LeBron James keeps hearing the same questions. How’s it going? How’s the bubble?
He now has a one-size-fits-all answer.
“I just say it’s 2020,” James said. “Nothing is normal in 2020.”
That’s not entirely true. The NBA is a few weeks from playoff mode, and James — just like normal — has himself and the Los Angeles Lakers squarely in the mix to compete for championship. It is a rare bit of normalcy for a player who appeared in eight consecutive NBA Finals from 2011 through and including 2018, and for a franchise that has won 16 championships.
Everything else about this year has been most abnormal. A pandemic suspended play. David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner emeritus, died. Kobe Bryant, who was the third-leading scorer in NBA history until James passed him on Jan. 25, died in a helicopter crash the following day. And now James, the Lakers and 21 other teams are at Walt Disney World, separated from the rest of the world, trying to salvage a season and decide a champion.
James took Bryant’s death — the Lakers’ star died along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on the morning of Jan. 26 — particularly hard.
“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about him,” James said. “A day doesn’t go by where our organization does not remember him and think about not only Kob, but Gigi, [his wife] Vanessa and their girls. They are a part of this family.”
Gearing up for playoffs
Lakers coach Frank Vogel has seen playoff-season James three times before — never liking how those experiences went. Vogel was coaching Indiana and his three best seasons there saw the Pacers matched up with James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Heat in 6 in 2012. Heat in 7 in 2013. Heat in 6 in 2014.
This time, Vogel is genuinely and understandably eager to see James at playoff time.
James will have a big say in whether the Lakers win that title. By the time the season resumes July 30, the ballots will be cast to determine whether he or Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — the two frontrunners — wins the NBA MVP award. James is almost mathematically assured of winning his first assist title; he cannot be caught by second-place Trae Young of Atlanta no matter what happens at Disney. And the Lakers, barring all-out collapse, will be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
By any measure, it’s been a good year on the court for James.
A weird year, but a good year. Time will tell if it’s a great year. He believes the bubble will work and sees no reason yet why this NBA experiment would fail. And while he detests being away from his family and his inner circle, he’s using this chance to be locked in to focus on the opportunity.
“As far as the MVP race, I think I’ve shown what I’m capable of doing, not only individually but from a team’s perspective, us being No. 1 in the West,” James said. “There was a lot of conversation about, you know, ‘LeBron can do those things in the East but if he ever came to the West, what can he do?’ I heard all of that, and to have our team at the top of the Western Conference and playing the way that we were playing at that time and the way I was playing, you know, that’s definitely a good feeling.”
No new cases in past week
None of the 346 players tested for COVID-19 at the NBA campus in Florida returned positive tests over the past seven days, the league and union announced Monday.
That is a good sign that the “bubble” environment is working as the NBA prepares to resume the season on July 30.
Two players tested positive during the first week teams spent at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando from July 7-13, including Houston Rockets star Russell Westbrook.
Another 19 players tested positive for the coronavirus during in-market testing that began July 1 before the teams headed to central Florida.
The numbers continue to surge elsewhere in Florida. ABC News reported Monday there were 10,347 new cases in the last 24 hours, bringing the state’s total to 360,394. The seven-day average has been greater than 10,000 over the last week, according to the state health department, and more than 5,000 have died in Florida.