LeBron James now has four regular-season MVPs, but how long can he keep going for?
The last two championships belong to him. Four of the last MVP trophies have his name carved into them. He's unquestionably the game's current greatest player.
But how long will his reign last?
I joined Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Grant Hughes and fellow NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin at the round table to debate the issue: How long will James run the NBA? Who will eventually unseat him? And who will be the league's MVP five years from now?
Five years? Six years? Seven years? Michael Jordan won the last of his five MVPs at the age of 35. Karl Malone still stands as the oldest MVP of all time at 36. LeBron is a better, more impactful player than The Mailman and has already proven himself more durable than MJ.
Moreover, James doesn't turn 29 until December 30. I expect him to be relevant among the elite until he reaches his mid-30s, which would place the end of his reign right around, say, 2020.
Not next season. There is absolutely zero evidence that says there is even slight competition to James' NBA dominance.
But there's also been no player since Larry Bird in the mid-80s who has won three consecutive MVP awards. One must dazzle voters in a unique way and remain head and shoulders above the league to reign as MVP. James did it last season with across-the-board statistical dominance that also included the Heat's historic 27-game win streak and the league's best overall record.
What can he do next year to impress writers? He'll need to continue piling up individual numbers and team wins while keeping distance on the latest superteams. The downward trend of games played by Dwyane Wade will further prove that James is Miami's lone elite superstar. I say he wins another next season and will continue to collect them sporadically through the next decade.
I’m going to split hairs right off the bat here by making a distinction between when James’ MVP reign will end and when he’ll no longer be the best player in the game.
Voters get sick of giving the same guy the award year after year, which is why Charles Barkley and Karl Malone—who won their MVPs during a time when Michael Jordan was still clearly the best player alive—have a couple of undeserved trophies on their mantles.
James’ reign will end in 2014-15. But he’ll be the best player in the game for at least another four years.
Six seems like a good number for LeBron. He likes it enough to wear it. James has won four of the last five MVPs (and probably should have a five-year streak going).
But if we're operating from the previous premise—that LeBron's MVP window could last another six years—it's still tough to expect him to take home more than two more. Competition from other players, decline in his own game and "voter fatigue" are all bound to take their toll on King James' trophy tally.
Want a bombshell with enough force to explode the comment section below? James will leave the game as its greatest player, and he will rack up a total of eight MVPs in his career. That means just four more.
Think about it: James is only getting better every year, adding new elements to his game and sharpening the tools he's possessed since entering the league out of high school. And he's still only 28 years old.
James also appears indestructible, and at the rate of medicine and successful NBA surgery, he may still be going when he turns 40 in 2025. That's not a joke, either. He should win another three in the next five years, meaning he'll need to take home just one more between the ages of 33 and 40 to get a total of eight.
I say James tops Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record of six MVP awards, but just barely.
With four already in the bag, I’m guessing LBJ will win another one in 2013-14, get beaten out for the honor the year after and then win two more before he hangs up his sneakers.
That’ll give him seven altogether and a place in the record books.
Kevin Durant seems the likeliest to unseat LeBron at some point. He's been knocking at the door over the last four years, with three second-place finishes and one fifth-place finish, and he's still only 25 years old.
He's a great player already, and he should only improve over the course of the next seven to 10 years or so. So long as KD and Russell Westbrook are teammates, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be title contenders, and as long as that's the case, Durant will be in the MVP conversation.
Durant is the favorite to unseat James, no doubt. He's clearly the second-best player in the league and maybe the only guy who could compete with James' wins and numbers. Kobe Bryant is still recovering, Chris Paul isn't dominant enough and Anthony can't reach James' wins or all-around statistics. Derrick Rose, the only other MVP of the last four years, also has much left to prove returning from injury.
So I'm going out on a limb and saying the next MVP won't be named until 2014-15. The MVP will come from Cleveland again, though, this time going to Kyrie Irving. The superstar guard will, of course, need to stay healthy and bring the Cavaliers back to a top seed in the East ahead of a Miami Heat team that should be fading by then.
It has to be Durant, right?
KD is four years younger than James, and even with LBJ putting together one of the most impressive regular seasons in NBA history last year, Durant was right behind him. We’ve never seen a better high-volume, high-efficiency scorer than Durant, and as he continues to mature, he’s got a shot to come very close to James in terms of overall value.
I don’t think we’ll see Durant surpass James until the King is at least 33 years old, but he’s going to come pretty close over the next few seasons.
LeBron? Durant? Derrick Rose? ANDREW WIGGINS?! It's impossible to say.
Winning the MVP is as much about team success as it is about individual brilliance. There's no way of knowing who will be teamed with whom, where guys will be playing or even how teams will be constructing their rosters in five years.
The league and the player's union seem likely to return to the negotiating table in 2017, when either side can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. I predict the renewal of the NBA's TV contracts will give someone cause enough to start the kabuki all over again.
The league MVP in five seasons will be John Wall. I see Wall becoming the league's next superstar with a big season in 2013-14 and continuing to develop as one of the league's best as he turns 28 in the final season of his recent max, five-year extension.
After taking time this past season to recover from a knee injury that kept him out until Jan. 12, Wall finished the season strong with an average 20.7 points and 7.8 assists after the All-Star break. The Wizards were 24-25 with Wall in 2012-13 and just 5-28 without him. And let's not forget his college super stardom that made him a No. 1 pick in the first place.
Also in 2018, there will finally be some flying cars.
Same answer here as the last question: Durant.
In five years, James will be 33. Jordan was good enough to stay at the top of the league at that age, but keep in mind that if LBJ—who has already played 765 regular-season games—maintains his current pace, he’ll be getting very close to Jordan’s career total of 1,072 games by that time.
That’s a lot of NBA miles—even for a superhero.
Toss in the fact that Durant will still be under 30 five seasons from now, and it seems like the league will belong to the OKC star in 2018.
Any worthwhile debate over the G.O.A.T. must include all of those factors—and more! MVPs, championships, All-NBA selections, All-Star appearances, All-Defensive nods and statistical titles (scoring, rebounding, assists, etc.) are just some of the historical markers that help us to contextualize a given player's achievements.
Bill Russell is the greatest champion of all time (11 titles), but few (outside of Boston, anyway) would anoint him the greatest player. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the most MVPs, owns as many titles (six) as Jordan and was the most prolific scorer ever, and yet there are many who will tell you that MJ was the greatest.
Any discussion as convoluted as the NBA G.O.A.T. deserves as cloudy a pool of considered factors as possible.
Championships make all the difference.
Tim Duncan and Charles Barkley have very similar all-time numbers. The big difference: Duncan's four titles vs. Barkley's zero. That's the reason Duncan is regarded as the best power forward of all time.
And it's not like championships are used as a simple tiebreaker either. The ultimate goal is winning. It's the standard by which players judge personal success, and it's why we see so many superteams made today in the name of winning before individual accolades.
Sure, MVPs and all-time leaderboards come into play, but nothing means more than leading a team to a title.
As boring as it sounds, all of those things matter. But none of them should determine greatness on their own.
MVPs are subject to some pretty capricious whims by voters, and even the ones that look deeply at statistics often focus too much on ancient relics like points, rebounds and steals.
Championships matter, but it’s pretty absurd to argue that players who don’t win them aren’t great. Patrick Ewing was 10 times the player Chris Andersen is, but the Birdman has a ring.
If forced to choose one determinant, I’d pick statistics. But I’d do so with the acknowledgement that they don’t tell us everything about a sport that is so dependent on context, chemistry and style. In addition, we’re nowhere near the finish line in terms of finding stats that actually tell us which players contribute most to team wins.
I guess “greatness” is a pretty tricky concept.