We’ve spent the better part of the past 14 years trying to define his game, comparing him to titans from the past and trying to reconcile his growing list of accomplishments.
LeBron James wants no part of it, of course, choosing instead to focus on there here and now with a Cleveland Cavaliers team locked in on the repeat challenge that all champions relish.
He’s busy surveying the ever-changing NBA landscape and trying to come up with ways to refine his game in an era where a new set of challengers to his throne -- Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, just to name a few -- as the game’s best player.
“They are all still chasing him, the entire league is,” a Western Conference executive said. “That’s just a fact. Say what you want about anyone else, but nobody currently in this has the impact on a franchise that he does. I’ll let you and other people decide where he fits in the larger picture of the league. But right now, with what he’s done, six straight trips to The Finals, and is still doing … he’s the real MVP.”
James sits third on this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder behind Westbrook and Harden, who both are having spectacular seasons. But LeBron’s Cavaliers sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and are fresh off of a Christmas Day comeback win over Durant and the Warriors in a Finals rematch and perhaps Finals preview.
Statistically, he’s had better seasons. And at 32, he’s not the same physical specimen he once was. But he’s still a player whose jaw-dropping combination of size, speed, skill and off-the-charts basketball IQ that comes along once a generation.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue described him best as a combination of some of the the stars he’s most often compared to and against, when asked to assess his game in relation to Michael Jordan’s at the same age.
“He’s got the explosiveness and power of a Dominque Wilkins, the scoring ability of Jordan and the way he pushes the pace like Magic Johnson, having the height, so he’s a mixture between three guys,” Lue said. “And as far as a comparison between him and Jordan, the comparisons I have is when you’re on top, the best player in the league for so long and having carry that each and every year and never get knocked down off that pedestal, that’s a big accomplishment because guys are coming for you and you’re a target … and to always stay on top no matter what, always being the best player in the league, that’s how I compare him and Jordan.”
Lue would know, having played with Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal during his playing days and now coaching a player who operates on that same all-time elite level.
And today, on LeBron’s 32nd birthday, the four-time KIA MVP and three-time champion, the greatest player of his generation and already one of the game’s all-time greats, has shown no signs of letting up.
Now to this week’s rankings ...
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
That ejection in the third quarter Thursday night in Memphis couldn’t keep Westbrook from retaking the top spot this week. The Thunder’s four-game win streak prior to loss to the Grizzlies was all about Westbrook and the way he impacts the game in all facets (33.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 8.8 rebounds in his last five games).
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden loves his team’s chemistry this season, a complete turnaround from last season. And it’s all about Harden’s improved leadership and trust in newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (28.0 points, 12.2 assists, 6.4 rebounds in his last five games).
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
He wants nothing to do with Michael Jordan comparisons at the same age (32), so we’ll honor his wishes. But it’s okay to appreciate the fact that no player since MJ has defined an era the way LeBron has. And he's aging quite well (25.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.5 steals in his last five games).
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
His game-ending stumble aside, Durant thrived in his first taste of the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry on Christmas. And he showed off his entire game in a bounce-back win over Toronto. The Warriors will have just one All-Star starter this season and it’s Durant (27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 blocks in his last five games).
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The best defensive player in basketball is averaging career highs in points (24.4) and assists (3.1) this season, his first without Tim Duncan to anchor things on and off the floor. Somehow it still seems like he’s being overlooked and underrated (26.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.5 steals in his last five games).
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
After yet another rough outing against the Cavaliers (on Christmas), Curry rebounded in splendid fashion with 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists and just two turnovers in a win over Toronto. He’s a victim of his own success the past two seasons (21.6 points, 5.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 2.6 steals in his last five games).
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are making a serious push for that spot behind Cleveland in the Central Division, thanks to the play of Jabari Parker and Antetokounmpo, whose Go-Go Gadget length and superior athleticism continues to amaze (27.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks in his last five games).
8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Back-to-back losses to the Warriors and Suns sting for a team trying to prove itself to be a cut above the crowd. DeRozan continues to prove that his throwback game -- who says you’ve got to shoot 3’s to be an elite perimeter scorer? -- travels (22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals in his last five games).
9. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
The nickname “Jimmy Buckets” seems appropriate after his 40-points and buzzer-beating game-winner over Brooklyn Wednesday. But it’s the 11 rebounds, four steals and four assists he had in that game that highlight the versatility that makes Butler one of the elite two-way players in the game today (24.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals in his last five games).
10. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
His run of 17 straight games with 20 or more points currently leads the league. And make no mistake about it, Thomas has become one of the truly unstoppable offensive players in the game and should be a lock for a second straight All-Star nod (28.2 points, 7.8 assists, 2.0 rebounds in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
An inside look at … Jabari Parker (from an Eastern Conference advance scout):
“I have to admit, I was not a big fan early on. I thought he came into the league a bit heavy and unsure of himself as a rookie. He looked soft. Then he got hurt and it was easy to kind of forget about him. But he’s come back this season with a totally different look to him. He’s clearly in tip-top shape and he’s more explosive now than I’ve ever seen him, and that’s going back to high school and Duke, when he was considered the nation’s top prospect. He’s beating people with his size, bounce and length and doing it going to the basket and with a much-improved stroke from distance. They [the Bucks] have what we’re all looking for, what every team wants, in Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Jabari, two high draft picks … homegrown guys, that are on track to be All-Stars and franchise pillars for years to come.”
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