The drama surrounding his Los Angeles Lakers started when LeBron James suffered a strained groin on Christmas Day. It led to him missing more than a month of action — the longest absence of James’ career.
As the Lakers continued to struggle, it became apparent that James was not the same player that had earned eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
At 34 years old, James still averaged north of 27 points per game. He also racked up 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists an outing. Even then, he proved to be a step slow on defense and was forced to provide a lot more for an injury-plagued and veteran-stricken Lakers team.
James’ regression coincided with James Harden’s otherworldly performance and Giannis Antetokounmpo proving to be a walking mismatch. These are among the players that have surpassed James on the NBA’s hierarchy since he joined the Lakers.
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Leonard’s first season away from San Antonio was his best. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals en route to leading Toronto to a 58-win campaign. Dominating thus far in the playoffs, Leonard also ranked in the top 20 in defensive rating and defensive win shares while boasting a plus-minus of five per outing. Leonard has morphed into a true superstar in every way.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Even an aged and limited LeBron James is much better than Harden on the defensive end of the court. That’s not even disputable. However, Harden’s ridiculous offensive performance this past regular season automatically make him a top-three player in the league. The reigning NBA MVP averaged 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. He tallied 40-plus points a ridiculous 28 times en route ranking No. 1 in the league in offensive win shares.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The stats themselves are dumbfounding. Over the past four seasons, Curry is averaging 27.3 points and shooting 48 percent from the field. He’s nailed 1,292 three-pointers during that span. For comparison’s sake, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird hit a combined 1,230 throughout their careers. For better or worse, Curry has changed the game unlike any player before him. Add in a potential fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, and he deserves to be on this list.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Speaking of underrated, what Jokic brings to the table is nearly unmatched for a big man in the modern history of the NBA. Even more so than Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray, the team’s offense runs through this center. Here’s a dude that’s put up four triple-doubles in 12 career playoff games. Jokic averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and an astounding 7.3 assists during the regular year. In a sign that he’s a great two-way player, the 24-year-old center finished in the top 10 in defensive rating and defensive win shares.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Not only is Giannis an absolute freak of nature, he’s made sure to develop one of the best overall games in the NBA. The Greece native entered the league back in 2013 as a raw, but talented player. Improving each season, he’s now a legit MVP candidate. Giannis averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game during the regular year. We don’t even have to look beyond those stats to acknowledge the Greek Freak’s greatness.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Even after defeating King James in the past two Finals, anyone who claimed that Durant was better than LeBron received a ton of push back. That’s now changed. James’ regression has coincided with Durant taking the mantle as the greatest on Planet Earth. The two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP shot north of 50% for the seventh consecutive season. He averaged 25-plus points for the 11th consecutive season. Let’s not even talk about just how dominant this dude has been in the playoffs. He’s the best. Not LeBron. Live with it.