Is LeBron James still the best player in the world?
It's a question looming over Staples Center on Friday night with both James and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the building as the Los Angeles Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sure, there are questions with a more direct impact on this actual season.
Will the Lakers miss the playoffs? Are the Bucks a legitimate threat to actually win a title?
But in taking a bigger picture approach, this game in particular - the first meeting between James and Antetokounmpo this season - carries with it the potential to serve as a true watershed, landscape-shifting moment.
For the last decade, James has been the NBA's unquestioned alpha dog. Despite not winning the MVP award since 2012-13, few would argue that any player has truly supplanted James as the league's best player over that stretch. Being named the most outstanding player over an 82-game regular season is not the same thing as being labeled the league's best player.
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James has proved that on more than one occasion. Locking down Derrick Rose in the 2011 postseason, taking out the 73-win Warriors in 2016, heck even last year's postseason run when James uncorked perhaps the best extended postseason run of his career while quite literally dragging the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.
There have been moments - some more threatening and sustainable than others - which have at least made it an interesting discussion:
- Stephen Curry's unprecedented unanimous MVP campaign in 2014-15
- Kevin Durant's most recent back-to-back Finals MVPs
- James Harden's January for the ages
And yet nobody has really managed to take that torch.
Given the circumstances and context surrounding this season, there's a chance that for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, James might finally have that torch-passing moment on Friday.
Mired in a season in which he's missed more games than ever before and is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005, James is starting to show hints of mortality at the exact moment that Antetokounmpo appears to be showing signs of immortality.
Just as James once unleashed a floor game in ways that challenged every pre-conceived notion about how or what was possible from a 6'8", 260-pound locomotive, Giannis is laying waste to any rational logic surrounding reasonable physical limitations.
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A top MVP candidate on a team from the Central Division with the NBA's best record, Antetokounmpo is following directly in the footsteps once walked by James.
He's 24, the same age as James when he won his first MVP award.
That 2008-09 Cavaliers team went 66-16 and finished with the best record in the NBA. Outside of James, the team's next-best player was Mo Williams, who made his first and only All-Star team that season.
The 2018-19 Bucks are on pace to win 63 games. Outside of Antetokounmpo, the team's next-best player is Khris Middleton who just made his first All-Star team. Middleton is a better player than Williams, but he's not exactly a bonafide, unquestioned second star.
Taking it a step further, the Bucks are dominating in ways that not even James ever has in the regular season. They are outscoring teams by 9.5 points per game, currently the 12th-best mark in NBA history. With no true star alongside him, Antetokounmpo has the Bucks beating teams at a rate only exceeded by Jordan's Bulls, Kareem and Oscar's Bucks, Duncan and Kawhi's Spurs, the Garnett/Pierce/Allen Celtics and this recent Warriors juggernaut from the last few years.
The most dominant LeBron team with respect to overall scoring margin?
The aforementioned 2008-09 bunch who outscored teams by 8.9 points per game.
Of course, it's not written in stone that this proverbial torch will actually be passed. The Lakers could very well still make the playoffs and depending on seeding and matchups, make an extended run. Would anyone truly be stunned to see James going toe-to-toe with the Warriors once again, this time in a Conference Final? It wouldn't be any more unlikely than Cleveland's run to the Finals last season or the rally from 3-1 down in the 2016 NBA Finals.
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LeBron James is larger than life, basketball royalty of the highest order. He may have moved out west closer to where the sun sets, but that doesn't mean he's riding off into the sunset just yet. The King is not going to simply vacate his throne and hand over his crown. It doesn't work that way.
And regardless of what transpires on the floor on Friday, the torch won't transfer during a regular-season game in March as league-altering shifts in the pecking order are reserved for May and June.
But it's certainly a topic worth keeping top of mind. This might be the 18th time that LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo have squared off, but it's the first in which there's a real opportunity for the balance of power to begin shifting to the next generation.
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