I recently tried to remember the first time I heard LeBron James described as “the queen on the chessboard.” I’m pretty sure it was when a reader suggested it in a mailbag postscript to the annual NBA Trade Value column written by a man named Bill Simmons at a website called Grantland:
Q: LeBron now looks like the only Queen on an NBA chessboard (and I mean that as a true compliment). He now understands it all. Angles, spacing, etc. … He is blessed with such physical skills that he can impose his will, at will, regardless of the other nine paid professionals on the court. When he decides to take over a game it is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. He bends the entire game, all action on the court, towards him, at both ends. I have never seen anything like it.
—Matt Robinson, Edmonton, Alberta
That chef’s-kiss descriptor has come to represent a sort of shorthand for how we understand the totality of James’s control over the game, and what a certain kind of player can do at the peak of his powers. It’s the level where you fully understand how to manipulate every angle, action, and aspect of a basketball game, while also being in full possession of every skill—the footwork, the post game, the face-up moves, the shooting touch, the playmaking vision, the whole shebang—that you’d need to carry out your best-laid plans.
That reader email was published some six and a half years ago; the version of LeBron who can move wherever he wants and do whatever he wants, pretty much whenever and however he wants, has been in our lives longer than the word “selfie.” Six and a half years is a long time. A lot can happen in a space that vast. A lot has.
James remains the NBA player who best fits the description of “the queen on the chessboard,” tendered in 2017 by ESPN’s Zach Lowe: “a bigger wing who can post up mismatches, draw help, and spray passes from a triple-threat position.” But he’s not the only one who meets the requirements anymore. After the Warriors took a 2-0 lead over James’s Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals, my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks highlighted the dominance of Kevin Durant in the series by saying, “LeBron isn’t the only queen on the Finals chessboard anymore.” During the 2019 playoffs, after he’d been an offensive juggernaut against the 76ers and extinguished Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals, Kawhi Leonard also started to earn those same plaudits on his way to a second NBA championship and a second Finals MVP trophy.
There’s also Antetokounmpo himself, a balletic battering ram of a point center who won his first MVP trophy last season. And Harden, who rewrote the rules of offensive basketball last season with his gift for creating and exploiting mismatches in isolation. And second-year sensation Luka Doncic, who dazzled as an effervescent jumbo point forward en route to Rookie of the Year honors. All of a sudden, there were all these other pieces showing us that they can move all over the board however they want, too … and they were doing it all while James—now 34, with more than 56,000 minutes of NBA wear-and-tear on his body—suffered the first serious injury of his NBA career and missed the postseason for the first time since 2006.
As other players soaked in the spotlight, James began to face questions about whether the greatest player of his generation was starting to slow down. (He’d clearly heard all that rumbling; you don’t start sarcastic-hashtagging stuff #WashedKing out of blissful ignorance.) For the first time since he won his first title in Miami, it seemed at least possible that the NBA’s long-tenured grandmaster had found himself checkmated—by time, by age, by all the weight he’d carried on those broad shoulders for 16 seasons, and by the arrival of a generation of players for whom he helped pave the way. Now, though, it’s looking less like LeBron’s in check and more like he’s putting the clock on the league again.
Yes, Giannis is authoring an even more impressive encore to his MVP run. Yes, Harden is distorting defenses—well, most defenses—to an even greater degree. Yes, Doncic seems intent on moving from ROY to an MVP bid. And yes, Leonard pulled off his own kind of master chess move in July by signing with the Clippers, who then secured a trade for fellow All-NBA two-way force Paul George. But while those players and their teams are all off to strong starts this year, it’s LeBron’s Lakers who own the NBA’s best record, LeBron’s Lakers who own the Western Conference’s best net rating, and LeBron’s Lakers who are running neck and neck with the Clippers, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s playoff probability projections, as the team most likely to represent the West in the 2020 NBA Finals.
After the most disappointing season of his career, James is now back in the heat of title contention, thanks in no small part to how that disappointment unfolded. LeBron responded to it with his latest chess move—the opportunistic retreat. Suffering a serious groin strain on Christmas Day 2018, missing a month in the middle of the season, and sputtering down the stretch to miss the playoffs wasn’t how James planned his first season as a Laker to unfold. He sure does seem to have made some tasty lemonade out of all the chaos and his longest offseason in more than a decade, though.
When LeBron arrived in Los Angeles, he joined a roster that featured several well-regarded former first-round draft picks—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma—but no bona fide second superstar. With the Lakers working through an up-and-down start to the season, sitting in fourth place in a thickly settled West, James made it clear that he thought it would be “amazing” and “incredible” to play alongside All-Star big man, and fellow Klutch Sports client, Anthony Davis as a Laker … y’know, some day. Less than six weeks later, Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, informed the Pelicans that Davis had “no intention of signing a contract extension” to stay in New Orleans after the season, and that AD wanted to be traded.
The deal didn’t happen in time to save a Lakers team that began spiraling after LeBron’s groin injury. (In fact, the fallout from the aborted deal helped submarine both teams’ seasons.) But in mid-June, Paul pulled through. Davis got his wish. And LeBron—thanks to machinations that began with a well-placed “Duh” (or, perhaps, a couple of months earlier)—got the superstar partner he needed to serve as a complementary creator, offensive hub, and defensive eraser who can make his life easier as he moves into his late 30s.
Davis is averaging more points, rebounds, and free throw attempts per game than any non-LeBron member of last season’s Lakers. The only teammates LeBron has ever had who have posted a usage rate and true shooting percentage as high as Davis is right now were 2010-11 Dwyane Wade and 2016-17 Kyrie Irving, and neither of those guys also anchored an elite defense; opponents are shooting just 41.1 percent at the rim when AD’s defending, fourth best among players who face at least four such attempts per game. However you feel about how the Davis pursuit went, its aftermath is unfolding exactly as LeBron must have hoped—thanks in part to James doing his damnedest to position Davis as the team’s primary offensive force both by speaking it into existence, and by feeding the big fella until he’s absolutely stuffed. James-to-Davis is the highest-volume assist combination in the league this season by a considerable amount, according to pbpstats.com; nearly 28 percent of AD’s points have come directly off a LeBron dime.
But while LeBron is clearly focused on getting Davis the ball, he has also ramped up his facilitating elsewhere. Frequently serving as the functional point guard on the Lakers, James is assisting on a career-high share of his teammates’ baskets and averaging 11 dimes per game—the first time he’s ever cracked double digits and putting him on pace to lead the league in that category for the first time in his career.
The initial theory behind last season’s Lakers was that surrounding LeBron with off-the-dribble playmakers who thrive with the ball in their hands—Ingram, Ball, Rondo, Lance Stephenson—would lighten his creative workload, keep him fresher, and create a rising tide that would lift the whole roster. The immediately glaring flaw in that design, though, is that it ignored a fact long since established in Cleveland, Miami, and even in international play: that LeBron himself is the rising tide and force multiplier. So this season, general manager Rob Pelinka surrounded LeBron with finishers—chiefly Davis, but also catch-and-shoot specialists like Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels—and gave him a head coach, Frank Vogel, who had both years of experience in producing elite defenses and a preference for something closer to monarchy than democracy on the offensive end.
"We’ve created an environment where we want to have a primary ball handler, whereas last year it was both LeBron and other guys who could get out and push on the break,” Vogel told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin earlier this season. “Most fast-break teams have that type of mind-set of how it is and how anybody can push, anybody can handle. We’ve gone a little bit old school that way. That’s probably why you’re seeing LeBron more in that situation.”
The results speak for themselves: LeBron leads the league in assist opportunities created and points generated via assist, and the Lakers are scoring a scorching 115.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with him at the controls, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s got the in-his-prime two-way running buddy he needed to extend his time at the top, the right kind of supporting cast to maximize his greatest attributes, and the infrastructure to make a real push for his fourth NBA championship. Sure, it took him a year to get here. But sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece to set up the move that wins the game.
After his extended spring and summer layoff, James says this is the best he’s ever felt, and he’s certainly playing like it. It’s worth noting that Karl Malone is the oldest player ever to win MVP, earning the honor at age 35 (which LeBron turns next month), and that James’s production matches or exceeds what Malone mustered 20 years ago virtually across the board. Whether he’ll continue to feel that way as we get into the dog days of December and January, and whether he’ll be able to maintain this level of performance into the postseason, remains to be seen, but it’s hard to blame LeBron for feeling exceptionally good right now. The league is evolving around him, but he’s got control of the chessboard again. There might be more queens than ever. There’s still only one King, though.
All player statistics are current as of Wednesday morning.