Tuesday’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks had everything you want. It had big leads evaporating and a thrilling fourth quarter. It had two superstars — LeBron James and Luka Doncic — going head-to-head and showcasing their brilliance on a national stage. And it had one of those stars earn a hard-fought victory and make a statement in the process.
Doncic and the Mavericks came out ahead, narrowly defeating the Lakers 109-104 at Crypto.com Arena in LA. While the result was significant, particularly for a downtrodden Lakers club, the game signaled the passing of a torch. After beating James, Luka used his play to announce that he and the rest of the NBA’s young stars have officially surpassed the King.
Luka Doncic went directly at LeBron James multiple times in the fourth quarter
By halftime, it seemed all but certain Dallas was on its way to its fourth victory in five games. But LeBron had other plans, scoring nine of his 26 points in the third quarter to transform a 15-point deficit into a two-point lead heading into the final frame.
But that’s where Doncic, the fourth-year All-Star, stole the game from the Purple and Gold. And he did so by directly attacking James.
Up 101-100 with just under five minutes remaining, LeBron switched onto Doncic at the top of the key. After weighing his options, the Slovenian went left and flew past James to hit a six-foot fadeaway on the side of the hoop. The next possession, with James on him again, Luka went right and floated the ball up to Dwight Powell, who connected on the easy two.
That wasn’t all. With a hair over three minutes remaining, another screen forced LeBron to guard Luka. With the 19-year vet playing suffocating defense, Doncic bullied his way around his defender and hit a floater over the outstretched arms of Talen Horton-Tucker. Luka’s connection gave Dallas a 107-102 lead, effectively ending LA’s comeback hopes.
The Mavericks moved up to 37-25 with the victory, good for the five-seed in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Lakers fell to a season-worst 27-34 as they sit just two games up on the Portland Trail Blazers for a playoff spot.
Doncic’s fourth-quarter display showed LeBron that the new generation is taking over
It’s pretty remarkable to see what the 37-year-old James is doing. The four-time MVP is averaging 28.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.3 assists at an age many previous stars were deep into retirement.
But when it comes to being the best player in basketball, the King must hand over his crown.
There was a time when no player could muscle their way past James, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound specimen. Tuesday, Doncic did it three possessions in a row. The same Doncic who had struggled with his weight and conditioning until very recently.
Of course, Luka is a superstar. But he is one of many elite players who can now exercise their will against James or anyone else across the league. Take Giannis Antetokounmpo, who in his last meeting against LA scored 44 points while missing a total of three shots. Or Trae Young, who dropped 36 against the Lakers back in January. Or even Ja Morant, who out-did LeBron’s 37 points with 41 of his own in a Laker loss just before the new year.
Those four players, along with MVP frontrunners Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, are all 20-somethings who have either surpassed James’ production or will pass him shortly. They’re also on teams with better records, as LeBron is now incapable of overcoming a team’s deficiencies and leading it to a title.
All of the NBA’s youngest stars revere LeBron. But few if any fear him, as Doncic convincingly proved to fans across the country.
Will Luka Doncic become the next LeBron James?
The obvious follow-up to everything above is, “If not LeBron, then who?” Who is the next superstar to become the unquestioned face of the NBA?
Doncic is a great place to start. At only 23, the Mavericks star has a Rookie of the Year award, three All-Star appearances, and two All-NBA nods. It also helps that he’s been compared to James ever since arriving in Dallas as the third overall pick in 2018.
Could it be Jokic? Shaquille O’Neal was the last center to earn real consideration as the league’s top player, but the Joker’s MVP season in 2020-21 and his current 2021-22 numbers have been impossible to top. If he is able to lead the Denver Nuggets to serious title contention, there’s a legitimate conversation to be had. Additionally, we’ll also see what the future holds for the 22-year-old Morant.
However, if there’s one player who’s already overthrown James and is a few steps ahead of Doncic, it’s Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak has won two MVP awards, a Finals MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and is in the mix to win his first scoring title. And did we mention he’s only 27?
Fresh off of a Milwaukee Bucks title, Giannis is the new face of the NBA followed closely by Doncic. Though however you slice it, LeBron’s reign at the top has slowly come to an end.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.