How LeBron James evolved to stay on top

LOS ANGELES — On the night of June 14, 2015, with his eyes tucked under a Cleveland Cavaliers hat, LeBron James sat at a podium in Oracle Arena with his back near the wall, the NBA Finals logo draping his silhouette. Cleveland just dropped Game 5 to the Golden State Warriors, putting them one loss away from elimination. “I feel confident,” he said matter of factly, “because I'm the best player in the world. It's simple." So simple it was hardly a statement, merely an explanation, a viable answer to the problems that awaited his team.

But the Warriors won Game 6, and Stephen Curry rocked the world for the next 11 months, dribbling cracks into the concrete of James’ elevated perch in the superstar hierarchy.

James got hurt last season — really hurt, for the first time in his career — and the Lakers, drowning in palace intrigue and trade speculation, missed the playoffs. Twitter suggested he only chose L.A. to make movies and tend to his production company. Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP. Antetokounmpo will likely win it again this year. Kawhi Leonard, after winning a championship and Finals MVP, sat atop the NBA world from the Raptors championship float only to spurn LeBron for the Clippers last summer. The sleights, perceived and real, got louder. In hindsight, we should have predicted the onslaught the moment James made up a hashtag about himself: #WashedKing.

“The injury [last season] hurt me a lot physically and mentally,” he said after the Los Angeles Lakers dropped the Clippers, 112-103, on Sunday. “I put a lot of work into my game this offseason, a lot of work into my rehabbing with my groin, getting back to full strength.” 

The Lakers, in the meantime, pried Anthony Davis from New Orleans. They ripped off a 24-3 record to open the season until losing to Indiana two days before getting beat by the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 19. In the fourth quarter, Antetokounmpo dribbled up the floor, nailed a pullup three and placed an imaginary crown on his head, anointing himself the new king. The country then watched Leonard and the Clippers beat the Lakers on Christmas Day. 

LeBron James glides to the basket Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

James turned 35 that week, not so much aging as evolving. James’ old-man strength — dad strength, the kind that accumulates only with years — allows him to pummel through the kids like a modern-day Karl Malone. He creates passing angles with ball fakes and head-swivels, moving defenders three feet by turning his head three inches. “I wanna try to continue to get better,” James said. “Even if I physically lose a step here, when your mind is sharp and you have a big basketball IQ, you can always cover those things.” James is a living encyclopedia. He has seen every play. He can forecast any adjustment. Every look he gets at his opponents is an opportunity for the world’s best information processing system to test new data. His brain improves faster than his athleticism recedes, allowing him to remain among the top.

This weekend, the Lakers dispatched two possible playoff challengers: the Bucks and Clippers, with Antetokounmpo and Leonard, the two biggest threats to James’ throne. “This,” Vogel said after the game, “was his best weekend in a Lakers uniform.”

James, subsuming Vogel’s no-nonsense messaging, is matter of fact about his revival. “That’s for you guys to talk about” has become a common refrain. The Lakers care about big games because every game is a big game, and so on. James is convincing on camera, but on the court, the performative gets stripped away in service of performance. When the lights turn on, emotions are laid bare. Seventeen years in, James may eschew load management. He may attack the regular season with renewed appreciation. But he’s not going 110 percent. As a result, the times he does are obvious, and they provide a glimpse into his psyche. James might not be driven by MVPs, but he has always wanted to be the NBA’s best player.

With five minutes left in the third quarter against the Bucks on Friday, James spun backward and planted himself into Antetokounmpo’s spindly base. James is the NBA’s most efficient post threat, generating 1.157 points per postup possession (off passes and shot attempts), according to Synergy. Antetokounmpo — who has three inches on James — is the NBA’s best individual defender, allowing only 36 percent of shots in his airspace to convert.

The unstoppable force turns Antetokounmpo into a movable object. James backs him down from 12 feet, spinning through a double-team and turning into the paint, pump-faking Giannis into the air before throwing up a layup. Antetokounmpo catches up to the ball, but as the referee sees it, he also catches the net. James stomps down the floor, staring down the crowd while imitating the ref’s goaltending motion, his passion betraying his posturing. James’ excitement permeates the air, stirring up a frenzy and making March feel like May. 

Before Sunday’s game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers heaped praise upon LeBron. “He’s always been a high-IQ player, probably one of the smartest players to ever play basketball. He’s beaten a lot of people with his brain,” Rivers said. “I think we get lost in LeBron’s physicality too much, and we should think about his brain more. His brain is what makes him great. There’s a lot of people in the league with LeBron’s body. There’s nobody with LeBron’s brain.” James was then kind enough to prove Rivers right, strong-arming his way to the paint and rifling passes all over the floor. 

In an accidental ode to Lob City, James rolled on a pick in the first half and — a la Blake Griffin to DeAndre Jordan — floated a lob from the middle of the paint into Anthony Davis’ mitts. Later in the half, James secures the rebound and Davis, identifying JaVale McGee running down the floor, signals for James to throw him a lob, but it’s too tight of a squeeze and the Clippers intercept it.

James perpetually has eyes all over the floor, but traditionally, he has distributed looks to 3-point shooters. The Lakers’ abundance of paint-oriented high-flyers, like Davis, McGee and Dwight Howard, have forced his gaze closer to the paint, Every night, James’ precision goes to war against closing slivers inside the paint. The Lakers, as a result, complete more alley-oops than any other team in the NBA. 

James’ passing skills, 17 years and a million reps in, have been pushed to a place they’ve never been before. Playmaking doesn’t recede with age. Rather, it refines with experience. In the end, James’ job is to boil a series of multiple choice options to the perfect one. Forget the fact that James leads the NBA in assists. He is passing more than ever, and more accurately. Since his last year in Miami, James’ assist-to-pass percentage has steadily increased from 9 percent to 17 percent.

Throughout the afternoon, scattered “MVP” chants coursed through Staples Center when Leonard stepped to the free-throw line. Technically, it was a home game for the Clippers. But as the game dwindled to a close and the Lakers led by nine, Clippers fans receded into their seats while Lakers fans popped out of theirs. With just under a minute left, James got Marcus Morris on his hip, drove past him, scored and got clobbered. 

James screamed and flexed before stepping to the free-throw line, while the Lakers’ bench collectively throws its arms in the air, urging the audience to stand up from their seats.

The crowd abides. A raucous “MVP” chant fills the air. James’ work is done. Moments later, he heads to the bench. There, teammate Kyle Kuzma awaits, picking up an invisible crown and placing it on James’ head.

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