“I want him over some of these guys; He’s still the ultimate chess master” - Zach Lowe asserts that when the stakes are highest, he will take only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant over LeBron James

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors

Most LeBron James fans were aghast that ESPN ranked the four-time MVP sixth in their list of the top 100 NBA players next season. They feel like his accomplishments last season should have been enough to put him squarely in the top five of the said rankings.

Senior ESPN writer Zach Lowe doesn’t have any arguments with the rankings, but has his own choice when the stakes are highest:

“If you wanna yell and scream that LeBron belongs in the top five, you read the names. Those guys are amazing. They don’t include Kawhi [Leonard] who’s amazing and Durant who’s amazing.
"In the regular season, 82 games, carrying a team, this is right for LeBron [#6]. He’s older, he’s only played 55, 60 games a year.

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“But, in one game or in a one-game seven series, I want him over some of these guys. I probably want him over the centers, I can’t take him over Giannis, I can’t take him over Durant. … This guy is still the chess master. He’s still the ultimate chess master.”

ESPN’s top five were Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. All players are franchise cornerstones of their respective teams and considerably younger than LeBron James. They are all better suited to carry their squads during the NBA’s 82-game grind.

'King James', though, has proven to be a big-time winner and despite his physical skills declining a bit, he remains an elite force. He may not be the freakish athlete going into year 20, but he’s still arguably the smartest player in the NBA today.

When surrounded by the right co-stars and role players, he’s still a dangerous opponent, particularly if it’s a winner-take-all game or a seven-game series.

Brian Windhorst, who has extensively covered LeBron James, is on the same page as Zach Lowe.

“I don’t know about the rank, I don’t particularly like rankings. Here’s what I know. If I was starting a playoff series, I want Giannis first and my second pick will still be LeBron. … LeBron is still right up there in a seven-game series and that’s where I view him.”

Next season, Basketball Reference is projecting LeBron James to put up elite numbers that should squarely put him in the top 10 in the NBA. 'King James' is expected to average 27.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per contest next season.

Considering the offense, based on Darvin Ham’s plan, will run through Anthony Davis, James’ numbers are still unbelievable. It’s unprecedented what he’s expected to do at age 38, entering his 20th season in the NBA.

Health will again be crucial for LeBron James and the LA Lakers

Health has always been the greatest equalizer in the NBA and in practically any sport. The most talented teams are reduced to ordinary competitors when injuries ravage the players.

Last season, LeBron James played only 56 games after playing just 45 the season before. In the LA Lakers’ chase for a play-in spot against the Phoenix Suns, the four-time champ couldn’t even lace it up to help the team.

Anthony Davis could have an MVP campaign and even be the Lakers’ best player next season. But if 'King James' is compromised, the Lakers, even with the arrival of Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schroder aren’t sniffing the postseason.

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