There are a handful of checkpoints along the marathon 82-game regular season that serve to spice the journey and forecast the future, and in the case of LeBron James, that crystal ball moment has arrived.
On Friday, he’ll see Giannis Antetokounmpo (10:30 ET, ESPN), who stands between him and a fifth MVP award, and Sunday brings Kawhi Leonard (3:30 ET, ABC), more qualified than anyone to deny LeBron a fourth championship. These two regular-season games against the Bucks and Clippers won’t determine much, if anything, right away. They will, however, tell us and LeBron what lies ahead and identify his two biggest takeover threats to the throne here in his final stage as a superstar.
Whether his decision to join the Lakers two summers ago brings a Hollywood ending or an ordinary sunset could be determined by a freak from another country who seems poised to rule the league, and a quiet force who coldly tunes out everything except winning titles. Almost by design if not by accident, Giannis and Kawhi are conspiring to toss a vicious double-team in LeBron’s direction and while LeBron has seen every manner of defense and conquered most of them, you wonder if even he can handle this.
What exactly is at stake here? Well, let’s suppose LeBron, at 35, collects more MVP votes than Giannis and then posterizes Kawhi on the way to a title. If so, then that GOAT needle will most certainly start to quiver and sway away from Michael Jordan in the minds of some, and really, there’s nothing else left for LeBron to accomplish other than winning that argument.
At a time when most other stars at this point in their careers are playing with house money — and that’s even if they’re still active — LeBron is still bringing a sense of purpose and a thirsty quest to take care of business he believes is unfinished. He may be just shy of having a performance for the ages but it’s definitely one for the aged. His outside shooting (from the mid-court logo) and also his ability to find teammates with well-timed passes has never been sharper, and his impact on the Western Conference-leading Lakers is undeniable. And of course, what makes this all the more impressive is LeBron is feeling and looking this frisky in his 17th season and after 1,400-plus games (including playoffs) of tread wear by averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and leading the league with just under 11 assists per night.
Among those giving LeBron his due respect is Giannis, who called him “an alien” and added: “He’s 35 and playing at a high level. It’s amazing.”
The brilliance of LeBron lies with a mixture of talent and wisdom and a body that has rebounded nicely from last year’s hiccup that saw him fall victim to a groin strain. He does not need any “load management” time off or suffer from performance slumps. As a result, the Lakers have led the West almost since opening night and while having Anthony Davis does help, this is mainly a LeBron production, him elevating teammates and raising hopes for a Lakers renaissance.
The man is still evolving and refusing to coast on what brought him to this point.
“For me, personally, I just want to continue to have a growth mindset, however the game is changing, being able to change my game and also be true to who I am at the same time, just not trying to have any weaknesses,” he said.
And yet, grabbing the 2019-20 brass ring is hardly guaranteed. He might actually find it heavily greased.
Giannis is ripping through a season that is on pace to top his MVP performance of last year. In roughly 31 minutes a night, he’s averaging just under 30 points and 14 rebounds while rating high in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Unlike LeBron, he’s working without an A-list partner, and most important, he has the Bucks, strutting with a league-best 53-9 record, sneering down on 29 other teams at the moment.
He’s currently the best one-man show in basketball right now and because his shooting skills remain a work in progress at least from a consistency standpoint, he still has room to grow. His leadership and competitive edge are part of the irresistible package, and Giannis clearly relishes the chance to be great — he publicly stated a desire to win back-to-back MVPs even before the season began.
He knows he must measure himself against the best and in that sense, Giannis has mostly delivered. In the season’s lone meeting with the Lakers back in December, he was good for 34 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists against a Lakers team that threw Davis, LeBron and Dwight Howard in his path. That’s three players with first-team All-Defensive team honors in their past. He also dropped a career-best five 3-pointers when the Lakers disrespected him and gave him space.
But that was just a sample of Giannis’ Greatest Hits against the league elite. His points and rebounds rampage left others in shambles, too. Against the Sixers, 36 and 20; Nuggets, 31 and 20; Celtics, 32 and 17; Clippers, 38 and 16; Raptors, 36 and 15. And the Bucks are issuing almost nightly blowouts and lead the NBA by far in point differential. These are the credentials Giannis will offer up to MVP voters who are likely to see this as a two-man race.
Kawhi brings another type of challenge to LeBron. He’s strictly programmed to win a title, nothing more. If, for example, Kawhi was hell-bent on being in the MVP conversation, he wouldn’t have skipped back-to-back games early in the season. And maybe he wouldn’t have insisted on the Clippers trading for Paul George as a condition on Kawhi signing as a free agent last summer. And he certainly would be more forthcoming in media circles if only to generate buzz.
For me, I just want to continue to have a growth mindset … not have any weaknesses
But Kawhi is, as they say, different. He. Does. Not. Care. About. That. His laser is aimed at May and June. The managing of his body and mind was carefully preserved all season with those dates in mind. His concentration is distraction-proof, which makes him the most serious danger to LeBron’s chances of winning another title.
How many stars, if given a chance, would’ve passed on a chance to become teammates with LeBron and Davis, as Kawhi did last summer? Again, Kawhi is different. Rather than join LeBron, he chose to beat LeBron. Rather than become just another star in the Lakers’ Walk of Fame, he chose the more arduous and less glamorous task of tug-boating the Clippers. This speaks about the man’s competitive streak and basketball soul. He took the harder way.
And so far, so good. Kawhi is 2-0 vs. LeBron this season, winning one of those games without George.
His performance this season seems very understated, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Kawhi is good with the fuss being generated by Giannis, LeBron, Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, his former team in Toronto and lately Jayson Tatum. Meanwhile, Kawhi is averaging 27 points, tweaking the analytics geeks by perfecting the mid-range game, leading the Clippers in rebounds and second in assists and watching his body become stronger and fitter as the calendar flips.
There’s an argument that the Clippers would be leading the West if not for all the missed games by Kawhi and George, and how the Clips, who also recently added rotational players Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, are pacing for springtime and making sure they’re cohesive and healthy by then. That’s a page ripped straight from the Book of Kawhi.
He knows what we know but won’t admit: Nobody cares who won from October through April. The only month worth winning is June. Don’t hate the player (Kawhi) for that, hate the game.
LeBron is programmed, even at this age, to win in June as well. The evidence strongly says he’s at least giving himself a chance to collect the MVP and championship trophies; it wouldn’t be a shock if he goes two-for-two, or at least adds one of them.
Giannis and Kawhi will have a strong say about those trophies which will be announced and decided in June. Meanwhile, in the next 48 hours, thanks to genius schedule-making, LeBron James will get an advanced look at those two All-Star mountains blocking him. Let’s call this a sneak peak what lies ahead.
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