With 15 seasons, 14 All-Star games, four MVPs, three championships and 30,000-plus points to his credit, LeBron James has never needed to be reintroduced to NBA fans.
But as he stood at center court of the Staples Center with the All-Star Game MVP trophy hoisted high above his head on Sunday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers megastar might as well have been sending a message to his contemporaries: This is my league, and don't you ever forget it.
It's tough to put too much stock in just one game -- an exhibition, at that -- even though this was the most competitive edition of the NBA All-Star Game in recent memory. Nevertheless, it was difficult to watch the best players on the planet square off in Los Angeles on Sunday night and not think that the namesake of Team LeBron -- and the oldest player in the game -- didn't stand out above the rest.
"I respect the younger guys and... they're the next crew," James said after his 29-point, 10-rebound, 8-assist performance in Team LeBron's 148-145 victory over Team Stephen [Curry]. "What I take pride in is taking care of my body, making sure I'm available every night and continuing to get better and better.
"I don't really take it as, 'It's a young guy, OK I need to show him that I'm still able to to do this.' I need to continue to show myself. Because every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys and prove to myself that I'm still able to play at a high level. And I feel great."
You wouldn't have known it just a few weeks ago, as James endured what was one of the worst stretches of his 15-year career. As the Cavs' play cratered, with Cleveland losing 13 of 19 games dating back to Christmas, so did James', as he posted the worst 30-game plus/minus stretch of his entire career.
Had James' slump continued into this past weekend, it would have been much easier to dismiss his All-Star Game showing as a recent outlier. But after a trio of deadline deals that revamped the Cavs' roster coincided with a renewed sense of spirit from James, Cleveland entered the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak while playing some of its best ball of the season.
With James' momentum only gaining steam in LaLa Land, a big second-half of what's left of the season appears to be on the horizon. And if that turns out to be the case, could the 33-year-old find himself holding a different MVP trophy at season's end?
At this point, it's tough to tell.
Earlier this season, that very idea would have hardly seemed like a stretch. As recently as early-January, James was considered a 2018 NBA MVP front-runner -- and that was before Houston Rockets guard James Harden missed two weeks with a hamstring injury.
But rather than gain ground in this season's MVP race, James seemingly lost some thanks to his uncharacteristic mid-season slump.
If there's any good news when it comes to the Akron native's quest for a fifth career MVP, it's that this year's field is one of the weaker in recent memories. Despite missing two weeks, Harden has re-emerged as the current front-runner coming out of the All-Star break -- albeit almost by default.
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant currently sits second behind Harden in the NBA.com MVP power rankings, but he and Curry (fourth) would likely cancel each other out in actual voting. James is third and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook is fifth, with Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and LaMarcus Aldridge rounding out the top-10.
For the first time in recent memory, there's no perfect candidate. Harden has been great, but his gaudy numbers are viewed by some as a product of Houston's system. Players on Super Teams like Golden State often get punished, while voters already appear to have Westbrook fatigue.
James' case isn't perfect, but a strong finish to the season would at the very least make things interesting.
Whether or not that would be enough to overlook the lows of his January will be up to the voters to decide. But if the scene on Sunday night was any indication, James appears poised to make a compelling case.