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Giannis May Be Heir to the King's Throne, but for Now, He Bends Knee to LeBron

Ken Berger

CHARLOTTE  With 6:43 left in the 68th NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night, team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo checked back into the contest. In basketball, when you step onto the floor, you're supposed to "find your man."

LeBron found Giannis.

Of course he did.

It was all fun and games during the televised All-Star draft, but James got serious in the fourth quarter. With the Greek Freak—the presumed heir to James' throne—matched up against the King, some may have been looking for a "pass the torch" moment.

Not on this night. Not yet.

"You put me on the floor, I love to compete," said James, whose handpicked team featuring former teammate Kyrie Irving and—who knows?—possible future teammates Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat Team Giannis 178-164.

"I'm a competitor no matter what it is," James said. "I was competing to see if I can get to this [interview] table first. Did anybody come in here before me?"

The answer: Nope.

"See what I'm talking about?" James said as he rose from his chair, descended from the stage and embarked on one of the biggest challenges of his 16-year career: getting the 28-29 Lakers into the playoffs.

"That's the only thing that's going to happen in my mental space for these next two months," James said. "Pretty much how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury."

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But for one more night at least, James could relish in being surrounded by superstars, superfriends and former superfriends (like his old pal Dwyane Wade, with whom James connected on a few final alley-oops for old times' sake) while fending off the next generation of stars coming to someday knock him off his pedestal.

It happens to them all, but it's not time for James to concede anything. All-Star Weekend in Charlotte will be remembered for a few things, but a sea-change moment in which a new generation appears poised to supplant the old won't be one of them.

With James' team—also known as Team "Who Wants to Play with LeBron Next Season?"—clinging to a five-point lead with less than four minutes left, James got the ball on the wing and thumped his chest. It's the universal basketball symbol for "Get out of my way." He sized up Joel Embiid, stepped back and hit a three-pointer to make it 166-158.

He was then on the receiving end of an alley-oop from Irving to make it 168-158 with 3:14 left before Antetokounmpo got a measure of revenge, jamming a putback in James' face.

But James achieved a much greater level of satisfaction: an All-Star win (resulting in $350,000 being donated to the charity of his choice, Charlotte-based Right Moves for Youth); a second All-Star MVP for his buddy Durant (his No. 1 pick in the All-Star draft for the second straight year); and the knowledge that if anyone has designs on putting him out to pasture, they have more work to do.

I mean, beat the man to the interview room, and then we can talk.

In the midst of a breakout season—and leading the surprising Bucks to the best record in the East—Antetokounmpo was poised to become the first international player to win All-Star MVP. He was the best player on the floor with 38 points on 17-of-23 shooting, 11 rebounds and five assists. But all he would get on this night was a brief taste of what it's like to be the face of more than just a city or a franchise but of an entire global game.

"It's easy as long as you stay humble and down to earth," Antetokounmpo said. "I think just being the leader of the team, it wasn't as tough as I thought because my teammates—the guys in the locker room—encouraged me to step up and take it serious, play hard and help the team win. So that was kind of easy tonight."

With NBA stars coming and going in waves for as long as the sport has existed, there have been seminal All-Star moments when the old guard appeared poised to cede control to the new. My favorite example has always been the first All-Star Weekend I reported on: 1997 in Cleveland, when Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson famously dueled in what was then called the Rookie Challenge, Michael Jordan played in his second-to-last All-Star Game as a Bull, and the group of the 50 greatest players was presented.

(That's a list that is badly in need of updating, but that's a story for another day.)

With a brash new generation of stars led by Bryant and Iverson looking to take over, the common theme that weekend was, "Will the kids be all right?" It took some time, but in the end, the NBA's "me generation" turned out just fine. The sport kept growing, beyond even anything Jordan—now the principal owner of the host Hornets—could have contemplated.

Howard Beck and longtime NBA insider Michael Lee of The Athletic break down the All-Star Weekend's most memorable moments, the latest on the Anthony Davis saga and what lies ahead for LeBron and the Lakers in the latest Full 48 podcast.

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The following year at Madison Square Garden, Jordan and Bryant had their own famous back-and-forth as the upstarts kept storming the gates. Bryant wowed the Garden crowd as he led the West with 18 points and went at Jordan with a glimpse of the steely-eyed, obsessive and borderline maniacal competitiveness that we would later see play out over a Hall of Fame career that included five championships.

Obviously, the NBA was in good hands, and it has been ever since. In his 16th season, James has put his stamp on the sport's Mount Rushmore, and he's obviously not finished writing his legacy.

Who's next? As we learned Sunday night, it's not time to answer that question yet, though I did catch up with one of the graybeards from a bygone era during the weekend in Charlotte and asked him what he thought.

"The new generation of 2020-2030, I don't know how the league's gonna be," Knicks great Charles Oakley told Bleacher Report. "LeBron is only going to be around so much longer, and he carried the torch from Michael and Kobe. I don't see that magnitude guy like that. Anthony Davis, Kyrie, I don't know if those guys will be able to hold the torch like those guys did."

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We've heard laments like this before, and they've always turned out to be misguided. And the way the league is set up now, it's going to happen gradually this time.

Durant is at the height of his powers, James is still pushing for more, and Davis and Leonard are clamoring to create superteams (maybe Team LeBron). Until then, the Warriors are still the mark to shoot for in the West, while the Bucks are riding Antetokounmpo's brilliance to the top of the East.

In 2019, there's no torch to be passed. Not yet. The captain and architect of Team Giannis had his work cut out for him Sunday night. And it doesn't get any easier from here. 


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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