One can argue that LeBron James has been the face of the league since he was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Rookie Draft. There were obviously more polished players back then, as players like Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan still dominated the league, but James always had something about him that made you believe he was going to be the face of the NBA for a long time.
Fast forward to James' 19th season where he is no longer the league's best player, the way his recent comments about the Korean TV Series "Squid Game" proves that this late into his career, LBJ is still the face of the league. James said that he would prefer the series have a different ending, which surprisingly made sports headlines online - this means that in 2021 James' opinion on things still matters to a lot of people.
But LeBron James won't be around forever, and we all expect that at some point, his relevance in the NBA will come to an end. That being said, LeBron's longevity resulted in many generational talents missing the opportunity to earn the imaginary title of the face of the NBA. Stephen Curry had about two seasons where his relevance was on par with LeBron James. Still, exceptional players such as Kevin Durant and James Harden never got their shot because of LeBron's immense following. James is also the first active NBA player to become a billionaire, suggesting that LeBron is putting this clout into good use from a business perspective.
A week into the 2021-2022 NBA season, with Russell Westbrook joining the Lakers, we see signs of LeBron tapering off. LeBron's current play suggests that a new face of the league will emerge soon, and early in the season, I have seen three players primed to take the reigns from The King.
The reigning NBA Finals MVP is the obvious choice due to his exciting style of play and otherworldly athletic gifts. Apart from that, he is the epitome of an underdog, and everybody loves a good underdog story. Just like the mystical Michael Jordan, Giannis has many stories to his name that just make your jaw drop, wondering how he pulled himself out of a dire situation to become a back-to-back MVP, with one of those MVPs coming alongside a Defensive Player of the Year award.
The Greek Freak is also now a proven winner, which erased all doubt about his place amongst the best players of all time. Giannis is also far from finished, and despite the presence of two super teams in the NBA this year, something tells me that the Bucks are going to go back-to-back and prove to the world that last year's title was more than just a string of luck from injuries to other teams.
You cannot be the face of the league without winning, but winning isn't everything. Giannis has the commanding presence of a dominant player and figure in this league, he is far from the best version of himself on the court, but on the court, he is a fantastic human being that connects with fans beyond the city of Milwaukee. The fact that Giannis plays for a small market may hurt his reach, but trust that sports apparel giant Nike will make sure to grow his brand to astronomical heights.
Luka has not started the season particularly well, but this is not new for the Slovenian basketball savant. Expect Doncic to explode around weeks three and four of the season, taking that Dallas Mavericks offense to the historic efficiency levels from a year ago (if Jason Kidd doesn't change that) while draining those jaw-dropping step back threes we are so accustomed to seeing from Doncic. Luka is the basketball offspring of Steph Curry and LeBron James. While guards in the United States were practicing Steph Curry's long-range three pointers, Luka was watching both Curry and James to understand how they manipulate defensive schemes to get what they want on the offensive side of the ball. Throw in the fact that he is only 22 years old; it is scary how good Doncic will be by the time he reaches his physical prime.
The two keys for Doncic in his ascent to being the face of the league are his impact on winning and his maturity, two things that often come hand-in-hand. Doncic's Dallas Mavericks have faced the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round in two consecutive post-seasons now, getting closer to advancing each time. We all expect the Mavericks to break through to the second round this year, but much of this depends on how Luka matures as a leader.
As Head Coach Jason Kidd guides Luka to a happy place where he gets his teammates involved while still controlling the game, how Luka treats this maturation process this year will dictate his trajectory as one of the league's brightest stars for years to come. Kristaps Porzingis is not the player he used to be, but the supporting cast of the Mavericks this year should be enough to get them through to the second round. For this all to happen, Doncic needs to take a huge step in the maturation and learn how to empower his teammates, much like his idol LeBron James. If Luka can unlock this part of his game, he will definitely be the next king of the NBA.
I was struggling between Joel Embiid and Trae Young, but I think a rather unfortunate situation for the Philadelphia 76ers has brought Embiid's character to the front of the NBA stage, and fans love it! Joel has shown a nice balance of toughness and understanding for his teammate Ben Simmons by being honest to the media but promoting encouragement and support for Simmons before the Sixers' home opener. While this is to be expected of a leader, the fact that Joel Embiid is handling this situation exceptionally well is a true sign of maturity. Let's not forget that when healthy, there is no big man in the league better than Embiid, not even Jokic or AD.
Embiid played through a knee injury against Atlanta in the playoffs and almost got the team to advance without the services of his fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, so it is without a doubt that Embiid is all about winning. Like Giannis, Embiid plays both ends of the floor while possessing the smooth offensive gifts that The Greek Freak just doesn't have. Joel Embiid was leading the MVP for most of last season, and when healthy, I don't know if there is a player who has the same ability to dominate a game as Embiid. He has no weaknesses on offense, can protect the rim exceptionally on defense, and plays with a ferocity that is almost non-existent in today's NBA.
One might argue that a big man like Embiid can never be the face of the league, as it has always been wing players who have the ball in their hands that took the mantle across the annals of NBA history. However, Embiid can do almost anything on the floor, and the fact that he does those things at his size should work to his advantage. Embiid has a winning attitude, but he just needs to back that up with some results to get the respect that he deserves as the game's best player.
LeBron James has done so much for the league and its players, but as he gets ready to move on in life, I can't help but feel excited by the amount of talent in the NBA. Many players deserve to be on this prospective list, but these three, along with Trae Young, are those that stand out. It is comforting to know that the NBA is in good hands, and with these three players all being from outside of the United States, the NBA is now poised to cater to its biggest global fanbase ever.