This is the one they make into posters, the one that works no matter if you’ve ever picked up a basketball, the one that resonates with the kids at his I Promise School who truly don’t know what the future holds but are posting rapidly improving test scores in the meantime:

“The reason why I’m the person I am today is because I went through those tough times when I was younger.”

For the deepest dive into James’ story, that’s it. It’s a separate but related category of self-improvement now that he is older with plenty of laurels to rest upon.

Four years ago, this was how James put it for Bleacher Report: “It doesn’t matter when you change; it’s the fact that you can know that you can get better, even at our age, even with our accolades, even with what we’ve done in our careers.”

The version of James that the Lakers have gotten is still physically overwhelming but, as he cited, with the biggest basketball IQ to date. Because Los Angeles traffic snarls are what they are, James uses his one-hour, 15-minute commute to Staples Center to treat the opposing team like a frog to be dissected for biology lab—studying what they did especially well the past two games and preparing to take it away. James’ stretch-run performance running the offense against the Clippers was another example of his IQ allowing the Lakers to hone in on opposition weaknesses without needing timeouts to draw up plays.

Perhaps just as important as that expanded basketball brain, this is the most experienced, polished leader that LeBron has ever been. The leadership aspect of him has grown to the point where he could help this franchise navigate a bumpy season that recently included Bryant’s tragic death. How many people could have spoken the way James spoke and then played the way James played that night that the Lakers returned to action after that helicopter accident?

A myriad of elements that are difficult to quantify should go into NBA MVP voting consideration. A prime example would be defensive communication, where Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James is the best on the team.

Leadership, however, is probably at the top of that intangible list. And James’ leadership skills at this point in his career mean that his messages carry more weight than ever.

Even if the advanced stats showing how the team compares when James is on vs. off the court are plain to read, the way James has led the team is what those on the inside truly feel in their hearts.

“Anthony’s a player in his prime who can do it all,” Vogel said of Anthony Davis. “But to be around LeBron on a day-to-day basis, to see how he works, how he prepares, to see his mind and how he dissects the game before it ever starts with the preparation and the film work, his mindset to play through things—all these things have been great for Anthony to be around. They have made him already that much stronger, and these are lessons and experiences that he’ll carry with him throughout the rest of his career.”

Davis brought up James’ oft-mentioned growth process when asked about his first Lakers season, saying: “Our team is constantly improving and getting better, so this first year for me has been nothing but amazing.”

And even though historically voters have struggled to identify which star on certain teams should be NBA MVP over another, note the endorsement offered by the Lakers’ leading scorer in reply to a question about James.

“MVP,” Davis said. “That’s it. MVP.”



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