LeBron James: Is the Lakers star still the NBA’s greatest?
When LeBron James walks onto the court, even two rosters of the best players in the NBA stop and take notice.
That’s the result of a masterful career, 15 consecutive All-Star Game appearances, 15 straight seasons averaging more than 25 points, six rebounds and six assists. He’s dragged mediocre teams to the Finals, and celebrated titles with good ones.
He’s the face of the NBA, the game’s most powerful player. His brand is truly global.
Yet, for the first time since he was 19, he might be shut out of the NBA’s postseason.
For players who participated in All-Star Weekend, James is widely considered the world’s greatest basketball player — a combination of size, talent, strength and skill unmatched in the game’s history.
But with the Lakers in 10th place in the Western Conference and James looking vulnerable after missing a month because of a groin injury ... and Kevin Durant winning most-valuable-player awards and Stephen Curry shooting at a level no one has ever seen ... and Paul George and Kawhi Leonard redefining how much someone can impact the game on both ends of the floor ... and Giannis Antetokounmpo improving at hyper speed, the debate over who’s the best player in the world may be tighter than it’s been since James took the unofficial throne.
Kevin Durant of Team LeBron and Stephen Curry of Team Giannis have different reactions to a play during the NBA All-Star game.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Kevin Durant is awarded the NBA All-Star game MVP trophy after Team LeBron’s 178-164 win over Team Giannis.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Stephen Curry of Team Giannis throws a behind-the-back pass while on a fast break during the NBA All-Star game.(Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer)
Team captain LeBron James drives down the lane between Blake Griffin, left, and Kemba Walker of Team Giannis during the first half of the NBA All-Star game.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Magic Johnson speaks with fans on the court during the second half of the NBA All-Star game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Miami star Dwyane Wade reacts to a play during the NBA All-Star game.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Team captain Giannis Antetokounmpo throws down a reverse dunk during the first half of the NBA All-Star game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
LeBron James reacts to a play during the first quarter of the NBA All-Star game.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns of Team LeBron throws down a dunk over opposing team captain Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Heat guard Dwyane Wade of Team LeBron follows through on a three-point shot during the first half of the NBA All-Star game.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Warriors forward Kevin Durant of Team LeBron grabs a rebound during the second half of the NBA All-Star game. Durant was selected most valuable player of the game.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Rapper J. Cole performs at halftime of the NBA All-Star game.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Warriors forward Kevin Durant of Team LeBron checks rival team captain Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks during the first half of the NBA All-Star game.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Warriors guard Stephen Curry of Team Gainnis is all smiles as he catches his breath during a break in play at the NBA All-Star game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Lakers forward LeBron James and All-Star game teammate James Harden of the Rockets relax during a break in the action at the NBA All-Star game on Sunday.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Rapper Meek Mill performs before the NBA All-Star gameon Sunday.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker, right, leans down to hug children along the baseline during Team Giannis practice on Saturday.(Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer / TNS)
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo hangs on the rim after leaping Shaquille O’Neal and dunking elbow deep on the rim.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo is congratulated after a dunk by teammate Russell Westbrook.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo rises over rapper Quavo for a dunk during the championship round.(Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer / TNS)
Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins grabs the backboard while soaring for a dunk.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. elevates to the rim for a dunk.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges attempts a dunk after passing the ball through his legs.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Brooklyn’s Joe Harris holds the trophy after winning the three-point contest.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Warriors guard Stephen Curry lines up a shot during the three-point contest.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard reaches for the next basketball he will shoot during the three-point contest.(Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma holds aloft the MVP trophy for the Rising Stars game after he scored a game-high 35 points.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tries to steal the ball from Knicks forward Kevin Knox during the Rising Stars game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Dallas Maverics owner Mark Cuban, center, sits with newly acquired forward Kristaps Porzingis during the Rising Stars game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma elevates for a dunk during the Rising Stars game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Raptors forward OG Anunoby takes flight for a between-the-legs dunk during the Rising Stars game.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
WNBA star A’ja Wilson gets past Bad Bunny (94) for a layup during the second half of the celebrity game.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Home team coach Dawn Staley, left, speaks with assistant coach Lisa Boyer, middle, and A’ja Wilson (22) during the second half of the celebrity game.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Former NFL star Steve Smith drives to the basket for a shot against TV show host Hasan Minhaj during the celebrity game.(Jeff Siner / TNS)
Actor JB Smoove fights for rebounding position with NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen during the celebrity game.(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
“You’re seeing, probably, the biggest spread of talent in the NBA in a long time. You could pick a different player almost every week, it seems like,” three-point shooting champion Joe Harris said. “You’re seeing [James] Harden, with the streak [of 30-point games] that he’s on. No one has done it since Wilt Chamberlain, which is incredible. People don’t talk about PG a lot for the MVP race, but the season he’s having, he’s doing it on both ends. There’s Giannis. You could go down the list. …
“And, it’s hard to argue against peak LeBron.”
The conversation certainly is muddled, with a number of players making a legitimate case to being considered the world’s best.
Of James’ challengers, Durant is probably the most accomplished, a player with the height and length of a center and the skills of a shooting guard.
“I don’t believe I’m better than anyone, but I don’t believe [anybody] is better than me,” Durant said. “And I think that’s how a lot of people feel.”
Curry, Harden, George, Leonard and Antetokounmpo might have stronger MVP cases than James does this season, but that’s a different conversation.
“It’s hard to be the best player in the world for 15 years,” said Danny Green, who matched up against James in the NBA Finals in 2013 and ’14. “You’ve got a couple of young guys up and coming, proving themselves and getting better every year. It’s definitely a crowded conversation. The fact that [James] is a little older now … but when he turns that switch on, you know what he’s capable of. Regardless of who is on his team, he’s capable of beating anybody’s team in any playoff series, winning a series.
“If the Lakers are pushing the eight seed, it’s trouble for anyone they play against.”
Knowing that James’ dominance can’t last forever, the consensus choice for next up is Antetokounmpo, just 24 and an All-Star captain opposite James this season. He scored a game-high 38 points Sunday.
“It’s crazy,” Antetokounmpo said. “When I was coming into the league, I was looking up to him. Right now, I was in the locker room with ‘Team Giannis.’ I’m leading an All-Star team, picking teams with LeBron James. If you told me that six years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d be in this position right now.”
Antetokounmpo has improved as a player at an almost impossible rate, and although he’s led the Milwaukee Bucks to the top record in the NBA, he still has some massive holes in his game. He is shooting just 22.3% from three-point range, for example.
“Probably the most exciting — or if you’re not with Milwaukee, the most scary — thing is to think about how much better Giannis can get,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of room to grow, a lot of room to improve. … He’s only 24. We’re certainly excited with where he’s going.”
“He usually saves his best for the playoffs,” Budenholzer said.
With the Lakers three games behind the eighth-place Clippers for the final playoff spot, the postseason hunt begins now.
The best player in the world could save the season, taking on enormous responsibility on a nightly basis in an attempt to claw up the standings. The best player in the world, the kind who dragged so-so talent to the Finals as recently as last season, could deliver the Lakers their first playoff berth since 2013.
It’s a gargantuan task, even for James. But if the best can’t do those things, well, is he still the best?
Blake Griffin says James has been the best for “a long, long time. But you see Giannis, you see James [Harden], KD, Steph … all these guys … it’s a lot of fun. … All these guys are pushing.”
And they’re nipping at James’ Nikes.
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