Add this to the list accomplishments LeBron James could add to his sterling career: Wrangling yet another title after his hold over the sport has noticeably weakened.
That, as much as anything, will define a season for one of the game’s greatest ever, one in which he can still push back the inevitable end, hold off time, and try, despite his falling spot in the game’s hierarchy, to use his remarkable remaining skills to try to squeeze out one last championship run — and silence all of us who likely think it’s too late for that.
At his peak, LeBron has won four championships in three places — including, against the historical odds and in service of a place he loves, in Cleveland. He’s the game’s all-time leading scorer, having surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar last season. He’s currently fourth all-time in assists. He’s won four MVP awards and four NBA Finals MVP awards.
Yet almost all of that was accomplished as the game’s best, or near-best, player. This season will be different. This challenge — the one before him and the Lakers as he enters his 21st season — may be the most difficult of his career.
Because now, older, wiser, more injury-prone and less able to bend the game single-handedly to his will, what else is left to do but chase rings? To try and will one last title run from a glittering career. And — like other past greats in the vein of Kareem or Tim Duncan — to do so when many have written him off.
Forget just basketball. Father Time has become just another enemy for would-be sports greats to humble. Take Tom Brady in the NFL, Novak Djokovic yet again the other day in tennis, Lionel Messi still in soccer. To be the best sometimes means dominating even when many no longer regard you that way.
That’s certainly true here at CBS Sports, where the King has fallen to No. 12 overall in our top 100 player rankings, which was voted on by our entire staff of NBA writers. (I had him at No. 9 on my personal list, but the point holds that LeBron no longer seems to be the player he once was.)
He now sits, at least for us, behind names like Jokic, Giannis, Steph, Embiid — and even Shai.
But that doesn’t mean he’s finished, or we’re even right. That’s one of many things this season could prove or disprove.
There are younger, hungrier, and more capable foes out there, as well as the creep of time — the indisputable fact, as LeBron slowly slips down in the game’s pantheon, that the end will come even for him. To push it off, and show that winning is not out of reach, must be part of his goal.
This is a guy who feeds on others’ doubts. There will be much of it for him this season.
The cracks in LeBron’s sure-fire spot atop the league began last season. Though it was the fifth straight year in which he played fewer than 70 games, and the fourth of five in which he didn’t even crack the 60-games mark, it was the first time CBS’ rankings saw him fall markedly in its pre-season player rankings.
Just looking at his five seasons with the Lakers, he was seventh a year ago after being ranked second entering the 2021-22 campaign, and he was No. 1 heading into each of the three prior seasons.
And yet LeBron has the capacity to surprise, and to turn these rankings, and others like them, into exercises in underestimating perhaps the best player of all time. That, in part, can be seen in reports that he’d like to play for Team USA in the Olympics next summer, and there are signs, to say the least, he can contribute significantly.
Last season with the Lakers, LeBron still managed to average 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. He shot 50 percent from the field. In the playoffs he was at am almost 25-10-7 average, and despite the importance of Anthony Davis and the depth Rob Pelinka had added at the trade deadline, it was LeBron who largely helped guide the Lakers to a surprise berth in the Western Conference finals.
He may not, technically speaking, have been their best player at every turn. But he was clearly their most important. AD is younger and can ball, yes. But LeBron is the winner of the group.
That they got swept by eventual-champion Denver Nuggets tells both sides of the story: What LeBron can still do and, perhaps, what he can’t.
Yet this is a sport where success is defined by what you do on the court, and if anyone is capable of turning back time and questioning their placement on a Top 100 list, it’s LeBron James.
Many thought Messi, 36, was washed, or at least a shadow of himself, at PSG. Then he won the World Cup. Now he’s in the MLS defying the laws physics for Inter Miami. Brady, a great who couldn’t let go after 20 seasons in New England, proved oddsmakers and everyone wrong after he led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win over Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021. Carlos Alcaraz, 20, may have been the No. 1 player in the world entering the US Open a few weeks ago, but it was the 36-year GOAT who again claimed the crown.
So is it that crazy to think LeBron, with a little luck, AD being healthy, and an interesting Lakers off-season, can’t similarly surprise?
History can matter. The past, sometimes, can be a prelude to the present. And LeBron James is still a formidable former champ.
Four people ahead of him on our Top 100 list have rings: Jokic with one, Giannis with one, Steph with four and Durant with two. But the other seven– Doncic, Embiid, Tatum, Booker, Butler, Lillard and Gilgeous-Alexander — have never won a title.
We have LeBron James as the 12th best player heading into this NBA season because we think his hold on the game is over. But sports — and it’s greatest ever — often have a way of making such proclamations seem absurdly ahead of schedule.
What a thing it would be if LeBron could do as Messi, Brady and Djokovic have already accomplished — make all of us rethink a GOAT’s greatness yet again.