LeBron James had a lot at stake going into this season after missing the playoffs last year. He has had a great regular season, but this year's MVP plays in Milwaukee. However, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title will help James reclaim an unofficial title: the best player in the world.
The best player in the world is not always the NBA MVP. If that were true, Michael Jordan would have more than five MVP awards. James held the title for a long run during his time in Cleveland and Miami, but his grip began to loosen.
Kevin Durant did not win an MVP trophy during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but he was still looked at as the best in the world. Even last season, after bringing a championship to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard was considered the best in the world despite not having won a league MVP trophy yet.
It seemed as though the torch was slowly being passed from James to the next generation. He remained a top-five player, but the best in the game became a debatable subject.
This season, James has set out to get that title back.
The Lakers have been great throughout 2019-20, on pace for a 63-win season before the suspension of play due to COVID-19. They were playing their best basketball at that point. They had won 12 of their last 15 games, with big wins over the L.A. Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets.
James was carrying the team through all of it. He played in 14 of those 15 games, averaging 28.2 points, 10.2 assists and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 36.9 percent from three. Taking his game to another level, James has been attacking the basket at every opportunity he finds.
Overall this season, James is shooting 34.9 percent from deep, but he is finding his range and making defenses pay if they leave him on rotations or go under screens.
The recent uptick in James' scoring has not slowed down his ability to create for his teammates, which has always been a central tenet of his game. He has developed great chemistry with Anthony Davis, and it is paying off for the Lakers in so many ways.
James is also dominating as a post-up option for the Lakers. According to Synergy Sports Technology, he's having his best points-per-possession average in the post (including passes out of the post) at 1.16 per possession. He mixes up facing up on defenders, or he goes into a fadeaway.
Defensively, James has been on another level this season. In past years, he's coasted defensively before raising the intensity in the playoffs. This season, he has been locked in from the beginning.
For the year, the Lakers have had a defensive rating of 103.0 when James is on the floor. He's been great at rotating and helping the helper all season. He's even taken it up another notch in his last nine games before play was suspended with a rating of 99.4 when he was on the floor.
As the season was winding down before its abrupt hiatus, James and the Lakers were beginning to round into playoff form. They held the second-highest net rating at 7.5 points and defensive rating at 104.4 in the NBA over their last 15 games.
Chasing a Ghost
In a Sports Illustrated interview with Lee Jenkins after winning the 2016 NBA championship, James said: "My motivation is this ghost I'm chasing. The ghost played in Chicago."
Two years later, James said on ESPN plus' More Than An Athlete series that the 2016 championship made him the GOAT in his mind.
ESPN's The Last Dance documentary has brought the debate back to the forefront. It has shown the younger generation who might have missed the era how good Jordan was. It has reminded the older generation what he was about. It seems as though the debate has swung back in Jordan's favor.
The return of the NBA this year is an opportunity for James to add another championship to his resume. He is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, so each chance must be capitalized on.
Winning the championship this year will keep the GOAT debate going.
Rest vs. Rust Concern
James has always taken amazing care of his body. It has been reported that he spends as much as $1.5 million per year to maintain it. Sheltering in place has not slowed him down when it comes to working out. Being in great shape is one thing, but being game-ready is another.
James was on a roll when the season was suspended, and a break like this could disrupt that flow. Even the flow with his own teammates might have developed some rust. Shams Charania reported for Stadium that James has held private workouts with a few teammates in preparation for the resumption of play.
The break did serve to give James some much-needed rest considering how much he is counted on to deliver. His usage rate, the highest on the team, was a concern. There were worries that he might not have enough left in the tank by the time the playoffs rolled around. Those worries should go out the window with the break.
Every team will be dealing with working the rust off. The Lakers and James have a 5.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Clippers for the top seed in the West. This means they do not have to hit the ground running, but they do need to find their flow by the time the playoffs come around.
With just eight regular-season games in the NBA's return-to-action plan, the MVP award is out of reach. However, if James can lead the Lakers to a championship, he will send a message to the rest of the NBA that he is not ready to relinquish the title of the best basketball player in the world. It could reignite the greatest-of-all-time debate as well.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.