For the past decade or so, LeBron James has been widely acknowledged as the best player in the NBA, granted a topic this popular could never be agreed upon. There have been points where you could make a legitimate argument that he wasn’t truly the king of the league.
I think doubt started to creep into people’s heads in 2014, when Kevin Durant had an unconscious stretch of scoring numbers and obnoxiously difficult game-saving buckets. Then there was the 2015-2016 regular season when Stephen Curry lost his mind from behind the arc, and it felt like he rarely attempted a shot inside 30 feet. On February 27th, 2016, in overtime, Curry hit his 12th three-pointer of the game against OKC from 37 feet out accompanied by one the best commentator calls in sports from Mike Breen: “BANG! BANG!” At that point, I honestly believed that Steph had eclipsed LeBron for good.
But by now we know better than to fall for regular season heroics, right? Come playoff time, LeBron is a man among children. It’s as reliable as the sun rising every morning. Even when the Warriors railed off a record-breaking 73 wins during that 2016 regular season, LeBron (with plenty of help from Kyrie) still proved to be too much. Unfortunately for LeBron, no man has ever outlasted father time (although Vince Carter is making an applaudable effort).
If you’ve been watching LeBron play this season, there seems to be no tangible difference in his regular season production that would lead anyone to believe that he’s significantly declining – on offense. He’s posting 27 points with 8 assists per game on 51% shooting.
He’s done a beautiful job of slowing down his game, adding in more post-ups and masterfully picking his spots on the floor. But on the defensive end, he’s been taking more plays off than ever before, and it’s very noticeable as games wear on. His defensive rating has actually improved from around 108 last year in Cleveland to 107 this year in LA, but that entire Cleveland team was a dumpster fire when it came to resisting offenses.
Here’s the bottom line: the two things that have allowed LeBron James to be perceived as the greatest player in the world, his health and his ability to relentlessly end up in the NBA Finals every year. He missed 18 games due to injury this season, and it’s put the Lakers at serious risk of missing the playoffs.
News flash: LeBron James will be watching the NBA Finals either from the sidelines or on his flat-screen TV at home this year. To even make it out of the first round, he’d have to go God Mode against a lucky first round matchup with a team not named the Warriors.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the NBA right now. He’s posted a stat line of 26.9 points and 6 assists per game on a ridiculously efficient 57.9% shooting. The Bucks have the best record in the league at 48-14 and just took down the Lakers in LA, even with impressive showings from LeBron, Kyle Kuzma, and a blooming Brandon Ingram.
Giannis is a borderline DPOY, with one of the best defensive ratings in the league (98.6), 1.4 SPG and 1.5 BPG. He’s simply impossible to guard going to the rim and is doing all of this with a still-developing jump shot. Mike Budenholzer’s four-out/ one-in drive and spray offense has yielded unbelievable results for Giannis, and the Bucks are looking like a favorite (along with Toronto) to make it out of the Eastern Conference. Maybe you’re sitting there wondering where KD is in this conversation, but to that I’d say put him on the Bucks, and they’re not any better because of it. There’s no way to say for sure whether or not this will translate to playoff success, but for now, Giannis has earned the title of best player in the NBA.