LeBron James has been the No. 1 player in ESPN’s NBArank since the beginning. He had just disappointed and somewhat disappeared in the 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, yet he was still recognized as the game’s greatest all-around performer later that year. For eight seasons we asked ESPN’s basketball experts to predict the best player in the game, and for eight seasons LeBron has been undeniable.
Now, there’s someone else at No. 1. Our panel has James as the No. 3 player for 2019-20.
Every LeBron James season is its own kind of unprecedented experience. This one might carry the most unknowns. In the modern game, there’s really no case of lead shot-creators like James making All-NBA at age 35. He looked mortal in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s adjusting to a remodeled roster and an elite big man in Anthony Davis.
So, is the ranking right? And if LeBron isn’t the best player in the NBA anymore, then what is he?
Four of our NBA experts look into the big questions and expectations surrounding his upcoming season.
Doubts, drama and dominance
Jackie MacMullan: What should we expect from LeBron James this season? Another season filled with intrigue and drama. Let’s be honest: He can’t help it!
Perhaps there will be veiled passive-aggressive tweets. Maybe his physical response to a game gone awry will include a tell. Either way, it won’t take much guesswork to figure out how LeBron feels about the Lakers’ season, because he’ll let us know.
Has any other athlete ever used social media so effectively? James transformed Taco Tuesday into a national phenomenon, and then he had the good sense to attempt to trademark it. He invites us into his world on his terms, whether it’s sharing a glimpse of his punishing workouts in the gym or endearing clips of his sons playing basketball in the yard before the sun comes up. These windows into his soul have enhanced his standing as one of the most popular players in NBA history.
There’s nothing more confounding for elite athletes to confront than their own mortality. LeBron already experienced this on a smaller scale because of a strained left groin that shut down his 2018-19 season.
Perhaps he will carve out his own version of load management this time around. James has already conceded he conserves his energy on the defensive end during meaningless regular-season contests. And yes, there has been a decline in his lateral quickness. But are you going to be the one who declares he’s trending downward?
In his maiden voyage with the Lakers last season, which ended in disappointment and frustration from all sides, he still submitted 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists a game. The beauty of LeBron is his ability to take slights, real or imagined, and channel them into a frothy lather that will display his undeniable talents yet again. There’s no denying he zeroed in on the doubters during this long offseason with laser focus, and that he will emerge recentered and highly motivated to reclaim his throne.
Alright alright. Enough is enough. The throne has been played with to much and I ain’t for horseplay. Ether coming soon! 😁🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥👑 #JamesGang✊🏾
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 1, 2019
So LeBron will bully on, mowing over coaches and teammates and pundits and general managers and owners and anyone else in his way who dares to defy his method of grasping for that elusive fourth ring. Most of the time amid that pursuit, he will be a force of nature, a runaway locomotive, the epitome of a champion. But every once in a while, his biggest strength — his undisputed reign as the king of player empowerment — will reveal itself as his most glaring weakness.
Glass of cabernet, anyone?
What will well-rested LeBron look like?
Kevin Arnovitz: Andre Agassi’s autobiography, “Open,” eloquently shares the physical and mental anguish of the aging athlete. On the first page of the introductory chapter, Agassi introduces himself as a heaping bundle of bones, muscles and joints who now wakes up every morning as a “stranger to myself.”
“I’m a young man, relatively speaking,” Agassi writes. “Thirty-six. But I wake as if ninety-six. After three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body, especially in the morning. Consequently my mind doesn’t feel like my mind.”
Though LeBron James is still only 34 until Dec. 30, no high-performance athlete in the world has performed more quick sprints, sudden stops, explosive jumps and hard landings over the past 20 years. James has played more than 56,000 minutes in more than 1,400 regular-season and playoff games, and this doesn’t include international competition, years in high school and AAU tournaments, during which teenagers routinely play multiple games per day, and his relentless training regimen.
For all of his transcendent attributes as the greatest basketball player of his generation, James’ durability over the course of his career might be the most impressive. During his first 15 NBA seasons, he rarely missed time because of injury. But last season, he was out five weeks before the All-Star break because of a strained left groin and shut it down for good in late March as the Lakers faded from postseason contention, with James never fully recovering from the winter injury.
By virtue of playing his final game on March 29, James will enter the 2019-20 season with something he has never enjoyed — a six-month sabbatical from high-level basketball. After eight consecutive years of enduring his most intense competition of the year between mid-April and mid-June, James’ only physiological objective this spring and summer was recovery.
This means James and the rest of us are about to learn the answer to a question that, for 15 years, has been nothing more than a hypothetical:
What does LeBron James with more than half a year of rest look like?
Will all those biomechanical stunts that have been signature features of James’ dominance be more potent than ever? Will his capacity for all that sprinting, leaping and force be rejuvenated as he struts his rebuilt body into Lakers training camp Friday? Will his recovery combined with a more calculating load management program produce an athlete whose more selective output at its very best is as potent as any player’s in the NBA?
The last time James won a championship, he played in only 16 games over a 57-day period in 2016. The final weeks of the Cavs’ season and their march through the Eastern Conference en route to a seven-game series with the Golden State Warriors was hardly a vacation, but anyone who watched James in the 2016 NBA Finals observed an athlete in a rare state of vigor, punctuated by the chase-down block of Andre Iguodala.
It’s possible that James’ 2019 hiatus will be nothing more than a brief delay of the inevitable. One of the characteristics of age is the unsatisfying results of regeneration. Injuries that used to heal at 100 percent now recover at 94 percent strength. Aches that were once temporary now linger permanently. And where did that lag between second and third gear come from?
But James has rarely been subject to the limits that inhibit other superstars, and his physical exceptionalism is his defining trait. In 2019-20, we could learn exactly how much it distinguishes him.
Jalen Rose is surprised that the Nets are now a less-likely destination for Carmelo Anthony, who contends he can still play in the league.
Will the roster work for or against LeBron?
Chris Herring: The stakes are incredibly high in Los Angeles for multiple reasons. The Lakers traded the farm for Anthony Davis. He’ll be a free agent after this season and there’s no guarantee he’ll stay in purple and gold if things go off the rails. (The Dwight Howard FIAsco, in which this exact scenario played out, is still a raw memory for Lakers fans). Beyond that, James is on the downside of his career, even if he’s still performing at a level we’ve never seen for his age.
One element worth watching: How much will James be asked to do going forward? Getting Davis was a huge help. He arguably becomes the most talented teammate James has ever had. But one of the biggest downsides of not landing Kawhi Leonard was losing the possibility of making LeBron’s minutes easier on offense as he ages. Even with Davis in tow, James doesn’t have an abundance of high-level ball handlers on this roster.
Rajon Rondo has been less aggressive for quite a while now, and he’s coming off a season in which he posted a career-low free throw rate of 8.3%. Alex Caruso has had his moments and he’s a fan favorite, but he’s still something of an unknown, as most of his contributions last season came during the season equivalent of garbage time. And while the Lakers made a handful of noteworthy signings — Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley — it’s fair to raise the question of whether the team again has left itself with a glaring problem.
The Lakers clearly didn’t have enough shooting on the roster heading into last season, unsurprisingly finishing second to last in the league in 3-point percentage. Now, Los Angeles might have robbed Peter to pay Paul: The Lakers have the shooting they need, but they lack ballhandling options at a time in James’ career where it would seemingly benefit him to play more on the wing instead of having to repeatedly set up plays for himself and Davis.
That Iguodala layup he pinned to the backboard in 2016 happened right after an offensive sequence when James was essentially able to stand off to the side and rest. All-Star teammate Kyrie Irving led the possession from start to finish. Having to do less as a setup man because of Irving’s presence made James sharper in key moments during that series. The same might be true of an entire season if James had another solid ball handler to take the pressure off of him.
None of this is to suggest that James and the Lakers won’t have an incredible season. But the roster construction surrounding James and AD probably will force LeBron to try to do it all, draining more of his late-career battery than what is ideal.
Can James still flip the switch whenever he wants?
Kevin Pelton: As late as last season’s All-Star Game, long after the flaws in the Lakers’ roster were evident, I still expected them to make the playoffs for one simple reason: LeBron flipping the switch. After all, I reasoned, James has mastered the art of conserving energy during the regular season for extended playoff runs, during which he has reestablished himself as the NBA’s best player. So if the playoffs weren’t guaranteed, James would unleash that same terror on the league during the stretch run, right?
The run never came. After beating the Houston Rockets in their first game after the February break, the Lakers dropped five of their next six, including a loss to the rival LA Clippers that effectively ended their playoff hopes. It wasn’t for lack of effort on James’ part. He played 39.7 minutes per game over that stretch, and wasn’t exactly ineffective, averaging 28.3 points, 10.1 assists and 8.7 rebounds.
Box-score numbers aside, this wasn’t the kind of dominant LeBron we’d come to expect when the stakes are highest. The Lakers were outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in that stretch, according to NBA Advanced Stats, struggling badly at the defensive end. The defining memory of that period was a careless turnover when James threw an inbounds pass off the backboard during a stunning loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that LeBron will be better this season than he was late last winter, including his six months off.
James has a tendency to play much better during his second season in a new setting. His worst campaign with the Miami Heat was his first one, which ended with a meltdown in an NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The same was true of his first regular season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, with whom James also missed time because of injury before turning it on in the playoffs.
The Lakers’ chemistry also was fractured after the team’s failed attempt to trade for Anthony Davis before the deadline, which paid off when the deal was completed this June. A roster built around Davis and James should better complement his style of play.
Nonetheless, last season was the first time since James established himself as an MVP-winning megastar that we’ve failed to see him play like the NBA’s best player for any meaningful period of time. Given LeBron’s age and the historic mileage he has accumulated since entering the league at age 18, it’s fair to wonder whether he’s still capable of such heights. As a result, LeBron finds himself in unfamiliar territory entering the 2019-20 campaign: He needs to convince us he’s the best player in the league.