Photograph: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports
Normally, it’s not good news when the face of the NBA doesn’t even make the playoffs. When LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers failed to advance to the postseason, many thought the product would suffer. Instead, these playoffs have been full of drama and raised the question of whether one of the players starring in this postseason will one day assume James’s mantle.
James, after all, is 37 and far closer to the end of his career than the beginning (even if he has a Tom Brady-esque ability to keep Father Time at bay). The second round of the playoffs contains a long list of young players with huge amounts of talent: the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (age 28), the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (27), the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker (25), the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum (24), the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić (23) and the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (22) (and that’s without mentioning stars such as Nikola Jokic, whose teams are no longer in the postseason).
Of those players, the most likely candidate to threaten LeBron’s crown is Giannis, who has already achieved First Name Only status. Right now, the Bucks – playing without noted Celtics-killer Khris Middleton – have a 2-1 series lead over Boston, and much of that has to do with Antetokounmpo playing like the defending finals MVP he is.
The Greek Freak already has a championship ring and two league MVPs under his belt, putting him well ahead of the pack as far as career accomplishments. He hasn’t been a slouch this postseason either, with a 50% field goal percentage while averaging 27.9 points, 12.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists.
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Just last month, Antetokounmpo was named to the NBA’s All-Time European Team alongside another current player in Dončić, who has five fewer seasons under his belt. No one would put the Slovenian wing in Antetokounmpo’s league yet, but Giannis is far closer to a finished product than Dončić, whose ceiling remains tantalizingly high.
While Embiid is the oldest player among the group, there’s still a case that he’s such a unique player that he still has only recently found his groove. The 7ft center from Cameroon led the league in scoring during the regular season and his importance to the Sixers has been obvious. In the first round, Embiid hit the game-winning shot against the Toronto Raptors in overtime in Game 3 which changed the course of the entire series. In the second round, Embiid’s double-double in his unexpected return from concussion protocols in Game 3 against the Miami Heat helped save Philadelphia from going down 0-3 in their semifinals series.
Injuries, of course, are always a story in the NBA and the Grizzlies may have just suffered the biggest of them all. Until Saturday night, Ja Morant, 2021-22’s Most Improved Player, was in the middle of one of the biggest coming-out parties in recent NBA memory. The second pick in the 2019 draft, Morant – who plays the game in a highly entertaining, madcap style that’s as effective as it is fun to watch – had a 47-point performance in Memphis’s victory in Game 2 against the Warriors, outplaying Steph Curry.
He was putting together a similar stat sheet in Game 3, scoring 34 points in 36 minutes, before suffering a knee injury after being grabbed by Golden State’s Jordan Poole in a controversial play. The Grizzlies lost 142-112, but the potential absence of the most exciting player in this postseason may be a bigger blow than the L.
If Booker and Tatum haven’t received quite the same amount of attention as the other players on this list during these playoffs, it’s partly because they have been sharing the spotlight. The big story on this Suns team hasn’t been Booker but 37-year-old Chris Paul, who was denied his first ring in last year’s NBA finals and seems even more determined to win one this year. It’s not all about the youngsters this postseason, after all.
Meanwhile, Tatum – who is coming off a dreadful performance in the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks – is usually mentioned as part of a tandem with older teammate Jaylen Brown, whom he’s played alongside his entire career. That’s not to say that Tatum hasn’t had his moments to shine over the last month: his game-winning buzzer-beater against Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets, way back in Boston’s first playoff game, will forever be part of his highlight reel.
So, which one of these players is most likely to be The Next LeBron? The real answer is none of them, but that’s not a criticism. The truth is that there’s not going to be another LeBron James because once you reach that level of superstardom, you fully emerge from the shadows cast by your predecessors.
When James came to the NBA straight out of high school, he came pre-anointed as “King James,” the player who would save basketball. He was going to be, they said, the next Michael Jordan. As good as he was, he never was the Next MJ. That wasn’t because he wasn’t a worthy heir to MJ’s throne – in fact, he’s already established himself as one of the few NBA players that could challenge Jordan’s title as the GOAT – but because he established himself as the First LeBron. Jordan was unique because of his ruthless commitment to winning, the way he transformed the NBA into a league with global popularity and how he forever changed the way athletes market themselves. James, meanwhile, attained national fame while he was still at high school and revived memories of Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by marrying his superb athletic skills with activism.
If Antetokounmpo, for instance, lives up to the hype that surrounded him when he entered the league (and he has and then some up to this point) the versatile big man is such a singular player that he wouldn’t become the Next LeBron. He would become the First Giannis. The same would apply to any of the other players mentioned here. The truly great ones don’t follow established paths, they blaze entirely new ones.