Holding a 71–54 lead, LeBron James dribbled upcourt. As he attempted to drive on his defender, he lost his footing and slipped, wincing in pain. With 7:51 remaining in the third quarter, a timeout was called, and James would not return to the game. This injury marked the first major injury of James’ career, and for many fans and analysts, it marked the relinquishing of James’ title of being the NBA’s top player, a title which he had held for over a decade.
After Christmas, James’ Lakers struggled to win games and dropped in the standings. James missed the playoffs for only the third time in his career. At the beginning of the playoffs, Kevin Durant was seen as the league’s best player, averaging a playoff career high of 32.3 points per game on 51–44–90 shooting splits. After Durant went down twice with major injuries, the second of which was a ruptured achilles, Kawhi Leonard became the new popular choice as the top player in the league. His performance in the playoffs drew comparisons to Michael Jordan.
After all that has transpired over the past year, it seems impossible for James to reclaim his position as the top player in the league. But history has shown it is possible, and if trends in James’ career continue, I believe James will be seen as the league’s top player once again by the end of next season.
When James penned his infamous “I’m Coming Home” letter, he was returning to Cleveland as a champion and the best player in the league. As he started his second tenure with the Cavs, James noticeably slimmed down from his days in Miami. This turned out to be an issue, as James was lacking the same strength and explosiveness that made him unguardable in Miami. This became such an issue that James infamously took a two week hiatus in Miami to rest and recuperate his body.
In the 2015 season, a new threat to James’ throne suddenly appeared in the form of Stephen Curry, who was leading the now unstoppable Warriors. James did return more explosive and dynamic after his rest and led the Cavs from a 19–20 record to the second seed in the East, a remarkable turnaround. In the playoffs, James seemingly had to do everything for the Cavs, especially once his two co-stars in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving went down with injury. James averaged 30.1 points per game for the playoffs, including averaging a remarkable 35.8 points and 13.3 rebounds in the NBA Finals. For now, James was still considered the best player in the league. It was clear after this season however, that James was starting to decline, and Stephen Curry and his Warriors were on the rise.
Among NBA fans, the opinion that the Cavaliers would beat the Warriors if fully healthy was almost unanimous, especially since James single-handedly pushed the Warriors to 6 games. As the 2015–2016 season wore on, this notion seemed less true. While Curry and the Warriors were tearing up the league, James was struggling. His athleticism was still not the same from Miami, and his jump-shot was faltering (James started the season 2/18 from three).
James’ issues were primarily from his injured back. He would lay down on the court rather than sit on the bench, trying to rest his ailing back. It affected not only his athleticism, but his jump-shot, which was declining rapidly. James’ performance did improve over the course of the season, including his jump-shot, and he finished with averages of 25.3 points per game and an unsavory 30.9% mark from three. This season was arguably the worst of his career, excluding his rookie season.
In contrast, Curry and the Warriors were still rising, finishing with an NBA all-time record of 73 wins with only 9 losses. Curry unanimously won the NBA’s MVP award with an average of 30.1 points per game on an unprecedented shooting split of over 50–45–90 (50% field goal percentage, 45% three point field goal percentage, and 90% free throw percentage). Curry was even being compared to Michael Jordan at this time, and it seemed that if Curry beat James in the Finals, Curry would officially be considered the top player in the league.
In the first three rounds of the playoffs, James averaged about 24.5 points per game, on improved efficiency from the regular season. His team won all but two games in the first three rounds, so his individual performance was not scrutinized. Curry averaged 26.7 points during this same span, despite struggling with injuries. His 40 point performance vs. Portland off the bench, including scoring 17 points in overtime once again drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. Curry and James’ squads would both meet up in a highly anticipated Finals rematch.
In the first four games of the Finals, James and Curry both struggled individually, with James only averaging 24.75 points and Curry averaging a meager 21.5 points per game. The series shifted in Game 4, where Curry finally broke out of his slump to score 38 points, and James was unable to match him with 25 points. The series looked over, as the Warriors took a 3–1 lead. The Cavaliers improbably came back however, led by James, who responded to all of his critics by averaging in incredible 36.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 9.7 assists in the last three games to improbably give Cleveland its first major professional sport championship in 52 years.
Over the next two seasons, James was resurgent, playing much more explosively than he had been over his first two years in Cleveland. James worked on fixing his jump-shot that was borderline broken at times in 2016, and he also fixed the issue with his back. According to a story on ESPN, James even hired Donnie Raimon, a former Navy SEAL, to help him fix his back issue. The result of this was James having two incredible seasons and repeatedly claiming that he felt as healthy and explosive as ever. This included averaging a stat-line of 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 9.1 assists in the 2017–2018 season and having one of the greatest playoff runs ever in 2018, averaging a ridiculous 34, 9, and 9 at age 33.
James had a relatively down year last season, with his averages and shooting percentages all declining. His defensive effort, as well as his free throw shooting were also major issues this past season. The biggest issue, however, was the groin injury that James suffered, because afterwards, James did not play as effectively as he had been prior to the injury. Kawhi Leonard, who just lead the Raptors to a title is now considered the top player in the league. He, like Curry, drew comparisons to Michael Jordan last season, both for the similarities in their playstyles and their sheer dominance at times.
James’ 2016 and 2019 seasons are both strikingly similar, as in both James seemingly was declining and struggling with injury, and a new star was quickly rising to become the new face of the league. By missing the playoffs, James has had more time than ever to work on his game and his body, which, as we have seen in the past, has produced some eye opening results. If history repeats itself, then James will prove his doubters wrong by once again becoming the top player in the league, even at age 35.