The last time LeBron James watched the National Basketball League play-offs from his couch and not the court, George W. Bush had just ousted Saddam Hussein from Iraq, Arsenal’s Thierry Henry led the Premier League in goals and Facebook was still a little known social media site. To put it bluntly, the last time James didn’t make a run for the NBA finals, the world was a very different place. It was 2005, and a 21-year-old James had an impressive season averaging 27.2 points per game, but his Cleveland Cavaliers missed out on a play-off spot by the thinnest of margins. The eighth seed in the Western Conference went to the New Jersey Nets in a tiebreaker. Zoom ahead almost 15 years and we are back where we began, but the NBA panorama is entirely different and basketball’s universe may never revolve around James, now 34, like it did before. His gravitational pull and ability to whip any group of mishmashed teammates into a championship contender looks to be over. He is a mortal, no longer a self-declared superman, and the NBA’s identity crisis begins post-haste. What’s most interesting is that after this season, the league’s prevailing dynasty of the last five years is also likely to come undone. Golden State Warrior Splash Brother Klay Thompson may leave to max out his bank account, and Kevin Durant already seems to be sizing up New York Knicks jerseys with new BFF Kyrie Irving. The Warriors will likely win the championship this season, unless someone can pull a “LeBron” and steal the show entirely on their own. The compounding, intersecting narratives of James’ decline and the fragmentation of one of the most dominant teams of the past decade presents the NBA with a bit of a head-scratcher. Who’s league will this be in 2020, an Olympic year no less. One where no single player looks to wear the crown anymore, and we have a Game of Thrones battle for the mantle. Kobe Bryant superfan from China returns NBA legend’s stolen high school jersey The NBA also just signed a new collective bargaining agreement which means the financial side of the game will not change, and the league’s cultural landscape will have to sort itself out within its current confines and context. James has defined an era of NBA basketball as the counter-argument to one of the greatest teams in the Warriors and its 31-year-old zen leader Stephen Curry. But now what? None of the league’s understudies such as James Harden and Russell Westbrook are spring chickens, and the NBA’s future, which includes Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo do not appear ready to be removed from incubation and reach maximum maturity. Antetokounmpo could make waves with his Milwaukee Bucks this post-season, but unless he pulls off the upset of all upsets and downs the Warriors, he will have to make his name in the 2019-20 season. Davis, who reportedly passed up a chance to team up with James in LA, is a great player but not the type of charismatic figure that sells overtly expensive sneakers and flavoured water en masse. The NBA has typically been defined by two types of narrative: generational players and generational teams. Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls and their six championships. Kobe and his Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Gregg Popovich system. Go back even farther and the storyline is eerily similar: the Lakers versus the Celtics, Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson. Most professional sports league are wrestling with the same sea change: gone are the dynasty days where one player and/or organisation can reign terror over years of play. There are exceptions to the rule, the NFL’s New England Patriots being the most obvious one, but as villains, the Boston-based team are more loathed than loved and historians will spend years trying to whitewash their impact on the game of American football. If the NBA wants to continue its global reach into markets like China and all over Asia, it needs faces it can put on a cereal boxes. Yao Ming begrudgingly wore that title for a few years before his body started decomposing under its own weight, and Jeremy Lin couldn’t find his footing enough to earn a superstar tag, although his post-retirement career appears set with an endless calendar of event appearances and photo opps. The best way to look at the NBA’s overall cultural impact is to look at its top-selling jerseys. Wearing a basketball tank top is a sporting fashion statement on multiple continents, and the two best-sellers are exactly who you’d think they are: James and Curry. Put those two together and they make up the vast majority of sales throughout the world. In the NBA, James had the conch, the throne and the soapbox, and carried it like an accepted albatross, but now looks to be on the downswing of an illustrious career. The Warriors came to define the ushering in of the three-point era and small ball, but will probably fragment after this season. Now as James’ star dims and the Warriors look to orchestrate one last glorious run before moving to big-money San Francisco, the league enters a new era with a blank slate. Who takes the ball from here is anyone’s guess.