Watching the Brooklyn Nets edge the Los Angeles Clippers in an entertaining battle of the challengers, it struck me: How are all these superstars still chasing LeBron James? This is not a new thought, but every so often, you are reminded of James’ breadth of dominance in a prime that has enveloped his rivals’ careers.
Rewind to June 2014. A 25-year-old Kevin Durant is the MVP. James Harden, 24, finishes in the top five. Kyrie Irving is a 21-year-old two-time All-Star. Paul George, 23, gives James another Eastern Conference finals scare. Kawhi Leonard is the Finals MVP at age 22 for his work opposite James in the title series.
And LeBron James, nearing his 30th birthday, 11 years, five Finals appearances and two titles into his career, is concerned about the long-term viability of fellow 2003 draftees Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
If I had told you all five of those challengers would be split between two super-teams of their own in New York and Los Angeles seven years later, there is no way you would have said James and his team would respectively still be the MVP and championship favorites. It is inconceivable. LeBron James is impossible.
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were retired a combined five times by age 36. Kobe Bryant was attempting a return from back-to-back season-ending Achilles and left knee injuries. Somehow, in his age-36 season, James is still at the top of his game or damn close to it, still holding his successors at bay.
That has to be a mind-boggling conceit for Durant, Harden, Irving, George and Leonard. They were drafted between four and eight years after James. They have enjoyed Hall of Fame careers since. And they are all entering the latter halves of their careers still trying to unseat the King as The Best Player in the Game.
They are not without their successes. They have two MVPs, four Finals MVPs and five rings between them — three of them coming through James and one courtesy of him. But their generation, the one that was supposed to inherit the league from James long ago, remains in his shadow, even as their best join forces.
Durant came closest. Five years after James’ Miami Heat laid waste to his precocious Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Finals, Durant joined a 73-win Golden State Warriors team coming off its own loss to James. Anything less than the greatest collection of talent in NBA history may not have been enough, and those Warriors were too loaded to fail. Durant won consecutive Finals MVPs in dominant fashion against James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. Only then was a conversation warranted about who belonged on the throne.
Then, Durant tore his Achilles, and James kept on trucking.
Leonard found himself in a similar situation after leading the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 title. Five years after he made his name with the San Antonio Spurs as the 2014 Finals MVP against James’ Miami Heat, he did it again opposite Stephen Curry and the injury-riddled Warriors. With a hobbled James’ Los Angeles Lakers outside the playoff picture, there was some discussion about Leonard’s ascension as The Guy.
Then, James recruited Anthony Davis, Leonard lobbied for George, and the 2019-20 playoffs settled the discussion. The latter tandem folded, and the former rolled, spanking Harden’s Houston Rockets along the way. James got his fourth ring, his fourth Finals MVP, and reminded everyone his reign is far from over.
Irving’s journey drives home James’ longevity more than anyone else’s. He was 15 years old when James made his first Finals appearance with the Cavs. He was the No. 1 pick after James returned for the first of four straight Finals with the Heat. He was three seasons into his NBA career when that run was over and James joined him in a Cleveland reunion. He grew into a champion in two seasons as James’ understudy and requested a trade a year later, stepping out of the shadow and into the spotlight as the best player on his own team. Four seasons later, he is sharing a stage with Durant and Harden, and James is still the lead.
As was evident on Tuesday night, the Nets and Clippers each have a stunning collection of talent, even beyond their superstars. That the Lakers — with a 36-year-old James as their best player and Davis in tow — are favored against both is a stunning reflection of James’ career. If Durant, Harden, Irving, George and Leonard do not take advantage of the limited window he has left them, James may bypass them and hand his reins as The Best Player Alive to yet another generation, whether it be Davis or a host of rising stars.
The time for these Nets and Clippers superstars is now, only James is still holding court.
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