"I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world."
He was merely stating what was, at the time, an article of faith within the basketball world: LeBron is the best, and has been the best at least since Kobe Bryant declined. But a mere half-season of basketball has completely shaken that widely subscribed faith. Suddenly, Stephen Curry -- current leader in PER, plus-minus and points per game -- also leads a charge of superstars challenging this conventional wisdom.
LeBron's Game 5 statement was notable for its unexceptional reception. Normally, an athlete's positive self-ranking rankles. At the very least, it sparks some controversy. A declaration of "best" is classic sports bar argument fodder, an opening for a torrent of takes.
Except in this case, LeBron's comment was met with broad, approving consensus. The responses ranged from, "He's not wrong" to "He's just being honest." This consensus somehow existed in a world where James hadn't won MVP in two seasons -- a mostly logical result of lacking the best stats in those years. Somehow, we all knew the complicated rules: Even if LeBron no longer produced the best stats, he still claimed the top status. In retrospect, it's difficult to know how much of this was a savvy acknowledging of LeBron's postseason versatility and how much of it was a reluctance to face that LeBron, a symbol of physical force and vitality, was on a decline.
The Finals MVP voting splits reflected the difficulty of judging a modern, less-efficient LeBron. Andre Iguodala was awarded Finals MVP -- mostly because his team won and how he defended James into inefficiency. Somewhat paradoxically, LeBron received four of 11 votes for Finals MVP -- this despite his team getting soundly beaten in the last three games, and despite LeBron missing 19.7 shots per contest and despite LeBron shooting 1-of-9 in what NBA stats defines as clutch situations (the last five minutes of a game and the score is within five points). In the minds of quite a few smart people, the enormity of 35.8 points, 13.3 boards and 8.8 assists on a depleted roster far outweighed scoring at a less efficient rate than any Allen Iverson season. Also, the efficacy of LeBron's Finals is a topic on which reasonable people can disagree.
Curry's early series struggles certainly helped LeBron make a run for the first Finals MVP in a loss since Jerry West in 1969. In Game 2, with Matthew Dellavedova nipping at his heels, Curry shot 5-of-23, including an air-balled would-be game winner. He drew double teams throughout the series and finished with respectable averages of 26.0 points on 20.3 shots, but the series left many feeling that he wasn't quite there yet. And if, in victory, he couldn't garner more support than LeBron for Finals MVP, he probably hadn't done enough to supplant LeBron's popular status as incumbent for "best."
After the Finals, not even Curry's assistant coach thought him fit for that top spot. Upon taking the New Orleans Pelicans head coaching job, a gleeful Alvin Gentry, referring to Anthony Davis, said, "We got the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James."
Mere months later, Warriors players are reflexively calling Curry "the best." They've appropriated Gentry's phrase for their own guy -- minus the mentioning LeBron James. It's easy to dismiss this as teammates backing teammates, but it represents a rhetorical shift. Curry's teammates mostly shied from saying this during his MVP season.
Draymond Green said Curry ascended to "best" status last season but that there was a lag before many admitted it.
"Last year he was, but as we all know, everything in basketball is usually a year behind," Green said at practice on Sunday. "Gotta get comfortable with it. Gotta see it again to know, all right, I'm seeing what I'm seeing. And then you gotta get comfortable enough with it to be confident enough to say it. Then you gotta get comfortable enough with it to be confident enough to believe it. So I think it's a process, but I think it's a process that's been taking place for over the last two years now."
Green provides a complete rubric on how people eventually embrace change. Andrew Bogut notes that Curry exceeding expectations this season helped validate the visible changes of last season.
"What [Curry] did last season, MVP in my opinion is the best player in the world of that period," Bogut said. "And he started off the season even better."
Bogut isn't much for weighing in on comparison debates, noting: "Every day's a different argument. Like people calling up Ron Harper and asking his opinion, would the Warriors beat you guys? Who gives a s---?"
At this point, Klay Thompson interjects to say, "Wise words from Down Under!"
Neither player enjoys getting pulled into the maelstrom of rankings headlines, but both believe Curry to be the best right now, for different reasons.
Bogut says Curry became the best because he eschewed the isolation basketball that other superstars crave.
"Most superstar players would not like a coach that preaches ball movement," Bogut said. "So it's unique because most superstar players want the ball, iso to the top. They want to put it between their legs 15 times and shoot a shot, right?
"Whereas Steph is, hey, move the ball. We want to get five or six passes per possession. A lot of superstars don't want that because they want their numbers, they want volume shots. Steph bought into it."
Thompson, an early adopter in claiming Steph as top guy, goes the other way. Thompson cites a moment of iso ball glory as the time he realized Steph was best.
"That famous play against the Clippers when he went behind the back, mixed two of their big guys and hit it in Chris Paul's face," Thompson recalled. "I was like, 'Wow. Never seen that before.' So that's when I knew he was the guy."
Curry has a nuanced take on believing himself best, often pointing out that other guys feel similarly about themselves, and that such confidence is necessary at this level. As for when Curry himself believed it, he cites that first playoffs in 2013.
"I don't know if there was a specific day I woke up and I was like, 'Ahhhhhh.'" Curry said, grinning. "But I think, the experience and confidence, maybe the first playoff run we had built up that confidence, that experience of playing in the big game and playing well, continue to get better. That kind of accelerated my game, trying to continue to get better."
It seems Curry is succeeding at the "get better" goal -- still. The same could be said of San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, who's blossomed into a brilliant offensive player, in addition to providing an impact on defense that might be generationally unique. The Thunder's Kevin Durant, still only 27, may have another level to reach.
LeBron James, now 31 years old, tries to keep them all at bay.
Or, for the first time in a decade, catch up.