Give And Go: LeBron James
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth. Today’s focus is LeBron James, who on Monday was named Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsman of the Year.
1. LeBron James impressed in innumerable ways in 2012. Aside from the most obvious — winning his first NBA title — what was his standout moment or personal quality?
Ben Golliver: His consistency of excellence in the playoffs. Consistency is one of those holy skills in the NBA, one of the easiest things to critique an average player, or even an above-average player, for lacking. James drew heat in 2010-11 not only for shrinking from the biggest moments but also for laying eggs in key games, the most memorable coming when he scored just eight points in a Game 4 loss to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals.
James was a man on a mission during the 2012 postseason, especially after Chris Bosh was lost early in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers, famously forsaking Twitter in favor of reading books to help keep his focus. The Heat went 11-4 in their final 15 games, from May 20 to June 21. During that stretch, James averaged 31.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.5 steals and shot 51.5 percent from the field. He never scored fewer than 26 points and he never grabbed fewer than six rebounds. The only game in which he shot worse than 42 percent, a Game 2 victory against the Celtics in the East finals, James made up for it with 24 free-throw attempts. His Game 6 against the Celtics — 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists,19-for-26 shooting — represented the peak of an extraordinary postseason run, but it was only the largest diamond in a string of them.
Rob Mahoney: His willingness to finally erase the arbitrary boundaries of positional basketball. James is the broadest talent in league history, but before last season he had been oddly protective of traditional positional designations. LeBron was, since his arrival in the league, a “small forward” — and he balked at the notion of being classified as anything else. As such, James refused to take full advantage of his extraordinary physical gifts by playing out of position on a more regular basis, thus locking himself and his team into a limited range of lineup options.
All of that changed in the 2011-2012 season, as James and the Heat escaped such antiquated notions of position by going “small” more often than ever, and eventually settling into a default set that featured James, Shane Battier and Chris Bosh as an odd, high-functioning frontcourt. James was a post-up option, a playmaker, a perimeter stopper, a roving help defender and just about everything in between. He took on roles associated with each of the five traditional positions, and though coach Erik Spoelstra’s willingness to disregard positional orthodoxy played a part in James’ enlightenment, this was a process long overdue and one that demanded LeBron’s approval. In 2011, referring to James as a power forward would cause him to bristle. Today, the reference invites a lesson from a player whose talents have allowed the Heat on the whole to transcend position (via Tom Haberstroh of Heat Index):
James cracked a smile at the notion of playing power forward.
“What’s that?” James deadpanned. “I don’t have a position.”
That’s not just a good gag on the Miami media corps, but the simple truth behind James’ latest evolution. LeBron has made a vibrant career out of singularity, and once free of the restraints that he imposed on his own game, he dominated in ways we could have never imagined.
2. Has James lived up to the hype, given that he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 2002 when he was still a junior in high school?
RM: Absolutely, and that was true long before James accessorized with some gaudy new jewelry. Championship or not, we’re talking about an all-world scorer, an elite passer, a top-three defender and a physical wonder. His NBA career isn’t without its blemishes, but the occasional playoff slip can’t discount the incredible production (and heavy burden that James has carried). He entered the league as a ready-made pro, and since then has vaulted to the top of his profession. That alone is enough to satisfy the weight of expectation, even if he weren’t also a worthy champion. Titles are the ultimate pursuit in any sport, but there’s room for distinction between that kind of lofty goal and an independent evaluative criteria. James produced more than one could reasonably expect of any star in his pursuit of a championship, as evidenced by the six consecutive years in which he has led the league in Player Efficiency Rating, as well as his defensive growth. That he now has the ultimate team accomplishment to add to an already lengthy résumé is great, but it’s hardly a definitive point of validation for a career already so amazingly well played.
BG: I think so, if only because we as a society do “hype” on such a grander scale in 2013 than in 2002. Imagine what would happen if he were coming up through the high school ranks today. Imagine an 18-year-old with millions of Twitter followers being forced to play in the NCAA for a year or go overseas even though he could start on at least 20 NBA teams. The debate over his future would rage nonstop with every 40-point explosion against random high schools in Ohio; highlight reels from every high school game would circulate instantly online to millions of hits; photos of the yellow Hummer would be shared on Instagram and Facebook endlessly; entire websites would be devoted to his college decision; professional teams in four or five countries would be courting his services. It would be even more dizzying than his already legendary hype was a decade ago.
Winning his first title did a lot to help him fulfill expectations on the hype front, as it has for Michael Jordan and other mega-stars before him. He was dubbed “The Chosen One” because ultimate greatness seemed predestined; meeting that standard, as he did in 2012, justifies the early attention. He also benefits from what has been nine full years of sparking statistics and accomplishments: two Olympic gold medals, three MVPs, eight All-Star Games, six All-NBA first-teams, a global empire, a massive shoe deal, countless endorsement deals, an ownership stake in Liverpool. In some ways, he’s exceeded the wildest dreams set out for him in 2002.
3. How close is James to his peak, or is he at the summit already?
BG: He’s getting close to topping out, at least from a strictly numbers perspective, even though he’s only 27 (James turns 28 on Dec. 30). With more than 28,000 regular-season minutes and nearly 5,000 postseason minutes logged already, he’s likely headed for a second chapter of his career that includes a somewhat lighter load, especially during the regular season. There’s just no need to ride him as heavily night in and night out. James has seemed, at times, indefatigable, and his ability to avoid any serious injury over the course of a decade despite playing such heavy minutes is remarkable. James’ minutes have come down, slightly, for three consecutive seasons. Where once he played 40 minutes, now he plays roughly 37. James hasn’t averaged at least 30 points since 2007-08, and he hasn’t attempted 20 shots per game since 2009-2010. The raw output is less, even if he is better and more efficient today than he was two years ago.
Jordan’s PER topped out at age 27. He did continue to produce at an ultra-elite level until he was 32, although he spent roughly two years away from the game during that time period. James could follow a similar path over the next few seasons on a Miami team that should be a no-brainer top seed under almost any scenario for the duration of his current contract, even if his minutes or shots are scaled back. As he continues through the next five seasons, James, like Jordan, will get savvier and more intimidating to opponents. That will help build out his reputation and the Heat’s title chances at the same time age and/or mileage start to affect his stats.
In sum, it’s practically a given that the consensus opinion of James will be even loftier in three years than it is today, even if his stats — especially his raw numbers, but also his advanced numbers — don’t ascend at the same rate. The more Miami wins with him as the clear-cut No. 1 guy, the greater his legend will grow.
RM: There’s an inevitability to James’ decline, but it’s tough to use any previous player — even Jordan — as an analogue in terms of career trajectory. This isn’t just the latest of the greatest, after all, but an unprecedented bundle of size and skills. He may not have the complete technical mastery of a late-career MJ, but James has a massive size advantage that won’t ever fade and a pass-first game that should age brilliantly. That doesn’t mean he’ll be able to produce at this level forever, but it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see LeBron extend his prime in ways that weren’t necessarily available to Jordan or previous hoops legends.
The summit is near, but still ahead — James is somehow still an improving player, capable of building out his game through those bits of nuance and savvy that only veterans can amass. That he has already peaked in raw output is another matter entirely; James’ best statistical days may be behind him, but the best player alive can still use his significant physical advantages to get better.
4. If he is to raise his game, what’s left to improve?
RM: It says plenty about James that this may be the most difficult question to answer about his game these days. He’s filled virtually every void in his skill set over the last few seasons, with several of those weaknesses — defense and post play, in particular — now repurposed into dependable strengths. That leaves a lack of obvious areas for improvement, though there are still some slighter facets of James’ play with room for growth. If we’re going to pin down one, I’ll take the calibration of his help defense. For a player so quick and athletic, it can be tempting to over-help — to double-team when it isn’t prudent, pressure too aggressively against floundering opponents or abandon a strict defensive assignment for the sake of contributing to the strong side’s defensive success. James generally does a good job of sticking to his assigned defensive duties rather than chase the ball, but there’s nonetheless a prime balance for which he’ll always be striving.
BG: The fine-tuning James has done to his game in recent years has been a treat for basketball nerds. Improving his shot selection, by cutting way down on threes and homing in on his hot spots, has been music to the ears of the hoops intelligentsia. Upping his rebounding averages, as he ushers in a “position-less” style in Miami, was another great development. His insistence on making the “right play” as opposed to the “hero play” in late-game situations led him to losing a number of battles over the years; now that Miami has a title, vindication is largely his and he might just win the war on this issue. These were some of the most obvious areas he could have improved and, by and large, he has done so noticeably.
James is damn near a perfect player for someone with his size and strength. Should he block more shots? Maybe? Should he shoot better at the free-throw line? For sure, as he’s never surpassed 80 percent in a season. He turns the ball over a lot, but is that a problem? Not really, given how every game revolves around him and he has the ball, usually against the opponent’s best defender, for most of the game.
Other than improving at the free-throw line, yelling less at poor Mario Chalmers and increasing his Gatorade/Powerade intake so that he doesn’t cramp up like he did during the 2012 Finals, I’m not sure there’s much else left for him to do, other than continuing to play at this level for longer than we’ve seen others be capable of doing it.
5. When all is said and done, where will he rank among the greatest players in NBA history?
BG: The scariest thing about James is that he has proved, especially over the last 18 months, that his basketball intelligence matches his physical attributes; he’s so smart and talented that he could play into his 40s if he desires. If Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse can still contribute, to varying degrees, there’s absolutely nothing preventing James from being a rotation player 15 years from now. He could be an effective floor-stretching, rebound-hauling power forward at 42, no problem. The only things stopping him are heretofore unseen injuries or a desire to pursue outside interests. A 25-year career for James is mind-boggling, sure, and it would require a total rewriting of the record books.
James is already widely regarded as a top-20 player in history. He should move into the top 10 within the next three years, assuming he adds at least one more title and continues to pile up statistics at or near his current levels. Assuming he plays another seven seasons, until he’s 35, it would seem far more likely than not that he would cleanly pass Larry Bird, entering into the top-five discussion. From there, battling the likes of Jordan and Bill Russell, it gets significantly more difficult. The fairest way to put this: Every spot, even No. 1, is still on the table for James. If he hopes to unseat Jordan, though, he’ll need the NBA’s scoring record and more than six titles.
RM: We’ve debated LeBron vs. Melo, LeBron vs. Kobe and LeBron vs. Durant, but LeBron vs. Jordan may well last a lifetime. James should ultimately wind up as the easy choice for the No. 2 player of all time, with a perfectly reasonable case as the best ever. So get ready to argue over the merits of both players’ supporting casts, the significance of their championship totals/statistical achievements and their stylistic differences.
Much of that conversation will come down to matters of preference and taste, though I suspect Jordan will still have enough of an edge to keep his current rank and all the accoutrements that come with it. As great as James is, he would need an astounding finish to his career to supplant Jordan atop the NBA pantheon; there’s just too much quantified greatness and too robust a legacy for any player — even one as talented as James — to get by Jordan outright at this point. Instead, he’ll have to settle for merely having a seat at the same table, and besting the likes of Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bird and Magic Johnson by career’s end. Invoking those names as inferiors may seem like blasphemy, but James is so natural a fit in the high NBA order that we can tentatively begin to slide those legends out of the way to make room for his eventual enshrinement.