Way back in June, with a little help from Ray Allen, LeBron James captured his second straight NBA title and his second straight Finals MVP award by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in seven games. For the series, James averaged a double-double, and in the end, there was no disputing that he stood alone as the best basketball player in the world and probably the best overall player since Michael Jordan, the “Airness” whom every NBA star will be compared to until the game of basketball ceases to exist.
James could retire today and be a first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s now won four MVP awards, two titles, a scoring title, two Olympic Gold Medals, is a nine-time All-Star and was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2003 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. James’ reign as Ruler of the NBA Throne was delayed for years in Cleveland and then again the season after “The Decision,” courtesy of Dirk Nowitski and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Back then, it looked as if he might always be a prince stuck in sports talk purgatory, where the Skip Bayless’ of the world insist, “LeBron James isn’t clutch,” and hammer LBJ for even the slightest misstep.
But that first title victory in 2012 over the three-headed Thunder monster of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden gave him the crown he’d been chasing since he entered the league. And, with the Thunder trading away Harden to Houston, it looked as if James might just have a clear path to win multiple titles and remain NBA overlord for the foreseeable future, with no worth challengers waiting in the wings.
But the most interesting thing about James right now isn’t about what he can do or what he’s done. It’s about what stands in front of his him as he chases his third, fourth, fifth and sixth NBA titles. It’s what was missing after the Heat handily defeated the Thunder in 2012.
What stands in front of him now are elite teams led by assassins poised to end the reign of King James.
The deadliest of the group is Indiana’s Paul George, LeBron’s antithesis, as he played his college ball at Fresno State and was taken at the edge of the lottery. His emergence as one of the five best players in the league alone makes him a worthy heir, but his team of mercenaries is what makes him especially threating to James and the Heat. With the gargantuan Roy Hibbert at center and perhaps the league’s deepest team at this backing, George will challenge James for an all-out brawl in the Eastern Conference Finals before he can even play for his third straight Larry O’Brien trophy.
And out west lie several more worthy adversaries. In Oklahoma City, there is Kevin Durant (the second best player in the league) and Russell Westbrook, the best duo in the NBA when healthy. At their full strength, this Thunder team is far better than the one the James gang took down in the 2012 Finals. If Westbrook can come back from his third knee surgery in under a year, the Thunder will be a true test for James if they so happen be the last two kingdoms standing.
In California, two threats lie in the wings. In Los Angeles, the Clippers have all the makings of a real title contender. Led by Chris Paul (the league’s third best player) and the underrated Blake Griffin, the Clippers are better than ever. Add in the fact that they now actually have a competent coach (Doc Rivers) at the helm, and it’s clear that this team is ready to make the leap. And up north lies the Warriors, the league’s most exciting team that has yet to be consistently healthy so far this season.
Last – but certainly not least – are the San Antonio Spurs, the team everyone forgets about until the very end. Without Allen’s incredible three-point shot in last season’s Finals, the Spurs would have been the 2013 NBA champs. Still, with their nucleus of coach Gregg Poppovich, forward Tim Duncan, forward Manu Ginolbli and point guard Tony Parker still intact and producing, this team is quite possibly the biggest threat to James.
They took James and the Heat to the brink of defeat last season, and with Miami looking a tad more vulnerable this season, who is to say they can’t complete the job and end the James dynasty if they get another crack at it? And there are other teams (the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets, for starters) that also should be viewed potential up-and-coming successors.
In total since LeBron took his talents to South Beach, there are a plethora of present and dangerous threats to James’ crown. At every turn, he will face a new challenge looking to knock him off his perch and change the current trajectory of his career. They emerged in 2013, and heading into the New Year, King James’ assassins have never been more deadly.