The two aging giants came together at center court, a herd of national TV cameras surrounding them like those crazy, suicidal fish that swim alongside sharks and somehow get away with it. (Nature is weird, man).
They embraced, in that bro-hug type of way players do, and shared a few words of mutual respect before going their separate ways, Kobe Bryant toward the ruthlessly dimming twilight of his career and LeBron James out of the visitor’s locker room at Staples Center, his once-ageless legs a little bit tighter, his vertical leap still remarkable but not quite as boundless as it once had been.
Bryant will never again show up on this list; it has been more than a decade since you could argue his basketball line chart was still trending upward. And although most of us may not realize it yet, James’ career has reached its apex and is beginning its long descent toward finality. He is only 31, but already has played in more than 1,100 NBA games, and for the first time since he was a teenager, he’s clearly not the best player in the game anymore.
It’s harsh, but it’s the circle of life.
The NBA is a young man’s league. Specifically, it’s 27-year-old Steph Curry’s league, and it will most likely be that way for a little while, until someone else – Damian Lillard? Anthony Davis? Kristaps Porzingis? Ben Simmons? – comes out of nowhere and snatches it from him.
The key thing that all of the guys listed above share is that they all are still improving. None has reached their ceiling yet, even if Curry is still getting better at the expense of logic and even the boundaries of the physical universe.
LeBron on the other hand, has stagnated.
His scoring average (24.9) is at its lowest mark since his rookie season. His 3-point percentage (.293) is at its lowest point ever. His assists, steals and overall shooting numbers are down, and to hear him speak, he sounds resigned to the fact that – like his hairline – his career may never look as vibrant and promising as it once did.
I saw my cousin Alex at Red’s Hardware in bustling downtown Thomaston, Conn. on Saturday. He was making paint, and I was manning the store, because someone has to do something to pay off my $75 million student loan debt.
Now, Alex is – how do I put this? – opinionated about the NBA, and ever since LeBron came into the league, he has hated him. It’s not because of “The Decision” or “The Letter” or anything like that. It’s because LeBron was ‘First Take’ B.S. before ‘First Take,’ the most ballyhooed, hyped-up high schooler in world history. How can you root for “The Chosen One,” a guy who everyone said was going to be better than Jordan – especially when you grew up an MJ fanboy?
But today, as I was helping some old guy find wood screws and Alex was figuring out how much yellow to put into Red 56A, he said something that stuck with me.
It’s crazy to think of King James as an afterthought, but much like Kobe Bryant, that’s what he is right now.
After their final meeting, somebody asked King James about becoming the face of the NBA, now that Kobe is officially gone. But that question was about five years too late.
It’s not LeBron’s league anymore. And if he does manage to win another title (would you bet your house on that?), it will be on his way down from the basketball mountaintop, not on his way up.
Life comes at you fast, man. That’s what improvement does.
Time keeps marching on. And so do we. To the rankings:
1. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors: Don’t let the fact that he’s the reigning MVP fool you. Steph belongs at the top of this list, as he’s taking the sport by storm in a way no player has since MJ himself. Curry is averaging 30.4 points per game, up nearly seven points from his 23.8 ppg last season. He is shooting 46 percent from the arc (even with that Lakers clunker) and is knocking down 5 threes per game, on pace to surpass 400. If you don’t think he deserves this trophy, you haven’t been paying attention.
2. C.J. McCollum, G, Portland Trail Blazers: Despite Curry’s downright outlandish disregard for physics, McCollum is still the likely front-runner for this award because voters tend to pick someone who went from nothing to something, rather than from MVP to unanimous MVP. Gotta hate the mainstream. It’s not like he’s not deserving; McCollum is averaging 20.8 points and 4.2 assists and has been a consistent scorer all season for the (possibly) playoff-bound Blazers.
3. Kawhi Leonard, F, San Antonio Spurs: He’s like Tim Duncan 2.0, putting up huge numbers without any of the LeBron-like hype. It’s amazing how the Spurs can avoid so much attention in today’s social media-driven, outsized-coverage climate. Kawhi is quietly becoming one of the game’s best shooters, putting up a career-high 21.0 points on 46.5 percent shooting from 3-point range (that’s better than Curry!) and 88 percent from the line. He’s averaging 25.0 points this month.
4. Draymond Green, F, Golden State Warriors: Draymond just keeps getting better, too, as he’s nearly averaging a double-double (13.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and shooting a career-best 47.4 percent. He had 17 and 13 in Golden State’s 128-112 statement win over Portland, which kind of reminded you of a big brother-little brother battle in the driveway. Portland is up and coming, but it’s nowhere near Golden State’s level yet.
5. Kemba Walker, G, Charlotte Hornets: Felt like we should give Kemba some love after he’s gone off like he’s about to crack the upper echelon of NBA stardom. The old-school Jalen Adams is averaging a career-high 21.5 points and is shooting a career-best .436 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep. He scored 30-plus points in four straight games this month and had games of 52 and 40 vs. Utah and Orlando in late January. Oh, and the streaking Hornets won seven straight before bombing last night vs. Dallas and are sixth in East at 37-29. Don’t sleep on Kemba.
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