In his 17th season, LeBron James faces a major new challenge along with his Los Angeles Lakers teammates: heading into the Orlando bubble for the NBA restart after a hiatus of almost five months and taking the legendary franchise to its 17th championship.
How will James look in Florida? Can he still dominate? Is this his best shot at a fourth NBA title? Does he remain the best player in the NBA?
We polled five our NBA experts for their thoughts on the big LeBron questions.
1. LeBron will …
A. Show his age in Orlando
C. A little of each
Jorge Sedano: Dominate. James is still the best player in the league and can impact the game in more ways than those chasing him for that status. He has defended at a higher level than in previous years and leads the league in assists. Plus, you give that guy four months to rest and prepare his body? Revenge season, indeed.
Jackie MacMullan: Dominate. He knows better than anyone how to maintain his body, mental tenacity and singular focus. I think he is among those who have benefited most from the layoff. It plays to all his strengths.
Kevin Pelton: This is probably a better question for sports scientists, given the unique physical challenge of ramping up a second time with the benefit of a second extended break for LeBron in the past 15 months. Ultimately, I think that’s much more likely to lead to James dominating than showing his age.
Andre Snellings: Dominate. If age is slowing him at all, it’s in durability and stamina. Since he has had a long break to regain his health ahead of the postseason, I expect LeBron to perform like he’s still 20-something, which is terrifying for the rest of the league.
Ramona Shelburne: Dominate. Aside from making TikTok videos, word is LeBron has stayed in remarkable shape during the layoff. If anything, the time off should have given him time to heal a nagging groin injury that followed him all season.
2. Fact or fiction: This is LeBron’s best remaining shot at a fourth NBA title.
MacMullan: Fact. When the rules change, who changes most effectively along with them? This is a unique opportunity to exploit the weakness of others. LeBron is made for that.
Snellings: Fiction, because LeBron has more in the tank and the Lakers can more effectively build around him moving forward. The Lakers cashed in most of their chips in the offseason to bring Anthony Davis to town, and they didn’t have a lot of flexibility remaining. They should have the chance to sculpt after this season, adding shooters and maximizing role players for future runs.
Sedano: Fact. LeBron could still be the best player in the league next season, but this is more about external forces. The LA Clippers will have another year of chemistry under their belt. The Golden State Warriors will be back. The Eastern Conference will be better: Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s game will continue to evolve, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will likely be healthy and Jayson Tatum is becoming a star. Not to mention, Father Time is undefeated.
Shelburne: Fiction. Provided Anthony Davis re-signs with the Lakers long term this summer, I think LeBron has another two to three years to contend for titles after this one — or basically as long as he can stay in peak condition. With Davis and James as centerpieces, the Lakers can retool their supporting cast rather easily each summer.
Pelton: Fact. The Lakers could benefit from their midlevel exception going further in free agency, with little cap space likely to be available this offseason. Still, I think LeBron’s age and the team’s relatively good health point to this being their best chance at a title.
LeBron James talks about the NBA MVP race and why he feels he has shown what he’s capable of from an individual and team perspective.
3. What would winning a championship this season mean for LeBron’s legacy?
Shelburne: The first line of LeBron’s biography is that he won a championship in Cleveland. His work on social justice and political issues might become even more important given the historic context. Before this season, I would have said winning a championship in L.A. would be just an add-on to LeBron’s main career accomplishments. But given everything that has happened this year, the Lakers winning behind LeBron would be a tremendous accomplishment.
Sedano: It wouldn’t be as meaningful as his first title with the Miami Heat or winning one in Cleveland, but it would make him the first leading man to win a championship with three franchises. Let’s not forget, he is competing directly with crosstown rival Kawhi Leonard for that same feat. It also would further solidify LeBron’s player empowerment movement, which is a big part of his legacy. Winning a championship for the Lakers would be the icing on the cake.
Snellings: LeBron would have led a legendary franchise back to the apex, returning to the postseason for the first time since 2013. It would be his fourth championship across three franchises, a unique accomplishment in NBA history. And he would join Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with both four MVPs and four rings. LeBron already is right at the top, but this would definitely enhance his GOAT credentials.
MacMullan: Enough with the legacy questions! LeBron’s legacy is intact, set in cement. He is the best of his generation, but more importantly, he is the father of player empowerment. Nothing can tarnish that.
Pelton: Legacy is more about the stories we share than pure performance, and becoming the first player to win Finals MVP with three different teams would be a great story. Additionally, every championship closer to Michael Jordan’s total of six reduces the amount by which LeBron has to exceed Jordan’s individual stats to have a chance to win the GOAT discussion.
4. How should we think about LeBron’s place in the “best NBA player” conversation?
Pelton: I put him No. 1 in our restart rankings. Inevitably, this question focuses more on the playoffs, and while Antetokounmpo has been a better regular-season player over the past two years, LeBron has a track record of turning up his level of play in the postseason that Giannis can’t yet match. Maybe Giannis or Leonard will outplay him in Orlando, but for now, there’s no safer bet than James.
Shelburne: The man is leading the NBA in assists! At age 35! As a point-forward? That’s unbelievable. I think Giannis gets the nod for MVP this year because he also is the best defensive player in the league. But if you had one game or one playoff series to win, you’d be surprised how many coaches or general managers would still pick LeBron.
Snellings: When healthy, fresh and focused, “Playoffs Mode LeBron” is still the best player in the world. Antetokounmpo might have surpassed him with his play for the duration of the season and an extended playoff run. So at worst, LeBron is top two, in general, but likely No. 1 under current circumstances.
Sedano: We should appreciate LeBron while he is still playing at this level. If you look at what he is doing at age 35, there is really no true comp. The closest thing you can get is Jordan at age 34, the season prior to his final retirement with the Chicago Bulls. Kawhi might be the better defender, and Giannis might be more athletic than James these days, but LeBron still wears the crown as the most complete player in the league.
MacMullan: Enough with the “LeBron best player” questions too! He has dominated the league for years, regardless of where he plays or with whom. Giannis is approaching his prime, and I’d start my team with him now, if given the choice. But that doesn’t mean LeBron can’t beat him.
5. What is your bold LeBron prediction?
MacMullan: LeBron becomes the first Black owner in the NBA to win a championship.
Shelburne: I’ve covered a lot of aging superstars. No matter how amazing they were in their peak, the body eventually declines, injuries happens and Father Time marches on. So far, LeBron has defied that. I think he plays harder and more minutes in Orlando than just about any other superstar. This is a short period of time, he has had plenty of rest and there’s no reason to load manage.
Sedano: LeBron will find a way to beat a more complete Clippers team and go on to win his fourth championship. The Clippers have arguably the two best players to defend James in Leonard and Paul George. But the Warriors’ threw daunting defenders at LeBron in the Finals for years and he had his way with that group (despite only winning one series vs. Golden State). This time he’ll have Anthony Davis on his path to a title.
Pelton: LeBron becomes the first player in NBA history to average at least 30 points and 10 assists per game in a playoff run of longer than one round.
Snellings: LeBron will win at least two more championships. He’ll be able to have MVP-level impact in the postseason for years to come, and if the Lakers build around him and Anthony Davis, they should contend for the foreseeable future.