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Since the NBA/ABA merger, specific eras define the overall perception of the league. Whether it was Michael Jordan‘s Bulls or Magic Johnson-versus-Larry Bird, global icons are a fundamental marketing aspect of the NBA.

With Lakers superstar LeBron James in the twilight of his career, who will take over as the face of the NBA? We’re here to explain why the league will be just fine when James hangs up his jersey for good.

Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson

When Bird and Magic entered the league in 1980, they began a rivalry that had been dormant for almost a decade between the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers. The two combined for eight NBA championships, and both Hall-of-Famers made 12 All-Star teams.

This era commenced the rise in popularity for the NBA to casual fans, then a young guard from North Carolina took the world by storm.

Michael Jordan’s legendary time

Jordan is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time. He brought flash, toughness, and athleticism to the game. During his time with the Bulls, he won six NBA championships in eight seasons. MJ was the game’s best scorer, leading the league in career points per game.

As Jordan’s popularity soared — with amazing showdowns with Dominique Wilkins in numerous dunk contests — he took the league with him. His second retirement after the Bulls’ second three-peat left a gaping hole in the NBA’s marketing strategy. There was no clear-cut new NBA star to take over.

A slump after MJ’s second retirement

While Jordan continued the Chicago dynasty, a handful of players tried to make themselves household names, most notably Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. During MJ’s first retirement, Shaq became the most well-known player. He not only became a dominant athlete; he also acted in movies, created music, and even made a video game (now a cult classic).

When Bryant entered the league in 1996, he was widely viewed as a “mini-Jordan,” modeling his game after the Chicago superstar. Ultimately, Jordan’s absence was felt league-wide. No one had the ability to pull in the casual fan like Jordan. 

LeBron James and the Warriors dynasty

When your nickname is “King James” before you set foot on an NBA floor, it’s hard to live up to the hype. However, that’s just what James has done, becoming arguably the second-best player the NBA has ever seen. James has won three NBA championships while appearing in eight NBA Finals.

During his time as the best player in the game, the Golden State Warriors built their dynasty. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant helped the Warriors capture three titles in five seasons. They were a Durant injury away from knocking off Toronto last year. 

Life after LeBron?

When James ultimately retires, who will the NBA turn to? Some fans will look at James’ teammate Anthony Davis, who finally landed in a major market and is one of the most dominant bigs in the game. You can also look at reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo or Luka Doncic, last year’s Rookie of the Year who’s become an MVP candidate overnight.

There are plenty of players who James can pass the torch to, or it could be a collection of athletes as the game reaches a wider global audience. Either way, we don’t see the league’s popularity diminishing anytime soon.

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