Lakers' playoff hopes hang on one question: Is LeBron James still the world's best player?

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

Take One: The NBA’s best matchup is LeBron James vs. the impossible

The 10th seed. Twenty-four games remaining. A two-and-a-half-game deficit to make up. The toughest remaining schedule in the NBA and a scrappy Sacramento Kings team stand in the way of LeBron James and the Lakers making the playoffs. Even after the Lakers rallied to beat the Rockets 111-106 on Thursday, the road is tough.

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Something’s gotta give. Rarely has it been LeBron. His arc is not perfect, after all — it’s redemptive. He has always had to fail before winning, the pressure fortifying him and forcing him to conjure something new. We’ve seen iso LeBron in Cleveland, de facto point guard and defensive lynchpin LeBron in Miami, playing the five and in the post.

It’s LeBron James’ time to lead the Lakers. (AP)
It’s LeBron James’ time to lead the Lakers. (AP)

Maybe that LeBron was different — he never, for instance, missed 18 straight games like he did this year, and he was always surrounded by floor spacers who let him create freely. For the first time in a decade, he might not get any MVP votes. He doesn’t like to up the ante this early, preferring to conserve his energy for the playoffs, but this season, the answer will come early: When he’s trying, is LeBron still the best player in the world? And if so, what version of himself will he be?

“I love being uncomfortable,” James told reporters Wednesday. “I fall in love with being uncomfortable. This is another uncomfortable thing for me and I love it.”

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

The Christmas matchup against the Warriors in which he pulled his groin may be instructive. He was the defensive lynchpin once again, ignoring Draymond Green and hurtling toward the rim to stop penetration, while Lakers guards pressured hard up top, which allowed James to snatch rebounds and race up the floor in transition — like Showtime if Magic Johnson were a rim protector. LeBron has always been hesitant to play the five, but he might have to embrace it for the Lakers to run hard enough to offset their lack of spacing — especially with Ivica Zubac gone. There are moments when the Lakers, with Lonzo Ball and James trading quarterback duties, make picture-perfect sense.

Pressure evokes transcendence when you have no ceiling. The question of the final third of the season: Sixteen years in, is the roof finally closing in on LeBron? We’re about to find out.

Take Two: Kyrie Irving is the latest player to get frustrated with free-agency questions, and he won’t be the last

A video emerged during All-Star Weekend of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant conversing in a hallway, stoking the hopes of Knicks fans who hope to see the two join forces in New York. Irving’s frustration boiled over Wednesday night, when a reporter asked if he wanted to “pour water” on the incident.

“It’s a video of me and one of my best friends talking, and then it turns out to be a dissection of a free-agency meeting? Do you get that? Like, do you get that? And then I’m asked questions about it? That’s what disconnects me from all that [expletive],” Kyrie said. “And you brought up the fans? Come on, man. You do it for the likes and clicks. Everybody does. Everybody wants to hear me talk like this. Everybody wants to hear an athlete talk about [expletive] like this. A video though? To pour water on it? It makes no sense. It just makes no sense. It’s not real life.”

It’s hard not to sympathize. Could Irving have diffused the situation by treating it with brevity? Sure. But things happen. People get mad. And his frustration was its own answer, an insistence that there’s nothing to diffuse. Irving’s frustration is understandable. So is the inevitability of the question. Irving asked, “Is the internet real life for you?” Speaking for the modern world, yes. Separating the internet from real life in 2019 is a fool’s errand. If something is relevant on the internet, it’s relevant. Fans are in fact talking about this. And they’re not going to stop.

A perfect medley of ingredients conspired to skew NBA discourse so disproportionately toward the offseason. Thanks to some hitches in the CBA, player movement has never been so frequent, and the cap spike has given nearly every major media market dreams of putting together a superteam.

Yes, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have been known to talk to each other. (Getty)
Yes, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have been known to talk to each other. (Getty)

And everyone — Irving included — feeds the beast: the memes, the Twitter beefs, eye emojis and public tampering that span from Magic Johnson on late night TV to Giannis Antetokounmpo in hallways, almost like the whole league was invested in trying to drown out the NFL. You could argue they succeeded this year, with the drama surrounding Anthony Davis’ trade request dominating the news cycle leading into the Super Bowl.

The NBA’s popularity has skyrocketed, making players more visible than ever in the social-media age of constant surveillance, where everyone has a camera on their phone and the increasingly microscopic spotlight menacing celebrities across industries.

Mix it all together and what you’ve got is a landscape where this type of thing is going to become commonplace. Fair or not, the price of fame has risen with salaries. In the new world order, every star free agent will be scrutinized like he’s LeBron James.

Take Three: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s arc is starting to look a lot like LeBron’s, with better floor spacing

In his sixth season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting together an MVP-caliber season that is catapulting his fame and ratcheting up expectations. Day by day he is crossing the echelon, as fans go from wondering how one man can get to the rim and dunk so much to asking: Why does he only get to the rim and dunk? Giannis has mastered James’ brute force, but when James was at Antetokounmpo’s stage, making the NBA Finals in his fourth season, a great coach in Gregg Popovich shrunk the floor, backed off and game-planned James out en route to a San Antonio Spurs sweep in 2007.

The playoffs boil everything down to their core. You become your weaknesses. Antetokounmpo, so long as opponents sag off him at the 3-point line, remains guardable. Giannis’ jumpshot might be the only thing standing between the Milwaukee Bucks and a championship.

But the NBA has changed a great deal since LeBron’s youth, and it might save Antetokounmpo from suffering James’ indignities. Can a floor as optimally spaced as Milwaukee’s really be shrunk, especially as Giannis learns to whip crosscourt passes under heavy duress?

Giannis Antetokounmpo throws one down during the All-Star Game. (Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo throws one down during the All-Star Game. (Getty Images)

The question might come down to shot-making. The Bucks revamped their offense under new coach Mike Budenholzer, trading in midrangers and floaters for threes and layups. Without making significant personnel changes outside the addition of Brook Lopez, the Bucks are hoisting 13 more triples per game this season, leading the league in attempts. The Toronto Raptors’ offense made a similar shift last season. In 2016-2017, Toronto took 24 threes per game. In 2017-2018, it took 33. But it only shot 33 percent (the Bucks, at 34.9 percent, are slightly better) and when the postseason hit, instinct kicked in and Toronto’s patched-together shooters went dry.

The playoffs are a hard deal without natural shooters. Khris Middleton can space out, but he has midrange instincts, and this is the first year he’s ever shot over six threes per game. Same with Lopez, who is also shooting a career-high 37 percent. Eric Bledsoe is still clanking them. That’s why Milwaukee’s midseason trade for Nikola Mirotic (and George Hill before him) could be more impactful than the Raptors adding Marc Gasol or the the 76ers adding Tobias Harris, despite both of them being more talented. Mirotic is a scale-tipper, a rainy-day shooter whose stroke can endure through May.

The postseason is about maximizing talent, and Antetokounmpo’s gravitational pull has never been so easy to leverage.

Take Four: We’ve really emphasized the ‘valuable’ in MVP

Well, we had no choice really. How can you ignore the gaudy usage stats, ball domination and scoring figures that have united to form the resume for the modern MVP. The key to a dynamic offense, I repeat, is effectively leveraging the talent of your best player. The more over-leveraged a player is, the more valuable. That’s why James Harden, who is leading the NBA in scoring, drives and usage rate by a mile, leads the MVP race by a mile.

Harden’s MVP campaign is the logical extreme of an award that’s been teetering toward martyrdom more than victory for more than a decade now, sped up by the likes of LeBron James and Steve Nash. Harden has embraced it. He insists this is how he has to play, conveniently making the starring role sound sacrificial.

But none of the ingredients that adds up to an MVP — high usage, high minutes, little rest — is a good playoff omen. Since Michael Jordan retired, only five of the past 20 MVP winners have won a championship in the same season. The NBA’s most important individual regular season award has become a postseason Scarlet Letter.

Take Five: A refined look into how deeply the rest of the NBA is screwed this season

The Golden State Warriors haven’t just run over the league since inserting DeMarcus Cousins into the lineup. They’ve done it in a characteristically Warriors-esque way. Golden State leads the league in screen assists and points off screens.

The Warriors’ offense thrives when Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson run around a dizzying array of screens, smashing opponents into the muscly frames of Draymond Green, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney.

So guess who, despite playing only 23.4 minutes per game and working himself back from a devastating Achilles injury, is already leading the Warriors in screen assists and screen assist points per game? Yeah. If you thought Curry got too open before …

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