Zion Williamson might be coming for the throne, but LeBron James put the rest of the world on notice in the first matchup between the two:
He's still The King.
One could argue that James has been the NBA's best player since the end of his third season in 2006.
By the end of the 2009-10 season, there wasn't much to argue at all. With a historic Finals run, a scoring title, two 60-win seasons and back-to-back MVPs to his name, King James had become the undisputed King of the NBA.
In his 17th season, James is averaging 25.2 points, a league-leading 10.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game and is on the verge of becoming just the fifth player in league history to have a scoring and assist title to his name.
10 years, three titles and two league MVPs after being widely regarded as the undisputed best, LeBron is still in that conversation at the age of 35.
MORE: Where does LeBron rank among the league's top players?
Over this span, LeBron has become the benchmark to which nearly every player with superstar-calibre potential is compared. Whether it's deeming someone the "best since LeBron" or placing stock into head-to-head meetings with LeBron, it's pretty clear who represents the gold standard.
Ahead of their first meeting, 19-year-old New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson became the latest to be dubbed as the best since James with the potential to take the throne in the coming future.
Think about that.
Williamson is 19, was born in 2000 and debuted nearly 17 years after James, who still finds himself on top.
Over the past decade, many have tried to dethrone the King and while some may have bested him in those highly-touted head-to-head meetings, he has still yet to be truly knocked down from the top.
The above fact only begins to put James' sustained greatness in perspective.
After making his NBA debut in 2008, it didn't take long for Rose to ascend to being among the league's elite.
In just his third season, Rose was named the league's Most Valuable Player at 22 after his averages of 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds led his Chicago Bulls to a 62-20 record and the East's No. 1 seed. As for James? He finished third in MVP voting while his Miami Heat finished second in the standings behind the Bulls, setting up a collision course towards a meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Could D-Rose surpass LeBron this early in his career?
MORE: Rose shows flashes of MVP form in 2020
It would appear that way in Game 1 of the Conference Finals as Rose would score 28 points to lead the Bulls to a blowout victory over the Heat, while James scored just 15 points (on 5-for-15 shooting).
In Games 2 through 5, LeBron reminded us of just who he was, averaging 28.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.5 steals while making things difficult for Rose with his defence in the game's most crucial situations.
Case in point? According to ESPN's stats and information, Rose, one of the league's quickest and explosive guards, shot just 6.3% percent from the field when covered by James in the series.
It all culminated in Game 5, as LeBron held Rose to 1-for-10 shooting and the Heat would stage a furious late comeback to secure their place in the NBA Finals.
A string of injuries to Rose make this one of the biggest "what-ifs" there is but as it stands, those days between Game 1 and 2 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals represent a time where the reign was in doubt.
One year after Rose came up short, a 23-year-old Kevin Durant emerged as the next challenger in just his fifth season.
After finishing second in MVP voting behind James in 2010 and 2012, Durant led an Oklahoma City Thunder team that represented the future of the NBA. Alongside James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder proved to be ahead of schedule as they made a Finals run as the West's No. 2 seed in 2012.
Awaiting them in the Finals was a Heat team led by the league's MVP in James, who was still in search of his first NBA title.
History repeated itself in a sense as Durant's 36 points led OKC to a convincing Game 1 victory over Miami, only for James to lead the Heat to four straight victories to capture the 2012 NBA title.
James would earn Finals MVP after averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists while Durant averaged 30.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the series. Because the Thunder were so young, we all assumed we'd see this Finals matchup for years to come. We were wrong.
Though that chapter ended, the story between these two didn't…
When Curry came into the league in 2009, we didn't think he'd prove to be a generational talent that would one day challenge LeBron.
Unlike Durant and Rose, injuries on the front end of Curry's career prevented a quick ascension towards the top, but he did show signs of what he was capable of. By 2013, the Golden State Warriors were an upstart team and one of the most fun teams in the league.
Thus began Curry's rapid rise.
Just two seasons later, Curry would lead the Warriors to 67 wins, earning his first MVP honour in the process. The Warriors would then best James and the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals, giving Curry his first title, though Finals MVP honours went to Andre Iguodala.
MORE: Curry targets March 1 for return from injury
The 2015-16 season would see Curry become the first-ever unanimous MVP and the first back-to-back MVP since James. The 2016 Finals, however, saw James lead the Cavs to a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win his third NBA title and third NBA Finals MVP.
They've met twice more in the Finals and while Curry holds a 3-1 record over James, he has yet to capture a Finals MVP. Could we confidently say that Steph has ever outplayed LeBron on the biggest stage?
Even from a popularity standpoint, after the two served as All-Star captains as the leading vote-getters in their respective conferences in 2018, LeBron received more votes than Curry once he moved to the Western Conference to hold his spot.
The injury-riddled 2019-20 season for the Warriors has put this conversation on hold, but it is far from over.
Kawhi's case is an interesting one.
In just his third season, Leonard was named NBA Finals MVP after putting forth a dominant defensive effort to lead the San Antonio Spurs past James and the Heat in the 2014 Finals.
But at that time, would anyone have even suggested that he was better than LeBron? While Leonard was stellar on the defensive end as James' primary defender, LeBron still averaged 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 57.1% shooting from the field in the series.
The conversation didn't truly begin until the 2015-16 season, where he finished second in MVP voting. In 2016-17, Kawhi averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists, finished third in MVP voting and further legitimized the notion that he could be the league's top player.
He looked every bit of the NBA's best player as he scored 26 points in 24 minutes in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals against a dominant Warriors team but all came to a screeching halt as he would go down with an ankle injury that effectively ended his season and any potential hope for a second Kawhi-LeBron Finals meeting.
After a lingering quad injury limited him in 2017-18, Leonard was back at the top of his game in 2018-19 with a new team in the Toronto Raptors. In leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning his second Finals MVP, the talks could resume.
MORE: Did Kawhi have the greatest individual postseason run in NBA history?
Is Kawhi the league's best? Can he do it when it isn't a down year for LeBron?
Leonard's move to join the in-arena rival of LeBron's Lakers only adds to the intrigue of this dynamic, with a potential postseason meeting between the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers being the matchup all hoop fans dream of.
The Clippers are 2-0 against the Lakers this season and each of the first two meetings has stood as a litmus test to see where each elite player stands. Ultimately, it comes down to what happens in the postseason.
Can a team led by this version of Kawhi best a team led by this version of LeBron in a playoff series? That alone could signify a power shift.
Who knows what would've happened if Kawhi didn't go down in 2017? What we do know is that Durant and the Warriors would sweep the Spurs en route to their third-straight Finals meeting with LeBron and the Cavs.
Led by KD, Golden State would win back-to-back titles over Cleveland with Durant earning Finals MVP honours in both years. Still, the conversation surrounding each series was how much stronger of a team the Warriors fielded over the Cavs and in a way, Curry and Durant cannibalized each other's respective case to dethrone LeBron as they were two top-five talents.
KD's ruptured Achilles played a role in the Warriors pursuit of a third title because without him it became clear that they had no answer for Leonard and the Raptors. A three-peat would have been an accolade-based accomplishment that Durant could have held over James.
Once KD returns from his injury in the 2020-21 season, he'll be 31 and in a good position to finally dethrone LeBron. Only it might not be LeBron at the top anymore…
December 19, 2019.
13 days after his 25th birthday, Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks played host to the Lakers. After Antetokounmpo steps up to knock down his career-high fifth triple of the night to put his Bucks up by 14 points, he had something to say.
🔥 5 3PM FOR GIANNIS 🔥- NBA (@NBA) December 20, 2019
The Greek Freak (30 PTS) is up to a career-high from behind the arc!#FearTheDeer on @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/YT94pDmsuJ
"I wear this now," Giannis exclaimed as he mimed placing a crown on his head. It's no coincidence that this moment came in a statement win over the Lakers while LeBron was on the floor.
If anyone is primed to take over this league, it's Antetokounmpo. And it's impossible not to draw parallels to James.
MORE: Are Giannis, Bucks unstoppable?
Like LeBron, Giannis won his first MVP at the age of 24 after leading his team to a 60-plus win season. This year, Antetokounmpo stands to join James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to win multiple MVPs by the age of 25 as his Bucks team is currently on pace to win 70 games.
Unlike LeBron, Giannis will look to lead one of these successful regular-season teams to a title.
As it stands, Antetokounmpo's Bucks are the East's No. 1 seed while James' Lakers are No. 1 in the West. A meeting in June is far from inevitable but if Giannis could lead his team to a Finals victory over LeBron at 25, he'd rightfully deserve to wear the crown he placed on his head in December.
The Next Generation
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Giannis came in at first in our prediction of the league's top 10 players in the 2025-26 season.
He, along with Luka Doncic and Zion, are the three players with the best chance to assume the title once LeBron is no longer fit for the throne … if that day ever comes. There is, of course, James' teammate in Anthony Davis, who could also assume the throne, albeit in a much different manner than a head-to-head victory.
It's amazing to think that LeBron has now been the benchmark for both a 19-year-old KD in 2007 and a 19-year-old Zion in 2020, with a number of notable challengers coming along the way over the years.
It's something that we've never seen before and may not ever see again. Don't take it for granted.
Just call it sustained greatness.
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