LeBron James is experiencing two disparate realties at once, as he creates history every night while playing for a struggling Lakers team. That experience will come to a head tonight, when James is expected to pass Michael Jordan's mark of 32,292 on the all-time scoring list. James, at 32,280, only needs 12 points to bypass his basketball hero.
And while that will amount to a legendary moment for a player who will go down as in history as one of the best to ever do it, The Crossover staff wants to consider James's current standing in the NBA. We asked our writers whether James, who has landed at No. 1 in every year of SI's Top 100 list, has maintained his status as the best player in the league during a tumultuous season in Los Angeles. Here are their strict (sometimes) yes or no answers.
Chris Ballard: Yes (and No)
It’s all contextual. Yes, a motivated, engaged, healthy/fit LeBron playing alongside teammates who trust him is still the best player in the league. But how many of those descriptors apply right now? Part of LeBron’s value has always been his basketball IQ and leadership. Sometimes it’s been obvious; other times it’s the example he set, dragging others up with him (think of J.R. Smith). It’s the kind of leadership Steph Curry has grown into, that Tim Duncan exhibited, that Giannis is learning on the fly: valuing the work and game above the noise. These days, it’s awfully loud in L.A.; if LeBron’s leading, no one can hear it above the din (much of which he created). That leaves a void. Your choice for successor depends on what you value. Curry leads in myriad ways while neutering defensive schemes. Harden has reinvented one-on-one basketball. Durant may be the most versatile, effective scorer in league history. And then there’s Giannis, who can do everything but shoot threes. It’s not his league yet, but the clock is ticking.
Rohan Nadkarni: No
At this present, exact moment, LeBron is not the best player in the NBA. He looks... heavy, and his defensive effort off the ball is inconsistent at best. James isn’t at 100%, and whatever level he’s at right now isn’t comparable to guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Paul George—two of whom are two-way studs, one of whom is having an even bigger impact than Bron offensively. There’s also the issue of Kevin Durant. KD at his highest level is a more consistent two-way threat than James right now, but by virtue of his environment, we don’t really see Durant maxing out until like, the third round of the playoffs at the earliest. (And let’s not forget about Steph Curry!)
Having said all of this, on any given possession, LeBron still has the talent to be the best player in the league. In a theoretical Finals Game 7, LeBron could still be the best player on the floor on both ends of the court. But the version of James we’ve seen since he returned from his groin injury can’t be considered the best player in the world. And while I believe James still has the talent to outperform anyone, he hasn’t done so for long enough stretches of this season to be considered No. 1. James may be able to reclaim his throne one day, but calling him the best player in the league right now would be a disservice to the guys who’ve performed at an elite level from Day 1 of the regular season.
Jeremy Woo: No
LeBron is not the NBA’s best player at the exact second I'm writing this. It is also possible to "not be the current best player" and "still the most talented player ever" at the same time, which is where I'm at on this. Yes, he looks sort of injured right now, but he’s also going to be 35 years old in December, and the NBA, traditionally, is not a league where 35-year-olds thrive. We are entering the phase of LeBron’s career where he’s going to have to pick and choose when to go full-bore and when to chill out, and the thing is that he’s always been on teams that could afford him the luxury of the latter. The Lakers can’t. LeBron is still averaging 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but those numbers are emptier when the results aren’t there.
The weird part about this entire L.A. saga is just that envisioning his path to another title, for the first time ever, requires us to think in the abstract. Still, the experiment is what LeBron signed up for. Perhaps help will be on the way, and he needs it more than ever to engineer a contender. At the end of the day, it's possible for him to "not be the best player" and still be "extremely good at basketball,” and whatever we decide to label it, the only thing that’s really going to matter are the wins and losses and championship possibilities. Because he’s LeBron James, whether or not his teams are good or bad or great will always be a referendum on how he happens to be playing. Right now, there are other guys playing on winning teams who fit the criteria better. Still, nobody is going to be shocked if LeBron finds a way to drag them to the playoffs, and if it happens, well, we’ll have to revisit this.
Jake Fischer: Yes
But I want to use this question to talk about narrative moreso than quantify my argument. The game of basketball is in an extraordinary place right now. The fact that there has been such an influx of otherworldly talents meeting in this game, at this point in time, is a testament to how incredible all these players are. Stephen Curry has revolutionized the preexisting limits of shooting. Kevin Durant reinvented how we think of 7-foot humans, and where/how their bodies function within 94 feet of hardwood. James Harden has, on the grandest stage, fully mastered the craft of sizing up another man—no matter their height, skill or athleticism—while the entire arena knows exactly what his initiative is, and *still* destroying him. Giannis Antentokompo has truly personified position-less basketball because the mere thought of trying to label him 1-through-5 should be a criminal offense.
But while we have been mystified with how these guys have changed the game, I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that no matter which demigod rises to the top of the surface, LeBron is time and time again... right there. KD made his run at James in OKC and then defeated him twice in the Finals with Golden State. Steph made his run at James, becoming the only unanimous MVP ever, beating him in the Finals, losing to him in the most dramatic fashion in the Finals and returning the following *two* years to demolish LeBron’s Cavs. Russell Westbrook broke an absurd statistical record nobody ever thought could be shattered. Harden has soared. There are now “the unicorns,” Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and many more who assuredly will follow. And Lebron is still here. These other players' rises are, by definition, trends. LeBron is a constant. The eight straight Finals (Eight! Straight! Finals!) is tossed aside like a fun fact on the back of AAA baseball player’s trading card.
And while these guys’ most marketable skill clearly surpasses that of LeBron’s... he still only trails by a fraction. James is, until he actually loses a step, the best player in the NBA. And I quite honestly sometimes get upset with myself when I pass out and find out the next morning that he did something incredible. I should not take him for granted. I should be parked in front of a tv to appreciate his greatness.
Michael Shapiro: Yes
I’ll still stand beside King James despite an increasingly tumultuous season in Los Angeles. LeBron has been far from the NBA’s top player through the Lakers’ first 64 games, but is this sample an accurate reflection of the league’s true hierarchy? James was asleep at the wheel for much of 2017-18, then carried a listless Cavs team to the Finals. LeBron averaged 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game in last year’s playoffs. Indiana and Toronto need no reminder of his dominance. We still have a chance for more LeBron magic through the end of the regular season, and potentially rounds one and two of the Western Conference playoffs.
Kevin Durant feels like the rightful heir to James’s throne. He has two Finals MVPs and a pair of dagger threes over James and the Cavs since joining Golden State. A third mercenary ring could secure his spot atop the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo is likely destined to earn the title sooner than later, and could still zoom past Durant if the Bucks win the East. James Harden and Steph Curry may have a gripe, but the aforementioned trio is physically a step above the MVP guards. But peak LeBron is still lurking, and I’d rather wait until this summer to end the James era. We should revisit this conversation in June.
Jarrel Harris: Yes
LeBron is still the best player in the world. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo all have valid arguments in the claim but LeBron's reign as No. 1 is not over yet. Los Angeles has stunk this season but James is averaging 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds 8.0 assists in his 16th season!
This Lakers' roster was doomed from the start. We have seen LeBron create magic with less-talented teams in Cleveland but that was in the weaker Eastern Conference. The West is a whole new level, and after striking out on marquee free agents such as Paul George and whiffing on trades surrounding Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, LeBron has had to play with unproven young prospects and NBA laughingstocks like Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee. Let's not forget that he missed 17 games due to a groin injury he sustained on Christmas Day. This era's greatest player might be showing signs that he is finally human but I am not ready to give away his crown.