LeBron James’ month for the ages
By Rob Mahoney
LeBron James has been so fantastic this season that his supernatural play has gone from headline story to steady undercurrent. For many, there’s simply no revelation to be found in a transcendent player doing transcendent things. LeBron is expected to be great, and the fact that he lives up to — and exceeds — even the wildest expectations doesn’t resonate in the same way that his failures to do so might.
And so even though James’ excellence is universally acknowledged at this point (which in itself is a relief, given the bile and vitriol that brewed over his first two seasons in Miami), his exploits are still underappreciated. His recent six-game streak of at least 30 points and 60 percent shooting was incredible, but that kind of record run packages his on-court brilliance as a piece of trivia rather than a statement of dominance.
So let’s attempt to recontextualize, this time around another statistical measure: In their 12-1 February, the Heat scored an outrageous 120.4 points per 100 possessions with James on the floor. That’s almost 10 points better than Miami’s league-leading mark for the season, and thus on a completely different plane relative to the NBA as a whole.
That makes James’ continued ascent register in a holistic way. His added scoring comes at no cost to his teammates, as evidenced by Miami’s bloated efficiency when James is on the court and Dwyane Wade’s corresponding explosion. LeBron’s rebounds and assists are also producing an additive effect rather than a cannibalistic one. His perimeter shooting has been terrific, his in-between game is used sparingly and his frequent trips to the rim have resulted in this kind of inconceivable efficiency this month:
It’s easy to gloss over the specifics of that shot chart for its lush greens, but it borders on unbelievable that a player like James — who shoots around the basket so consistently — could complete 80 percent of his attempts from less than eight feet. With one day left in February, Wade (70.2 percent) has been the only high-volume shooter in that area to come even remotely close to James’ mark this month. Beyond him are the rest of the league’s best finishers and penetrators, eclipsed by the statistical product of James’ physical dominance and immaculate judgment.
Preventing James from getting to the basket is a hugely difficult task, but actually stopping him from scoring — or making a play that leads to a score — once he gets there may be even tougher. We’ve heard the freight train metaphors, but those devices rob James of his improbable finesse and control. Though he may have the momentum of a locomotive, LeBron shouldn’t soon be confused for an engine that needs to run on a straight-line track. He makes his own way — be it over, around or through the defenders who happen to stand in his path.
That freedom of movement en route to the rim gives James all manner of options, with his complete game allowing him to take full advantage of every opportunity. From his first step toward the paint, LeBron grasps at the attention of the entire defense, knowing full well that nothing his opponents do in response will really matter. Opposing big men slide over to preempt his drive. Defenders begin to cheat off of perimeter shooters to help obstruct his path to the basket. Every opponent is wary of what James might do, and yet utterly incapable of stopping him from going where he pleases or scoring as he will. February elevated the dialed-in James to a state of pure inevitability.
That’s just about the only way to explain how a player could score 29.7 points per game this month in the most discerning fashion possible, as James’ shot-creating superiority allowed for him to pick and choose his attempts as wisely as ever. He averaged just 16.2 field-goal attempts in February (down from 19 in the first three months of the season) because that was all that was really needed.
After losing to the Pacers on Feb. 1, the Heat rattled off 12 straight victories based on the axiom that James could shift gears to take over any game at any point against any caliber of competition. They were right. One could blame that same mentality for the Heat’s inconsistent defense, but Miami’s premise was nonetheless confirmed by James’ near-perfect month and punctuated with his demolition of the Kings in a double-overtime explosion on Tuesday:
That level of basketball potency can be quantified (by calculating James’ unearthly Player Efficiency Rating for the month, among other methods), but perhaps not in a way that can be totally understood. After all, putting this kind of power in context is like trying to wrap your head around our country’s massive national debt, or attempting to comprehend the distance from our puny planet to the edge of the universe. We can use different markers as reference points and understand the concepts behind those unrelatable numbers, but ultimately the scale is so large that we have trouble fathoming the full extent of what those values represent. Crazy as it seems, James’ play throughout this month has verged on that same unapproachable scope.
The closest that most will come to really recognizing this absurd level of efficiency is in measuring the shadow that LeBron casts over the rest of the league. He’s been so outstanding that it’s hard to imagine what a month of better basketball might look like, and yet with James showing no signs of slowing down, we may well be privy to that very sight.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com. Video via Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak.