors, becoming the first team in NBA history to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy after falling behind 3-1. This was a storybook ending, and James became emotional during his postgame interview, shouting, “Cleveland! This is for you!” 

The three-time champion would spend two more seasons in Cleveland, reaching the NBA Finals both seasons, where the Cavs would ultimately lose to the Kevin-Durant-led Warriors. When James decided to leave Cleveland in 2018, his second departure was well-received, with fans thanking him for bringing a championship to their city. The next chapter of James' career would take place in Los Angeles with arguably the most storied franchise in the NBA, the Lakers.

James’ first year under the bright lights of Los Angeles was less than ideal, as injuries plagued the roster and the Lakers' young core didn't seem ready to compete at a high level. That would quickly be forgotten, as the Lakers would trade three of those core players (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart) and the No. 4 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for superstar Anthony Davis, whom LeBron asked the organization to acquire. 

That trade would kick off the LeBron-AD era in Los Angeles. The duo would win a championship in their first year together in 2020, with James adding a fourth championship and Finals MVP to his resume. The team has had some misfortune since, as they haven't been back to the Finals and they even missed the play-in tournament in 2022. While injuries have bothered LeBron in recent years, the four-time MVP has yet to slow down, leading the Lakers to the Western Conference Finals last season. While the Lakers were ultimately swept by the eventual-champion Denver Nuggets, their postseason run was impressive.

Now, we arrive at the present day. As James enters his 21st NBA season, he has 19 All-NBA selections, 19 All-Star selections, 10 NBA Finals appearances, four championships, four Finals MVPs and four regular-season MVPs. After surpassing expectation after expectation throughout his career, LeBron will be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer when he walks away from the game. However, he's not done playing just yet, as he hopes to play with his son and win at least one more championship before he retires.

LeBron’s current contract has a player option for next season, so this could potentially be his final year with the Lakers (if he decides to opt out next summer). With LeBron still performing at a superstar level and facing pressure to lead his team to a title, all eyes will be on The King yet again this season.

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