The NBA’s LeBron James era is over — let’s celebrate that

The NBA's LeBron James era is over — let's celebrate that

Charles Barkley is one of the 25 greatest players in NBA history. He is the shortest rebounding champion ever. And his broadcasting career has been even better.

For more than two decades, Barkley has made “Inside the NBA” the only sports studio show worth watching. He is forthright, funny, opinionated and unbothered being the butt of countless jokes.

Every so often, he is even right.

A rare occasion took place after the Nuggets completed their sweep of the Lakers to clinch their first NBA Finals berth in franchise history. Instead of the league’s focus shifting to Denver — the top-seeded team, featuring two-time MVP Nikola Jokic — LeBron James managed to keep the attention of media and fans on himself after offering faux, first-time hints that he may soon retire.

“I was so mad [Tuesday] morning I actually turned the TV off,” Barkley said. “Because the Denver Nuggets, who have been the best team in the world all season, sweep, get to the final for the first time [and the coverage was on LeBron].”

The brilliance of Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

There is no point doing a deep dive on James’ remarks, uttered after a crushing, exhausting, season-ending defeat.

Even at 38, he remains one of the league’s best players. He is due nearly $100 million over the next two seasons. He longs to play with his son Bronny, a one-and-done candidate attending USC next season. He wants additional accolades to strengthen his all-time argument against Michael Jordan.

James will remain in the league for at least another two years. He will remain America’s most famous active athlete.

But he is no longer the face of the NBA. No player can be in their final innings.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already had established league-wide supremacy before Wilt Chamberlain hung it up. Magic and Bird already were the faces of basketball when Abdul-Jabbar retired. Jordan already had taken the torch before Magic and Bird’s final days. Shaq and Kobe owned the NBA during Jordan’s days with the Wizards. LeBron already had four MVPs and three rings before Kobe Bryant’s final losing campaigns.

Stephen Curry looks defeated during the Warriors' playoff loss to the Lakers.
It can’t still be Stephen Curry’s league with the decline of the Warriors dynasty.

The Lakers’ unexpected run to this year’s Western Conference Finals may have been James’ final deep playoff run.

This postseason also may have been a curtain call as title contenders for the greatest rivals of his generation.

Kevin Durant turns 35 in September, has played an average of fewer than 35 games over the past four seasons and recently joined a Suns team with no depth and minimal cap space.

Steph Curry, 35, will never leave the Warriors, leaving him with an aging and unimpressive supporting cast — and a front office hemorrhaging money from record-setting luxury taxes.

Kahwi Leonard couldn’t read this sentence without suffering an injury.

Victor Wembanyama pumps his fist during a game in France.
French phenom Victor Wembanyama is set to enter the NBA as a breathlessly awaited No. 1 overall pick, 20 years after LeBron James did the same.

It is now the era of Jokic, the greatest passing big of all time, whose unathletic appearance has created the paradox of a two-time MVP being underrated. When the Nuggets win the title and he is crowned Finals MVP, casual fans will embrace him, just as Giannis Antetokounmpo was two years ago.

It is an unprecedented era, in which the four best franchise cornerstones are international (Jokic, Antetokounmpo, reigning MVP Joel Embiid, 24-year-old Luka Doncic).

It is a time when two of the league’s top scorers led their teams to the Finals before turning 26 (Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker).

It is also a time to look ahead.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 24, was just named All-NBA First Team. Anthony Edwards, 21, just made his first All-Star Game. Ja Morant, 23, still has time to use his brain. And Victor Wembanyama, 19, will soon arrive as the best NBA prospect since James.

It doesn’t matter when James retires. The torch has already been passed.

Today’s back page

The back cover of the New York Post on May 26, 2023
New York Post

Read more:

⚾ Aaron Boone ejected as Yankees drop series to Orioles

⚾ Mets demolish Cubs as Carlos Carrasco picks up first win … Gary Sanchez DFA’d

🏒 BROOKS: Penguins dysfunction raises Mike Sullivan questions for Rangers

🏈 Darren Waller won’t stop at being a pass-catcher for Giants

It was the best of times…

Tennis’ golden age is almost over.

The latest reminder came when Rafael Nadal, 36, announced he would miss the French Open (which begins Sunday) for the first time since 2004 and will likely retire next year.

His rival and friend, Roger Federer, officially retired in September.

Novak Djokovic, 36, is a cyborg, but he won’t be far behind.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the Laver Cup in 2022.
The gradual exits of the Big 3 of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic signals the end of men’s tennis’ golden age.
Action Images via Reuters

Combined, the Big Three have won 64 majors. For perspective, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi won 23 combined. We will never see anything like this era again, with arguably the three greatest players of all time battling each other in their primes.

It has been incredible to watch this entire incredible era. Every sport doesn’t provide the opportunity to watch its golden age.

How many have you witnessed? How many do you think can be topped?

This is one man’s list:

NBA (1984-98): Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics battle in the Finals three times in four years. The Slam Dunk Contest takes off. The Dream Team is born. Physicality doesn’t equal flagrant fouls. Replay doesn’t intrude every five minutes. Jordan wins six rings and becomes the greatest of all time, appearing to leave on top in Utah.

Larry Bird of the Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Lakers battle for a rebound during the 1987 NBA Finals.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped usher in the NBA’s heyday in the 1980s.
NBAE via Getty Images

NFL (1988-2005): Finally, Super Bowls are competitive. Aerial attacks blossom, but running backs still can be the league’s most exciting players (Barry Sanders) and the most important members of title teams (Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis). Joe Montana becomes the GOAT. Then Tom Brady starts building his case. His Patriots’ dominance of Peyton Manning’s Colts leads the NFL to crack down on secondaries, one of numerous rule changes making it virtually impossible to play defense or hit someone without drawing a penalty. It was fun to have kickoffs, too.

MLB (1947-57): World War II is over. Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier. Joe DiMaggio battles Ted Williams. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider battle for New York. Subway tokens usually accompany World Series tickets. California hasn’t yet stolen the soul of a borough. Sign me up.

NHL (1980-94): Perhaps the greatest dynasty of all time (Islanders) gives way to perhaps the second greatest dynasty of all time (Oilers). The pace is fast and the goals are plentiful. Wayne Gretzky wins eight straight MVPs. Mario Lemieux can’t be stopped by anything but injury. Mark Messier gives the Rangers their lone triumph since 1940. Then the Devils arrive with their neutral zone trap.

Islanders goalie Billy Smith tries to make a save against the Flyers during the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Billy Smith and the Islanders won the first of four straight NHL titles in 1980.
Getty Images

College basketball (1979-95): Magic and Bird give March Madness new meaning with the most-watched college game of all time. The Big East is born. The NCAA Tournament expands to 64 teams. The nation’s best players are household names (Sampson, Ewing, Mullin, etc.), usually staying in school for four years. Then Kevin Garnett changes the landscape by becoming the first player in two decades to go from high school to the pros.

College football (2014-present): Maurice Clarett’s Supreme Court case failed. The country’s best players go to college — unlike in basketball, where other lucrative options now exist — and stay there for at least three years. Option offenses are dead. High-scoring, pro-style attacks thrive at schools of any size. Split championships are no more. Polls are essentially meaningless. The College Football Playoff brings enhanced meaning to the regular season and postseason. An expanded field with playoff games on campuses will create the best environment in sports.

Golf (1962-77): Arnold Palmer brings the game to the masses. Jack Nicklaus perfects it en route to his record 18 major titles. Who knows how many more the 19-time runner-up would have if not for legends such as Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson?

George Foreman and Muhammad Ali trade punches during their heavyweight championship fight in Zaire in 1974.
Foreman. Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle. Boxing at its best.
Getty Images

Boxing (1964-78): Cassius Clay beats an unstoppable Sonny Liston. Muhammad Ali knocks out an unbeatable George Foreman. Joe Frazier wins the Fight of the Century. Ali wins the trilogy. The heavyweight division was never stronger or deeper. Votes for the 1980s middleweight division (Leonard-Hagler-Hearns-Duran) will be considered.

WWF (1984-92): Hulkamania runs wild. WrestleMania is born at MSG. Hogan slams Andre the Giant in the Silverdome. Macho Man takes the throne. The Mega Powers explode. The Ultimate Warrior, too. The Royal Rumble debuts. The Undertaker, too. A loaded tag team division features the young Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Ric Flair brings the big gold belt. Storylines stretch for ages. Children watch free of parents’ fear.

The sun shines on South Florida sports

South Florida may have the most apathetic fan base in professional sports. Now it is being rewarded with two of the greatest postseason runs any region has ever enjoyed.

Matthew Tkachuk celebrates with the Panthers bench after the team clinched a berth in the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.
Matthew Tkachuk and the Panthers are four wins away from an improbable Stanley Cup.
Getty Images

The Florida Panthers are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996, four wins away from becoming the second 8-seed in NHL history to win a championship.

And the Miami Heat, despite another loss in a potential clincher Thursday night, are one win from becoming the second 8-seed in NBA history — hello, 1999 Knicks — to reach the NBA Finals.

Together, they could become the first pair of teams from the same region to win the NBA title and Stanley Cup in the same season.

An NBA and NHL team from the same area have reached the finals in the same year nine times — the Warriors and Sharks did it most recently, representing the Bay Area in 2016 — with the Rangers and Knicks coming closest to pulling off the feat in 1994, when the Blueshirts broke a 54-year Cup drought and the Knicks fell in Game 7 in Houston.

The Knicks and Rangers both fell short in their respective finals in 1972. The Devils won it all in 2003, when Jason Kidd’s Nets lost in the NBA Finals for the second straight season.

Patrick Ewing of the Knicks high fives a fan during the 1994 NBA Finals.
Patrick Ewing’s Knicks were one victory away from delivering New York an NBA-NHL double in 1994, after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.

The Panthers snuck into the playoffs by one point before eliminating the best regular-season team of all time (Bruins) and beat the new Cup favorite entering the second (Maple Leafs) and third rounds (Hurricanes). The Golden Knicks likely await.

The Heat were minutes from elimination in their Play-In game against the Bulls, before Jimmy Butler led Miami to an upset of the top team in the regular season (Bucks), a win in a six-game slugfest (Knicks) and a 3-0 series lead against the regular season’s No. 2 (Celtics). Only a historic collapse stops them now.

The Heat had 300/1 title odds when the playoffs started. The Panthers had 150/1 title odds before the playoffs began.

The historically rare sellout in South Florida is a certainty now. But there is still no promise those seats will be filled in the final minutes.

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