By Leading Lakers to Finals, LeBron James Reinforces Case as NBA's Best Player

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James directs a play against the Denver Nuggets during the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

LeBron James' career resume is such that he's no longer playing out of need, be it measurable or anecdotal.

Ever since his 2016 NBA title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, everything he's accomplished or contended for feels like a luxury, another triumph in a portfolio that isn't begging for any more. His pursuit of Michael Jordan and greatest-of-all-time status, while not unfounded, verges on a settled matter. If you don't have him above MJ now, a fourth title probably isn't going to change your mind.

And so, entering Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron's legacy didn't really have anything on the line. He didn't need the Los Angeles Lakers to beat the Denver Nuggets. He didn't need to secure his 10th NBA Finals appearance.

But they did, so he did.

And in the process of this win LeBron didn't need, a 117-107 victory that positions him for a fourth championship he doesn't have to get, he served up another more immediate, equally unnecessary reminder: At age 35, in Year 17, MVP or not, he still belongs in the NBA's best player discussion.

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This sentiment does not amount to an epiphany, and it's important to note as much. LeBron isn't sneaking up anyone. Nor are the Lakers. Neither is being taken for granted. 

LeBron's war against the concept of time is impressive, but not novel. His megastardom is a given, but not something to which people are numb. He remains the face of the league, and the notches he adds to his belt each season want for neither recognition nor fawning.

Ending the Lakers' playoff and Finals "droughts" doesn't change anything. Six years isn't an eternity to be out of the postseason, and Los Angeles raised its last banner barely a decade ago. LeBron did not just lug an underdog to the championship round. Whatever your view of the Lakers' supporting cast, they have him and Anthony Davis, arming them with two top-seven stars who will, in most cases, be the two best players in any given series—including the upcoming Finals, in which they'll face either the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat.

At the same time, as LeBron has aged and other super-duper names have continued their ascent, his status as the league's best player is no longer the rule. It is instead under siege in a way it never really was during the LeBron James-or-Kevin Durant days.

There hasn't been a push for him to vacate his throne. It is more of an allowance. In any given season, Durant or Stephen Curry has commandeered the chat. Kawhi Leonard made his own case during his 2019 championship push with the Toronto Raptors. And then there's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time reigning MVP most commonly, if reflexively, crowned the Association's top dog in annual player rankings, including ours

This acceptance isn't exactly consensus, but it is widespread. No one blinked when Antetokounmpo won this year's MVP honors. LeBron provided more resistance than anyone, arguing not against Giannis himself, but his own lack of first-place votes and the absence of concrete criteria for awards voting in general.

Put aside the results to this year's MVP race and any campaigning LeBron might've been doing on his behalf, and he has a point. The interpretation of the MVP award will never be universal, unless the league implements formal changes. Should it go to the best player on the best team? A player whose team cannot function without him? Can you be an MVP if you're not on a championship contender? What's the difference between "best" and "most valuable" anyway?

The fact is, though, these questions don't much matter. Not to LeBron. Not anymore. Awards reform doesn't appear imminent, and he would have limited time to capitalize even if it did. 

That's fine. He doesn't need a fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy to rubber stamp his value from year to year. His case as the league's best player is invariably strengthened, if not made in its entirety, during the playoffs, on nights like Saturday, in victories his historical standing doesn't need.

How else are you supposed to feel after watching him hang another postseason triple-double, to the tune of 38 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists? Or seeing him take over down the stretch, when the Lakers hadn't yet put the game totally out of the Nuggets' reach?

Best-player-in-the-league debates reignite seemingly every postseason, usually incited by Finals participants and packaged not as small-sample hyperbole but standout moments amid the highest stakes. If you could pick one player to get you a series, or a game, who would it be? That's the crux of the discussion; it's what fueled Leonard's own case last season.

LeBron never left that conversation, not even as the Cavaliers became steppingstones for the Durant-era Golden State Warriors, and not even when the Lakers missed the playoffs during his first season in Hollywood. If anything about what he does has been lost in the tumult of surrounding superstar climbs, it's that. 

And part of it is on him. He has been more selective in his dominance for the better part of the decade, particularly on defense. The regular season so clearly doesn't mean as much to him as it does to Antetokounmpo, and while championships aren't won before the playoffs, the larger sample cannot be thrown by the wayside. 

But that's not what considering LeBron as the best player alive entails. He just averaged 25.3 points and a league-leading 10.2 assists on efficiency right in line with his career benchmarks while playing his best defense since calling Miami home. And though there may not have been an incredibly strong case to vote him for MVP over Antetokounmpo, he still embodied the spirit of the award, in the sense that one of the NBA's foremost title favorites was 10.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court.

"He's the greatest player in the goddamn world," Danny Green said Saturday night, per USA Today's Mark Medina.

Over the course of any given regular season?

Maybe not.

In general, and when it matters most?

It's hard to say no.

                    

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.