LeBron James cemented his reputation as the greatest basketball player on the planet when he led the Miami Heat to a championship in 2012. "King James" has settled into his throne with a brilliant 2012-13 campaign, but a young crop of NBA superstars are anxious to bring his reign to an end.
At 28 years old, James is at the height of his powers and, barring injury, will remain so for several years. Players like Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard (when healthy) are among the elite players in the game, but they were all born within one year of the king and will not be able to knock him off while he is still in his prime.
It will be a younger player, most likely somebody under the age of 25, who will one day ascend to the throne when LeBron begins to fade.The greatest challengers must possess immense talent, a superior understanding of the game and a relentless drive to improve.
James Harden has shined in a starring role with the Houston Rockets. He is averaging 26.3 points per game and has Kevin McHale's team on pace to make the playoffs. The 23-year-old must improve his defense, which has been atrocious at times this season.
Kevin Love has been sidelined with injuries, though he is among the top players in the game when healthy. Love can score from anywhere on the court and is a tenacious rebounder. Ultimately, he is not athletic enough to be the best player in the game.
Anthony Davis has had more difficulty acclimating to the NBA than many scouts expected, but the first pick in the 2012 draft is still averaging 16.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots per 36 (per basketball-reference.com.) Davis is just 19 years old, and his sample size in the NBA is too small to project just how great he can be.
Blake Griffin electrifies the Staples Center crowd with his acrobatic assaults on the basket. However, the 6'10'' forward has matured into much more than a high-flying act over his three seasons in the NBA.
Griffin boasts an array of post moves on the left block and has developed a serviceable jump shot to go along with them. His greatest strides have come as a passer, specifically knowing when and where to pass the ball out of a double-team.
The Los Angeles Clippers forward has also significantly improved his defensive positioning. He will never be a great shot-blocker, but he utilizes his quick hands and feet to step into passing lanes and swipe the ball from his man.
At 24 years of age, he has plenty of room for growth on both ends of the floor. For now, his greatest strengths remain his ability to beat other big men up and down the floor and to finish high above the rim.
Russell Westbrook drives to the basket as if he were shot out of a cannon. In recent years, he has complemented that explosiveness with a deadly pull-up jumper. When No. 0 is connecting on his mid-range shot, he is virtually unguardable.
In his fifth season, it is still not clear what type of player the Oklahoma City guard will become, though his exact position hardly matters. He plays the game with a hunger reminiscent of Kobe Bryant, and with his remarkable athleticism, there is no telling how great he will be in a few years.
The next step in his evolution is to become a lockdown defender. He has the athleticism, quickness and length to match up with any wing player. Westbrook is averaging 1.85 steals per game—good enough for sixth in the league—but lacks discipline and is regularly caught out of position.
Kyrie Irving has a great handle, deceptive quickness, the ability to finish in traffic and excellent range. However, the second year point guard's most impressive attribute is his feel for the game; an innate understanding of tempo, game situation, player positioning and angles which belies his 20 years.
He has played less than 100 games in the NBA, but has already rattled off some legendary performances. Like many of the greats, he saved his best performance for "The World's Most Famous Arena," dropping 41 on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 15, 2012.
The second-year player is averaging 23.6 points per game for the Cleveland Cavaliers and is connecting on 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Irving still has a lot to learn on the defensive end, particularly against the pick-and-roll. His 5.7 assists are low for an elite point guard, but that is due in large part to a lack of talent around him and the Cavs need for him to carry the scoring load.
Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history when he won the award in 2011 at the age of 22. He led the Chicago Bulls to the best record in the league in consecutive seasons—2010-11 and 2011-12—before tearing the ACL in his left knee during the 2012 playoffs.
ACL surgery and rehabilitation have come a long way in recent years and athletes routinely return to their pre-injury form. Rose should regain the speed, shiftiness and athleticism that make him such a sensational player.
At 24 years old, he has plenty of room for improvement. The young point guard is still learning the nuances of team defense, as well as when to take over a game or defer to teammates.
Rose can become even more dangerous offensively by developing a more consistent outside shot. His 3-point percentage dipped to 31 percent last season after he shot a career-high 33 percent from behind the arc in 2010-11.
Kevin Durant is the person most likely to eventually supplant LeBron as the greatest basketball player in the world.
The Oklahoma City Thunder forward is leading the league in scoring for the fourth consecutive season and is on pace to become the sixth member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club—he is shooting 51 percent from the field, 42 percent on 3-point attempts and 91 percent from the line.
Durant has closed the gap between himself and LeBron in other facets of the game. His defensive footwork is vastly improved and Scott Brooks now feels comfortable assigning his star player to the opposing team's best scorer late in games. K.D. is also averaging a career-high 4.6 assists per game.
Durant is still just 24 years old, four years younger than LeBron. Based on his strong work ethic, he should continue to grow as a player and will still be at his peak when James begins to slow down.