Heading into his 17th season, Los Angeles Lakers star forward LeBron James is coming off one of his most frustrating years while missing the playoffs for the first time in well over a decade. But could there finally be some tread wearing off James’ tires to the point where he isn’t the best player in the league?
Injury-plagued first season with Lakers
For the third time in his career, James made the decision to switch teams in free agency by joining the Lakers. This brought forth plenty of excitement and high expectations that he could lead the team not only back into the playoffs, but also compete for an NBA title.
Things had gotten off to a promising start with the Lakers holding the fourth-best record in the stacked Western Conference heading into the Christmas Day matchup facing the Golden State Warriors. However, things took a disappointing turn after he suffered a quad injury against the Warriors that forced him to miss 17 straight games.
Prior to that, James had proven to be one of the most durable players in the league, playing 94% of possible games in his career up to that point and never missed a playoff game, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports. This has been a key aspect of his career that has allowed him to be in the conversation as one of the greatest players of all-time.
Following James’ return, it was clear that he wasn’t fully healthy from the groin injury for the rest of the season, but he performed at an elite level averaging 27.4 points on 51.0 percent shooting from the floor along with 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists while in 55 games played. Despite the high production, there remain questions about whether he is still at the top of his game.
ESPN ranks LeBron James as the third-best player
Over the last several offseasons, ESPN has conducted its annual rankings for the upcoming season that has often created strong conversations around their compiled list.
This time around, the talk has centered on James falling out of the top spot for the first time since prior to the 2011-12 season. It has fueled dialogue about whether James is still the best player in the league after experiencing the most injury-riddled campaign of his career while falling short of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
That said, these rankings are likely more so about rewarding the play of both Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo coming off career-best campaigns. Antetokounmpo has continued to improve his all-around game capped by earning his first MVP award, while Leonard put together an impressive run through the playoffs that certainly placed him in the mix as the best player in the NBA.
James is still playing at an elite level, but the overriding concern could be his health as he’s heading into the back chapter of his illustrious career.
LeBron James’ chance to prove he’s still the best
ESPN’s rankings do suggest that there are questions about what type of player James will be in his 17th season, but it’s also a chance to prove that he has plenty left in the tank to perform at the top of his game.
For the first time in well over a decade, he has had a full offseason to focus on his body and overall health, which could be a huge refresher towards him coming back stronger than the last several years. He will also have a revamped roster alongside him that includes the addition of star forward Anthony Davis, who is arguably the best big man in the league.
James has an opportunity in front of him to lead the Lakers back to prominence by contending for an NBA title that would further add to his legacy. It could also see him earn his fifth regular-season MVP award.
If anything, this further adds more motivation to what could be another stellar season to add to his decorated career.