The Fleeting Hope of a LeBron James Denver Legacy

Jun 8, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the third quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the 2018 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is the kind of in-between article that can only exist before an event like free agency when a big question hangs over everything in the NBA. The question: Where is LeBron James going to end up? The answer is, of course, probably not Denver. However, there are enough breadcrumbs leading to the Mile High City that the current answer isn’t “definitely not Denver.” Plus, the Nuggets current roster has the pieces to build around James.

The first person to wear a new Denver Nuggets jersey at a press conference could be LeBron James. This is a weird concept that loops in images of both Peyton Manning in orange and Carmelo Anthony in baby blue (I’ll get to those two).

In a couple of weeks, this analysis will be nothing more than an alternative time capsule for what the Denver Nuggets could have been. For now, it’s fun to think that Denver could rent the King. Or, more accurately, that the King could rent the Nuggets.

The Power of Championships in Denver

In the history of the Denver Nuggets franchise, all eras end the same way—without championships and with hard feelings between the players/coach and the franchise. That list includes David Thompson, Doug Moe, Alex English, Dikembe Mutombo, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and George Karl.

It’s the way that things go in Denver.

It’s hard to think that LeBron James would end his time here differently. The Golden State Warriors are the titans of the West—unstoppable with the perfect combination of superstars and a supporting cast. That’s excluding the damage that the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers could do to the LeBron Nuggets.

So believing that LeBron James could rise above that is crazy, but anything less than a championship would signify a failure. That sounds a lot like the situation that confronted another Denver transplant.

The Peyton Manning Connection

In the middle of Peyton Manning’s final season, when he couldn’t stay on the field and lost the job to Brock Osweiler, it felt like the Manning era would be an overall failure. Despite the great football and prolific offense, there was no way that Manning could lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl.

And yet he did, with the help of his teammates.

That single championship sealed a legacy for Peyton in Denver. While the tenure wasn’t as long as his time in Indianapolis, Denver claims co-ownership of Manning. With two Super Bowl trips, one trophy and an MVP award, it’s impossible to separate Manning’s career from Denver.

LeBron would come to Denver as nothing more than a placeholder. If the Nuggets failed to win a championship, these years would be seen as Michael Jordan’s time with the Washington Wizards—an afterthought to his illustrious career.

With one championship, the Nuggets could claim a piece of LeBron James. With two championships, he might be remembered more in Denver than Miami (this being the tail-end of his career). With three championships, a number equal to his previous championships—tying him with Jordan for six all-time—Denver gets to claim half of James in the same way the city claims Manning.

James would be celebrated from the moment he arrived. James would be revered in the same way Denver loved Ray Bourque.

He might leave this town with a sense of disappointment though. He could be thought of with the same despair as Mike Hampton, Paul Kariya/Teemu Selanne or Allen Iverson. All of these men were excellent players who didn’t help bring a championship to the city.

James is different. He’s an all-time great. He would leave a permanent mark on any franchise he went to that didn’t have a championship-filled history. For the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James would just be an era. For the Nuggets, he’s the biggest thing that ever happened to the franchise, instantly.

LeBron’s Legacy Issue 

We’re only having this conversation because James is chasing a legacy—a legacy to rival Michael Jordan’s.

In the course of the Eastern Conference Finals, all anyone could talk about is, who was better? James or Jordan.

It’s a tired argument that I’m not particularly interested in settling. For me, the greatest argument takes away from the NBA’s rich history. It’s trying to reduce the NBA to remembering only one great player, like Babe Ruth or Wayne Gretzky. The NBA is a history rich league that seems to ignore its history.

Don’t give me a Jordan vs. LeBron debate, if you’re unwilling to talk about LeBron’s merits alongside Wilt Chamberlin, Bill Russell, Dr. J, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as well.

Instead of these speculative pieces in the offseason, basketball would be better served if its writers became historians, diving deeper into the sport’s history and culture.

With the current era of speculation, eras of basketball will be forgotten. New fans might not realize how good a player Carmelo Anthony really was for the Nuggets.

Melo Out LeBron

I still get mad about the 2003 draft lottery. The Nuggets were so bad the year before that they could barely draw a crowd. It felt like the team was the only NBA franchise with a chance of being relegated (like in the soccer English Premier League). The Nuggets were tied for the best odds in the draft lottery.

So, inevitably, Cleveland won. LeBron James went to his hometown team.

Carmelo Anthony came to Denver because Detroit foolishly picked Darko Milicic.

Carmelo Anthony became the center of Denver Nuggets basketball. He is the best offensive player in franchise history, but he only won two playoff series in his time here (both in 2009). When he left Denver, he betrayed Nuggets fans.

Anthony is an NBA orphan at this point. Denver fans haven’t forgiven him. He disappointed in New York and created discontent in Oklahoma City. When his NBA career ends, who will celebrate him?

James could chase legacy-defining championships in Denver, a city that Anthony wrote off his legacy to pursue brighter lights.

The odds that James comes to Denver are miniscule. Then there’s the uphill battle to win an NBA title. This scenario is still the best chance Denver has at an NBA championship anytime soon.

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