LeBron James has been the No. 1 player in ESPN’s NBArank since the beginning. He had just disappointed and somewhat disappeared in the 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, yet he was still recognized as the game’s greatest all-around performer later that year. For eight seasons we asked ESPN’s basketball experts to predict the best player in the game, and for eight seasons LeBron has been undeniable.
Now, there’s someone else at No. 1. Our panel has James as the No. 3 player for 2019-20.
Every LeBron James season is its own kind of unprecedented experience. This one might carry the most unknowns. In the modern game, there’s really no case of lead shot-creators like James making All-NBA at age 35. He looked mortal in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s adjusting to a remodeled roster and an elite big man in Anthony Davis.
So, is the ranking right? And if LeBron isn’t the best player in the NBA anymore, then what is he?
Four of our NBA experts look into the big questions and expectations surrounding his upcoming season.
Doubts, drama and dominance
Jackie MacMullan: What should we expect from LeBron James this season? Another season filled with intrigue and drama. Let’s be honest: He can’t help it!
Perhaps there will be veiled passive-aggressive tweets. Maybe his physical response to a game gone awry will include a tell. Either way, it won’t take much guesswork to figure out how LeBron feels about the Lakers’ season, because he’ll let us know.
Has any other athlete ever used social media so effectively? James transformed Taco Tuesday into a national phenomenon, and then he had the good sense to attempt to trademark it. He invites us into his world on his terms, whether it’s sharing a glimpse of his punishing workouts in the gym or endearing clips of his sons playing basketball in the yard before the sun comes up. These windows into his soul have enhanced his standing as one of the most popular players in NBA history.
There’s nothing more confounding for elite athletes to confront than their own mortality. LeBron already experienced this on a smaller scale because of a strained left groin that shut down his 2018-19 season.
Perhaps he will carve out his own version of load management this time around. James has already conceded he conserves his energy on the defensive end during meaningless regular-season contests. And yes, there has been a decline in his lateral quickness. But are you going to be the one who declares he’s trending downward?
In his maiden voyage with the Lakers last season, which ended in disappointment and frustration from all sides, he still submitted 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists a game. The beauty of LeBron is his ability to take slights, real or imagined, and channel them into a frothy lather that will display his undeniable talents yet again. There’s no denying he zeroed in on the doubters during this long offseason with laser focus, and that he will emerge recentered and highly motivated to reclaim his throne.
Alright alright. Enough is enough. The throne has been played with to much and I ain’t for horseplay. Ether coming soon! 😁🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥👑 #JamesGang✊🏾
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 1, 2019
So LeBron will bully on, mowing over coaches and teammates and pundits and general managers and owners and anyone else in his way who dares to defy his method of grasping for that elusive fourth ring. Most of the time amid that pursuit, he will be a force of nature, a runaway locomotive, the epitome of a champion. But every once in a while, his biggest strength — his undisputed reign as the king of player empowerment — will reveal itself as his most glaring weakness.
Glass of cabernet, anyone?
What will well-rested LeBron look like?
Kevin Arnovitz: Andre Agassi’s autobiography, “Open,” eloquently shares the physical and mental anguish of the aging athlete. On the first page of the introductory chapter, Agassi introduces himself as a heaping bundle of bones, muscles and joints who now wakes up every morning as a “stranger to myself.”
“I’m a young man, relatively speaking,” Agassi writes. “Thirty-six. But I wake as if ninety-six. After three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body, especially in the morning. Consequently my mind doesn’t feel like my mind.”
Though LeBron Ja