When Adam Silver handed LeBron James the first ever In-Season Tournament MVP award, he quipped that the trophy “didn’t come with a franchise.” The joke was aimed at James’ very public pursuit of ownership of whatever NBA team eventually lands in Las Vegas, and it’s a quest that he may well succeed in. His performance over the past few days certainly couldn’t have hurt his chances, either. After all, he likely just played the most consequential stretch of professional basketball Las Vegas has ever seen.
It’s almost hard to believe that a few months ago, excitement for the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament was somewhat subdued. Why should fans care about any trophy besides the Larry O’Brien, pundits wondered. Heck, why would players? James himself answered that second question when he publicly lusted after the $500,000 prize after his very first tournament game. It took the rest of the tournament for him to answer the first. Single-elimination basketball between great players taking the games seriously will almost always be entertaining. The NBA hoped that the tournament would create it. James, and the other superstars following his lead, ensured that it did.
The league may not be able to reward him for that with a franchise, but there’s a consolation prize he’s certainly earned. James won the first In-Season Tournament MVP trophy, so why not name the award after him moving forward?
Last season, the NBA named several other major awards after legendary players. Michael Jordan (regular-season MVP), Hakeem Olajuwon (Defensive Player of the Year), George Mikan (Most Improved Player), John Havlicek (Sixth Man of the Year), Wilt Chamberlain (Rookie of the Year), Kobe Bryant (All-Star Game MVP), Larry Bird (Eastern Conference Finals MVP) and Magic Johnson (Western Conference Finals MVP) have all seen their names applied to trophies. Meanwhile, Bill Russell has had the NBA Finals MVP trophy named after him for quite some time now.
James is their only true peer in the modern game, but his status as an active player likely deprived him of the opportunity to get a trophy last season. Frankly, had the league waited until he retired, he probably would have made the cut over one of those older legends. He is universally considered either the greatest or second-greatest player in NBA history, yet the league he’s represented is running out of ways to honor him.
James gave them an opportunity to rectify that on Saturday. As the award’s first winner, he and his Lakers were critical in getting this event off of the ground in the first place. At the level he’s currently playing, it’s conceivable that he picks up another one of these trophies at some point.
And if the league ultimately does decide to make Vegas the tournament’s permanent home? We can’t ignore the very strong possibility that James is involved with the potential franchise in some way, Silver’s jokes aside. Tying a legend like James to the event would only help legitimize and market a tournament that the league desperately wants to see succeed. James could even hand the trophy to the players that follow in his footsteps.
It’s a relatively minor honorific for perhaps the greatest player in the history of the sport, but, in a way, it’s almost more fitting than any of the trophies handed out in recent years. After all, Jordan never played in the In-Season Tournament. He doesn’t even own a team that participated in it anymore. James was the first NBA legend to participate in the In-Season Tournament. If any player is going to be associated with it moving forward, it should be him.