LeBron James’ career resume is such that he no longer plays out of necessity, be it measurable or anecdotal.
Since his 2016 NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, everything he’s accomplished or fought for feels like a luxury, another triumph in a wallet that demands no more. His quest for Michael Jordan and the status of the best of all time, while not unfounded, borders on a settled question. If you don’t have it on top of MJ now, a fourth title probably won’t change your mind.
And so, going into Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron’s legacy really wasn’t at stake. He didn’t need the Los Angeles Lakers to beat the Denver Nuggets. He didn’t need to secure his 10th appearance in the NBA Finals.
But they did, he did.
Serrano Shea @SheaSerrano
lebron in the playoffs over the past decade is totally crazy 2011: nba finals 2012: nba finals 2013: nba finals 2014: nba finals 2015: nba finals 2016: nba finals 2017: nba finals 2018: nba finals 2019: injured; team missed the 2020 playoffs: nba finals how the fuck
And in the process of that win, LeBron didn’t need, a 117-107 win that places him for a fourth championship he doesn’t have to get, he served another more immediate, equally unnecessary recall: at 35, in year 17, MVP or not, it still belongs to the discussion of the best players in the NBA.
This feeling is not an epiphany, and it is important to note it. LeBron isn’t stealing from anyone. Neither do the Lakers. Neither is taken for granted.
LeBron’s war on the concept of time is impressive, but not new. His overkill is a given, but not something people are indifferent to. He remains the face of the league, and the notches he adds to his belt each season is not lacking in recognition or flattery.
Ending the “droughts” of the Lakers’ playoffs and finals doesn’t change anything. Six years is not an eternity for the playoffs, and Los Angeles lifted its last banner just ten years ago. LeBron didn’t just drag an underdog in the championship round. Whatever your take on the Lakers’ supporting cast, they’ve got him and Anthony Davis, arming them with two top-seven stars who will, in most cases, be the top two players in a given series. , including the upcoming finals, in which they’ll face either the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat.
Launderer report @Report of the launderer
ROI. JAMES. 👑 https://t.co/sK7ECpjVxS
At the same time, as LeBron has aged and other super-duper names have continued to rise, his status as the best player in the league is no longer the rule. He’s rather under siege in a way than he ever really was during the LeBron James-or-Kevin Durant days.
There was no pressure to leave his throne. It’s more of an allowance. In a given season, Durant or Stephen Curry requisitioned the cat. Kawhi Leonard made his own cause during his 2019 Championship push with the Toronto Raptors. And then there is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning double MVP most often, even by reflex, crowned the best dog of the Association in the annual ranking of players, including ours.
This acceptance is not exactly consensus, but it is widespread. No one blinked when Antetokounmpo took home this year’s MVP honors. LeBron provided more resistance than anyone, arguing not against Giannis himself, but his own lack of first-place votes and the lack of concrete criteria for voting awards in general.
Ben golliver @BenGolliver
LeBron James of the Lakers with a long riff on the awards vote after finishing second in the 2020 MVP: “The voting scale is a little strange to me… I don’t know how well we really watch the basketball game or are we just in the narrative mode, the narrative. https://t.co/xJeQ1HLoMD
Put aside the results of this year’s MVP race and any campaign LeBron might have done on his behalf, and he’s right. The interpretation of the MVP award will never be universal, unless the league implements formal changes. Should he go to the best player on the best team? A player whose team cannot function without him? Can you become an MVP if you are not a championship contender? What’s the difference between “better” and “more valuable” anyway?
The point is, however, that these questions don’t matter much. Not to LeBron. Not anymore. Rewards reform does not appear to be imminent and he would have little time to capitalize even if it were.
It is very good. He doesn’t need a fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy to stamp his value year after year. His case as the best player in the league is invariably, if not fully, bolstered during the playoffs, on nights like Saturday, in wins his historic status doesn’t need.
How else are you supposed to feel after watching him hook up another triple-double in the playoffs, totaling 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists? Or see him take over on the stretch, when the Lakers had not yet put the game completely out of reach of the Nuggets?
👑 38 PTS, 16 REB, 10 AST 👑 27th triple-double of the playoffs 👑 10th trip of the NBA Finals @KingJames x #LakeShow https://t.co/DzRGLlWFgN
Debates over the league’s best players seemingly rekindle with each postseason, usually prompted by finalists and presented not as small-sample hyperbole, but standout moments among the highest stakes. If you could pick one player to treat you to a series or game, who would it be? This is the crux of the discussion; that’s what fueled Leonard’s case last season.
LeBron never left that conversation, not even when the Cavaliers became springboards for the Durant era of Golden State Warriors, and not even when the Lakers missed the playoffs in his first season in Hollywood. . If anything in what he does has been lost in the hustle and bustle of the surrounding superstars’ ascents, it is.
And part of it is on him. He’s been more selective in his dominance for most of the decade, especially on defense. So the regular season clearly doesn’t mean as much to him as it does to Antetokounmpo, and while the championships aren’t won until the playoffs, the larger sample can’t be thrown by the wayside.
Launderer report @Report of the launderer
LeBron is not happy with a Western Conference title. https://t.co/b90fgddNLT
But that’s not what it means to consider LeBron the best player alive. He averages just 25.3 points and 10.2 assists in the league lead, in line with his career benchmarks while playing his best defense since calling Miami at home. And while there may not have been an incredibly strong case of voting him for MVP on Antetokounmpo, he still embodied the spirit of the award, in the sense that one of the NBA’s main favorites in the title was 10.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the field.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Danny Green said on Saturday night, by USA todayof Mark Medina.
During a given regular season?
In general, and when does it matter most?
It’s hard to say no.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics provided by NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood strikes podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal from B / R.