LeBron James Reminds Luka Doncic, NBA He Still Wears the Crown

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 10: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on January 10, 2020 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The reminders keep coming, in all sorts of forms, without interruption.

Some are subtle, their significance barely registering in real time, if not unnoticed, because this has all become so routine. Others are harder, often impossible, to ignore. They too are routine, but louder, so much louder. These are the moments that force reflection, the occasions in which we have to wonder whether this is really happening. And it is.

LeBron James, at age 35, remains king of the NBA. 

This might sound like a cliche. It may come off even worse, perhaps closer to overthought, wishy-washy gobbledygook, the kind exclusively reserved for megastars ebbing further into their twilights. And hey, that might be true…once James is actually in his twilight.

A game in early January is by no means a referendum, particularly for someone with such an extensive, airtight resume. During the Los Angeles Lakers’ 129-114 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at American Airlines Center, though, James played like it was. 

His final line: 35 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists on 14-of-25 shooting, including a 3-of-6 clip from beyond the arc. On a night when the Lakers didn’t have Anthony Davis, LeBron left with not only a victory against a team supposedly fast-tracked toward contention but also (another) piece of history:

If James didn’t view this contest as a barometer of something, anything, then he fooled us. And it would also be a first.

He has treated this entire season as a return, a renaissance, rather than more of the same. People had gradually started nominating others for the NBA’s “Best Player” office before, but there was a mass exodus of those who always defaulted to James at No. 1 after he missed a career-high 27 games and the Lakers failed to make the playoffs last season.

Full disclosure: Yours truly falls under that umbrella, having awarded the honor to Giannis Antetokounmpo this past fall. James checked in at No. 4. I wasn’t alone. ESPN crowned Antetokounmpo, with James coming in third. It was the same story at SI.com.

The owner of the NBA’s pole position is still up for debate. That it’s even a matter of discussion, with James in Year 17, is almost inconceivable. Almost.

James has interpreted this discourse not as a rite of time or even a slight but an assault on his standing. You know, #WashedKing and what not:

Few people entered this season declaring James was finished. Older? Yes. About to, willingly, cede status to AD? Sure. Something less than immortal? Maybe. 

Finished? Washed? On the steep the decline? That wasn’t a thing, at least not among the consensus. James has played up the criticism and skepticism, responding to a question so few, if any, asked. 

Not that we should be complaining. We shouldn’t be. We’re not. Whatever motivates James to keep going, even in a midseason game with the Lakers securely atop the Western Conference, is fine.

If nothing else, his repeated callbacks to the perception he’s battling draw more attention to what he’s done this season: absolutely dominate. 

James is averaging 25.4 points and a league-leading, career-high 10.7 assists. Gaudy numbers are easier to tally given the NBA’s uptick in pace and three-point volume, but his production is absurd in a vacuum. No one has matched his per-possession benchmarks in his age-35 season or later. Other than James, Sam Cassell is the only player to match his output after his 31st birthday.

In between the Instagram captions and glitzy game lines is even more meaning. James’ efficiency is down—he’s posting his lowest truest shooting percentage since 2007-08—but he’s more engaged on defense and playing at the second-fastest pace of his career.

Even on a team with another top-seven superstar, James continues to stand out. The Lakers are comfortably losing the minutes they spend without him on the floor, and most of those reps have come with Davis in the game. By comparison, they’re torching opponents when James goes it alone.

Lineup composition matters in this conversation, as does the general limitations of the Lakers roster. L.A. is not built to navigate James’ absence every night. It needs another decisive playmaker to pilot those minutes.

Still, that’s the entire point. 

James, at age 35, in Year 17, is the most valuable player on the the NBA’s second-best team. And while Antetokounmpo may be leading the MVP field, along with the best-player-alive ladder, his reign over the rest of the league has not come in a landslide or without resistance.

It may not, officially, have even started at all.

                                 

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.