The reminders keep coming, in all sorts of forms, without interruption.
Some are subtle, their significance barely registering in real time, if not unnoticed, because this has all become so routine. Others are harder, often impossible, to ignore. They too are routine, but louder, so much louder. These are the moments that force reflection, the occasions in which we have to wonder whether this is really happening.
And it is.
This might sound like a cliche. It may come off even worse, perhaps closer to overthought, wishy-washy gobbledygook, the kind exclusively reserved for megastars ebbing further into their twilights. And hey, that might be true...once James is actually in his twilight.
A game in early January is by no means a referendum, especially for someone with such an extensive, airtight resume. During the Los Angeles Lakers' 129-114 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at American Airlines Center, though, James played like it was.
His final line: 35 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists on 14-of-25 shooting, including a 3-of-6 clip from beyond the arc.
On a night when the Lakers didn't have Anthony Davis, LeBron left with not only a victory against a team supposedly fast-tracked toward contention but also (another) piece of history:
That this detonation came against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks is, for James, even sweeter.
Doncic's struggles Friday night (1-of-5 from deep, 8-of-13 at the foul line) are meaningless in the grand scheme. These nights happen to everyone, particularly those who aren't yet old enough for bottomless mimosas at Sunday brunch.
Remember: Doncic is supposed to be the face of the next generation, an heir apparent to LeBron or Giannis Antetokounmpo rather than their rival. He's instead crashing the immediate MVP race, at the age of 20, and already gone toe-to-toe with James as an equal.
For James to out-duel him head-to-head, and for his Lakers to win the season series over the Mavericks (3-1), is a statement. It is not a defining achievement, but it carries weight:
And if James didn't view this contest as a barometer of something, anything, then he fooled us. It would also be a first this year.
He has treated this entire season as a return, a renaissance, rather than more of the same. People had gradually started nominating others for the NBA's "Best Player" office before, but there was a mass exodus of those who always defaulted to James at No. 1 after he missed a career-high 27 games and the Lakers failed to make the playoffs last season.
Full disclosure: Yours truly falls under that umbrella, having awarded the honor to Giannis Antetokounmpo this past fall. James checked in at No. 4. I wasn't alone. ESPN crowned Antetokounmpo, with James coming in third. It was the same story at SI.com.
The owner of the NBA's pole position is still up for debate. That it's even a matter of discussion, with James in Year 17, is almost inconceivable.
James has interpreted this discourse not as a rite of time or even a slight but an assault on his standing. You know, #WashedKing and what not:
Most didn't enter this season declaring James was finished. Older? Yes. About to, willingly, cede status to AD? Sure. Something less than immortal? Maybe.
Finished? Washed? On the steep decline? That wasn't a thing, at least not among the consensus. James has played up the criticism and skepticism, responding to a question so few, if any, asked.
Not that we should be complaining. We shouldn't be. We're not. Whatever motivates James to keep going, even in a midseason game with the Lakers securely atop the Western Conference, is fine.
And to his credit, he's not exactly warring with invisible demons. His place in the league is both at the tippy top and under siege.
Stephen Curry barreled his way into best-player contention at the start of the Golden State Warriors dynasty. Kawhi Leonard seized control of the optics last season by leading the Toronto Raptors to a title and ending that very dynasty. Antetokounmpo is working off his first MVP award, favored to win another one and, most importantly, the majority's pick for top dog.
Oh, and he wants LeBron to know it:
It is this shift in what fans and pundits now default to (Giannis) that seems to fuel James. He has gone from peerless to surrendering No. 1 status over a single season but never overall to trailing more than one player in a conversation that, not too long ago, never needed to be had. He is guilty only of exaggerating his "fall," which isn't a crime at all.
If nothing else, his repeated callbacks to the perception he's battling draw more attention to what he's done this season: absolutely dominate.
James is averaging 25.4 points and a league-leading, career-high 10.7 assists. Gaudy numbers are easier to tally given the NBA's uptick in pace and three-point volume, but his production is absurd in a vacuum. No one has matched his per-possession benchmarks in his age-35 season or later. Other than James, Sam Cassell is the only player to match his output after his 31st birthday.
In between the Instagram captions and glitzy game lines is even more meaning. James' efficiency is down—he's posting his lowest truest shooting percentage since 2007-08—but he's more engaged on defense and playing at the second-fastest pace of his career.
Even on a team with another top-seven superstar, James continues to stand out. The Lakers are comfortably losing the minutes they spend without him on the floor, and most of those reps have come with Davis in the game. By comparison, they're torching opponents when James goes it alone.
Lineup composition matters in this conversation, as does the general limitations of the Lakers roster. L.A. is not built to navigate James' absence every night. It needs another decisive playmaker to pilot those minutes.
Still, that's the entire point.
James, at age 35, in Year 17, is the most valuable player on the NBA's second-best team. And while Antetokounmpo may be leading the MVP field, along with the best-player-alive ladder, his reign over the rest of the league has not come in a landslide or without resistance.
It may not, officially, have even started at all.