The two-time champion and four-time MVP who’s played in the last five NBA Finals? The guy who just surpassed Kobe Bryant as the All-Star Game’s all-time leading scorer … in six fewer appearances? That guy?
Yeah, he’s still a thing.
You might not have noticed him if you were paying attention to the dominant storylines of the season.
Kobe Bryant’s retirement farewell tour and Stephen Curry’s historical level of dominance have cast James into a supporting role for the first time in nearly a decade. When was the last time we talked about him this infrequently? 2008? 2007? Before he was in high school?
Other players, teams and narratives have had their moments, but James has always been the biggest story.
And yet he’s not anymore — at least not right now.
The 2016 All-Star Game characterized James’ relative anonymity in stunning fashion.
The entire contest was revolved around Bryant’s curtain call, with celebrations before, during and after the game. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Anthony Davis and John Wall all had their moments to shine as well. Kevin Durant and James Harden got buckets, too. Curry made a halfcourt shot that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
James, though, finished with just 13 points (6-of-13 shooting, 1-of-5 on 3s), four rebounds and seven assists in 20 minutes, and besides a few impressive dunks and a playful defensive encounter with Bryant, remained in the shadows.
The only All-Stars who played more than him yet scored less were Dwyane Wade (eight points), Klay Thompson (nine) and, of course, Bryant (10). In a game featuring the league’s best players and brightest stars, LeBron James was merely a subplot.
It was only the second time James had played fewer than 30 minutes in his 12 All-Star appearances (and marked his fewest minutes ever), and his 13 points matched his previous low from 2005, his first All-Star Game.
James didn’t play in the fourth quarter and played only 6:24 in the second half. Part of that, according to Eastern Conference All-Star and Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronne Lue, was by design.
“Before the game, he just said he wanted to play six minutes in the quarter, in the fourth quarter,” Lue said. “If it was close, in reach, he’d play more minutes. Just talking to Carmelo, D-Wade and LeBron, once it got out of hand, just sent the young guys in to play and let them enjoy it.”
No All-Star coach wants to tax his own player — and risk injury — in a meaningless exhibition game. The matchup was out of hand midway through the third quarter, and there was no point in putting James back in. That makes sense. Lue wanted to give other players who might not even be All-Stars next season a chance to enjoy the moment.
James didn’t fully get to enjoy his moment, though. Bryant started the night as the All-Star Game’s all-time leading scorer with 280 points, holding a two-point edge over James’ 278. By the end of the game, James narrowly surpassed Bryant, 291-290 — and will only expand his lead from there.
Yet few acknowledged the stat. Here is James, who’s only played in 12 All-Star Games, surpassing Bryant, who’s played in 15 of his 18 selections, and it flew under the radar. Not that James cared.
“Oh, it absolutely means nothing,” James said. “It means absolutely nothing (smiling). I’m just blessed to be a part of All-Star Weekend. This being my 12th consecutive appearance, being able to start for the East, it means a lot to my family and my fans. But the scoring, that’s never meant nothing to me.”
This isn’t to say James isn’t one of the game’s biggest stars. The media still discusses him constantly, and fans continuously debate his overall place in the NBA pantheon. He still has the second-most popular jersey.
It’s just that before the coverage surrounding his every move was insane, unprecedented and, at times, annoying. No one — not Michael Jordan, not Magic Johnson and not even Bryant — has ever been covered the way LeBron has, and that was part of what made him special. If your nicknames are The Chosen One and King James, you’re going to rub a lot of people the wrong way and drive a lot of conversation.
But that’s finally started to change. People care a little less now — perhaps because he hasn’t won a championship over the past two seasons and looks like an overwhelming underdog to win one this season — and any drop-off in the coverage of James is easy to notice. There are varying levels of stardom, and he’s always been on the extreme end. When people aren’t talking about him all the time, it’s just weird. And that’s where we’re at currently.
Depending on your opinion of Curry and Bryant, James is probably No. 2 or No. 3 overall in the metaphorical player popularity rankings (there’s an argument to be made regarding the order of the three, though the best indication could be All-Star voting, in which James was third).
This won’t last forever, of course. Bryant’s retirement will make him a topic of the past next season. Curry and the Golden State Warriors won’t likely be 48-4 at the All-Star break ever again. The San Antonio Spurs could be without Tim Duncan and/or Manu Ginobili next year. Whenever there is a lack of drama in the NBA, the quickest way to stir up controversy is to bring up James’ name.
We will talk about him again at some point. When, though? Barring him leaving Cleveland again or finally winning a championship there (both of which are long shots), it’s difficult to see how James recaptures the attention of the league.
Though Sunday’s game signified the end of the Bryant era, maybe it also signified the end of LeBron’s era of dominating the media.
The game is heading in a new direction, with new stars. James is a legend, an all-time great, a top-7 (or better) all-time player just past the halfway point of his career. But he’s also less interesting than he used to be — or perhaps, for whatever reason, we’re just less interested.
Jovan Buha covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @jovanbuha.