CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 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 the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, James has been universally considered the world’s greatest basketball player — a combination of size, talent, strength and skill unmatched in the game’s history.
But with the Los Angeles Lakers stuck in 10th place in the Western Conference, and with James looking vulnerable after missing a month because of a groin injury, and with Kevin Durant winning MVPs, and Stephen Curry shooting at a level no one has ever seen, and with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard redefining how much someone can impact the game on both ends of the floor, and with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo improving at hyper speed, the debate over who the best player in the world is may be tighter than it’s been since James took the unofficial throne.
“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 Harden, with the (30-point) streak 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 is certainly muddled, with a number of players with a legitimate claim to being considered the world’s best.
Durant is probably the most accomplished, a physically unique 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 all 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 Toronto guard 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 possibly last forever, the consensus choice for next up is Antetokounmpo, an All-Star captain opposite James this season.
“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 Bucks to the top record in the NBA at the All-Star break, he still has some massive holes in his game. He is shooting just 22.3 percent 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.”
As for James, he might improve, too — during a playoff chase. As much as it’s been accepted that he has no peer as a basketball player, it’s also been thought that he conserves energy during the regular season.
“He usually saves his best for the playoffs,” Budenholzer said.
With the Lakers three games behind the eighth-place Los Angeles 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 NBA 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?
Detroit’s Blake Griffin says James has been the league’s best player 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.