The LeBron Generation in the NBA Is Finally Over The LeBron Generation in the NBA Is Finally Over

Author: Editors Desk Source: WSJ:
April 30, 2024 at 13:15
Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are all out of the playoffs. EMIL LENDOF/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, GETTY IMAGES
Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are all out of the playoffs. EMIL LENDOF/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, GETTY IMAGES

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant spent a decade battling for championships. Now all of them are out of the playoffs early.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James wasn’t ready to give up just yet. After his team fell behind the Denver Nuggets three games to none in their first-round playoff series last Thursday night, the 39-year-old great promised to keep fighting. 

“You play until the wheels fall off,” James said.

Everyone but James, though, could see the axles straining and lug nuts rattling. In the twilight of a dazzling career, he was teetering on the edge of an exit from the playoffs. No NBA team has ever climbed out of a 3-0 playoff hole, and sure enough the Nuggets dispatched the Lakers Monday night to advance four games to one.

Taken by itself, it could seem like a one-off. But James wasn’t the only generational superstar headed for an early postseason exit. The titans who lorded over the NBA for over a decade—James, 36-year-old Stephen Curry and 35-year-old Kevin Durant—have all faded out by the end of the first round, a long way from their championship-contending peaks. 

An entire era of the NBA is coming to a close.



Lead changes, clutch buckets and down-to-the-wire drama...

Relive the CHAOTIC final two minutes that led to the Jamal Murray series-winning shot ‼️

— NBA (@NBA) April 30, 2024


The night before the Lakers’ season ended, Durant’s Phoenix Suns were swept by a young, physical Minnesota Timberwolves team. Curry’s Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, fell short of even qualifying for the playoffs, dropping a play-in game against the Sacramento Kings.

In many ways, it’s a reminder that in sports, Father Time is undefeated. The three stars are a combined 111 years old, and despite astronomical advances in sports science, no joints stay limber forever.

But age isn’t the only factor working against James, Curry and Durant. Since players unlock higher and higher contracts the more honors they win, an established superstar is the most expensive category of player in the NBA. That trio boasted the three highest salaries in the sport this season, nearing a total of $150 million. In addition, James and Durant have jumped from team to team throughout their careers, rebuilding rosters at each new location.

Under the NBA’s financial rules, which impose tax penalties for spending past certain salary thresholds, such massive sums limit the sorts of complementary players a team can bring in. The math gets even tougher with multiple All-Star teammates, which all three players have.

It’s no surprise, then, that the teams sending these icons packing aren’t only younger but also largely homegrown, built around players picked in the draft instead of acquired via trade or free agency. This season, 60% of the Nuggets’ starting five—including their core duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray—were Denver draft picks. (Murray, who hasn’t made an All-Star team but whose game winner with 3.6 seconds left eliminated the Lakers, earns the relative pittance of $33.8 million.)

“They do not have a weakness offensively,” James said of Denver.




LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs by the defending champion Denver Nuggets. PHOTO: MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs by the defending champion Denver Nuggets. PHOTO: MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES


With James, Curry and Durant taking in the rest of the playoffs from their couches, there will be a jarring absence. The three have combined to win 10 championships and seven MVP awards.

An entire generation of basketball fans has mostly known titles contested by those three players. From 2010-11—the season James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat—to 2020, at least one of them reached the NBA Finals every single season.

For a league negotiating new media-rights agreements, it seems an inauspicious time to have basketball’s most famous figures swept aside. But the old lions themselves are praising the players following in their footsteps. James has called Jokic, a bruising center who passes like a point guard, “one of the best players to ever play this game.”

And after 22-year-old Anthony Edwards, the soaring Timberwolves superstar, put up a scoring and trash-talking master class against Durant, the veteran didn’t scold the youngster.

“It’s just hoop,” Durant said. “You get hot, you make shots, make tough shots, you’re going to feel excited about yourself.”


Kevin Durant congratulates Anthony Edwards following the Timberwolves’ first-round series win. PHOTO: CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES


After this season’s disappointments, the franchises that employ these elders will surely look at ways to mount one last title run. The Warriors could demote Klay Thompson, Curry’s longtime “Splash Brother,” to lean into a youth movement. The Lakers, as usual, could try to lure another star to Hollywood.

In the meantime, there is a silver lining to these icons’ early exits. James, Curry and Durant have all agreed to represent Team USA in France this summer, marking the first time the three will appear on the same Olympic roster. They will pace a squad that enters the tournament as a heavy favorite.

So while one of the NBA’s golden generations might be done winning MVP and championship trophies, they could find some solace in Olympic gold.

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