After a long career without very many injury issues, LeBron James is in arguably the toughest stretch of his career. He’s missed several weeks recovering from a high ankle sprain. He came back briefly for a two-game stretch but has now missed the Los Angeles Lakers‘ last few games.
Prior to getting hurt, LeBron was the favorite to win the MVP and was playing some of the best basketball of his career. There was no doubt that he was still the best player in the world. Now that he’s been out, he’s fallen out of the MVP race and some are questioning if he’s even still the best player in the world.
ESPN’s Max Kellerman went on First Take and expressed concern that the Lakers star is as good as he once was.
“Make no mistake about it,” Kellerman said. “LeBron James every year is in the Finals and many years has won the championship because when the dust settles when the smoke clears, it’s clear he’s still the best player in the world.
“Are we still sure about that? Because he’s going to have to be the best player in the world to get out of the Western Conference.”
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Stephen A. Smith Defends LeBron
It’s a bit premature to start questioning LeBron, even at age 36. Players get injured all the time and just because it hasn’t happened to the Lakers star much, that he does deserve the benefit of the doubt. Stephen A. Smith was also on First Take with Kellerman and he defended LeBron.
“You say, LeBron has slipped, but he’s still better than them,” Smith said told Kellerman. “Well damn. Where’s the evidence that he’s slipped if he’s still better than the superlatives you threw on the individual?”
Bear in mind James’ numbers from this season: 25.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.8 assists, all while shooting a very efficient 51.3% from the field. James ranks 19th in the NBA in field-goals attempted per game (18.1) and among the 18 players ahead of him, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, who does not shoot many 3-pointers (3.7 per game), has a better shooting percentage (56.4%) than James.
When healthy, almost no one can impact a game like James.
This playoff run for the Lakers will be very telling. At a certain point, age is going to catch up with LeBron. Based on how he was playing before the injury, it’s fair to assume that age hasn’t fully caught up with him yet. However, if he has his first bad playoff run, it could finally signal the decline of arguably the greatest player to ever play basketball.
Is LeBron Still the Best?
But the other top players around the league have yet to show they belong ahead of James. Antetokounmpo has had great regular seasons but has flopped in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers fizzled under pressure last year. Kevin Durant has not been in the playoffs since his Achilles tendon injury. James Harden has not won a championship and big men like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have never even been to the Finals, and Luka Doncic has not been out of he first round.
Until somebody comes and takes the mantle from LeBron, he has to be considered the best player in the world. Just because he’s injured, that doesn’t change. He likely would be the NBA’s MVP this season had he stayed healthy.
Though he’s not athletic as he once was, he’s still more athletic than 99% of players in the league. He’s also got an excellent basketball IQ. There’s no player in the world that does everything as well as LeBron does. He’s a strong shooter, an elite passer and has been playing some of the best defense of his career.
Other players have arguments that they should be considered the best in the NBA but none of them have done enough this year to prove that they’re superiors to LeBron.