Today is LeBron James Day on The Ringer. We figured nothing else was happening in the NBA world, so why not celebrate Bron, right? Thanks, Vlade and Vivek! Seriously, though, LeBron is having such an interesting season — on top of the most interesting career — and we wanted to look backward and forward with a collection of short posts about him. You can find all the posts here. Go ahead and make your trades. There’s only one King.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of LeBron James’s game is how he channels different styles of play seemingly every season, either by following the league’s zeitgeist or going against the grain completely. Remember when LeBron was one of the best 3-point-shooting big men in the league in 2013? Remember when LeBron, in a desperation move, brought basketball back to the Stone Age with his ugly and bruising isolation play against the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals? It’s bold to assume LeBron’s small metamorphoses (for instance, his sudden inability to shoot 3-pointers last season) are by design and not a result of the laws of entropy and probability, but it speaks volumes about the kind of talent LeBron possesses that they can pass off that way.
His game is almost a metacommentary at times. James is having his best passing season ever, with the highest assist numbers of his career. This is also his best 3-point shooting season (38.9 percent on 4.5 attempts per game) since 2013 — which I’d argue is the greatest LeBron year we’ve ever seen. The subtext is clear. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the new-age point guards? LeBron can play that game. Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez are bygone relics who have suddenly found their range? LeBron can play that game, too. LeBron has stood at the league’s forefront for over a decade, and he’s been a chameleon for just as long. He sees where the future is headed, and he sees the MVP candidates leading the way this year. He’s right there, too.
In hindsight, it reads like a clerical error, but it’s true: LeBron didn’t take home the 2011 Most Valuable Player award. If he had, he would have held a monopoly on the distinction for half a decade. The only thing that kept him from double-jumping MVP history and collecting five consecutive Maurice Podoloff trophies was a third-place finish behind overwhelming winner Derrick Rose and second-place Dwight Howard. It was a win for narrative: Rose was the young and humble scoring dynamo who almost singlehandedly powered the Bulls offense to the league’s best record. James was the reluctant villain in his first year piloting the Death Star, and fans were still figuring out how to navigate through all the residual vitriol stemming from The Decision and his ushering of the superteam era. It was a lot to parse, with most of the value judgments made off the court. Rose emerging as a light in the darkness made the choice easy. In hindsight, it should have been LeBron’s trophy, but look, no one’s complaining. Four out of five ain’t bad.
Only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird have ever hoisted the trophy three consecutive times. And even if James had received the award in his first season with the Miami Heat, it still might not be as stunning as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six awards between 1971 and 1980, effectively lording over the league — with the hardware to show for it — for more than half a decade. All this to say, it’s almost an impossible feat for any NBA star to simultaneously dominate the court while also commanding the national discourse and imagination for as long as some of the game’s greats have. We’re beholden to new trends and fresh faces; we love prolonged dominance but hate being subjected to monotony.
That explains why this has been one of the best regular seasons in recent memory. In Harden and Russell Westbrook, we have two of the league’s best players blatantly making a run at breaking every historical precedent in sight. In the Warriors’ superteam, we see a utopia built on the foundation of LeBron’s old ambitions, spearheaded by the league’s last two MVPs. The league feels fresh: The realities of yet another Warriors–Cavs rematch may serve as the ground floor, but atop that are the superstructures — the Anthony Davises, Karl-Anthony Townses, the Process — that reveal what’s in store for the future. But as we descend from the wave we’ve ridden over the first 50 games of the season, as performances stabilize and numbers regress, let’s pose a question. Who is the best player in the world today?
Since returning to Cleveland, the Cavs have played 22 games without the King; they’ve won four of them. When he is on the court, the Cavs outscore their opponents at a rate of 7.8 points per 100 possessions; when he’s off the court, they’re outscored by 4.4 points per 100 — that 12.2-point swing is the biggest shift in net rating of any leading MVP candidate not named Westbrook. Russ is the difference between a bottom-feeder and the seventh seed. LeBron is the difference between a mediocre team and a perennial championship contender. Should he win, he’ll tie Michael Jordan and Bill Russell with five MVP trophies, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar. Should he win, the four-year gap between his two most recent awards will tie Jordan’s (1992, 1996) for the largest since Wilt Chamberlain’s six-year gap (1960, 1966) more than 50 years ago.
Empires rise and fall, and a rising tide may have lifted some of our new-era superstars into the stratosphere, but as things fall into place, LeBron is the one constant. He is the most valuable player in this league, and has been for nearly a decade.