Lebron James has done the seemingly impossible. No, that’s not make it out of the streets of Akron, Ohio, raised only by a single mother to become arguably the second greatest basketball player of all time … instead, he has managed to get better in year fifteen of his career.
Better might be an overstatement, but he clearly is showing off an improved shooting stroke this year, coupled with a zen mastery of basketball knowledge, while only slightly losing some of his otherworldly athleticism, which has seen him at least return to MVP form (and possibly lead the MVP race).
However, just to show how rare what Lebron James is doing I’m going to compare him to the greatest to ever play the game at year fifteen in their respective careers. The numbers speak for themselves and Lebron is truly showcasing the kind of unique athletic specimen he truly is.
Points Per Game (PPG) is often a stat people look to in order to see the dominance a player has over a game. Sometimes a misperceived stat as it is over glorified, it is still the main aim of the game, put the ball through the hoop. Lebron is miles ahead of his Hall of Fame counter-parts, almost 3 points ahead of his nearest rival as seen in the graph above. Legendary scoring machine and widely considered the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, only averaged a 20 PPG for a lowly Washington Wizards team that didn’t even make the playoffs. Albeit, Jordan was 39 years old at the time, while Lebron only turns 33 at the end of December (although Lebron has played more games than Jordan).
Not only is he scoring more than all of these other great players at this stage of their career, he is also shooting it at a better rate than any of them. The graph above shows the players True Shooting Percentage (TS%), which according to Basketball-Reference.com, is a “measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-point field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws”. Again, James leads this category by a healthy margin with a TS% of 65.7 percent, which trumps Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s percentage of 60.8 percent. He’s a full five percent better than a 7”2 giant, who had the most unstoppable shot of all time and also got most of his points within five feet of the basket.
While Lebron is a scoring machine, he is better known for being able to do everything on the basketball court, he can dominate a game with more than just his scoring. James is known as a gifted passer, often compared to the great Magic Johnson for his court vision. The chart above shows that only assist king, Steve Nash (11.4), bests him in this category. Not even all time great point guard John Stockton could muster up more assists than ‘The Chosen One’. Nash of course had the advantage of playing full time point guard with his only real job to set up team mates, whereas Lebron is averaging 8.3 assists while also averaging 8.3 rebounds. Lebron isn’t particularly close to the top of the rebounding pile, however, as shown in the graph below, he is above the mean. He is bested only by some of the best big man rebounders to ever play the game.
Lebron also stuffs the stat sheet on the defensive end. Combining steals and blocks Lebron sits in 3rd with 2.4 per game. One of the best defensive players ever, Hakeem Olajuwon, obliterates the competition with 4.1 per game. However, Lebron James shows his versatility on the basketball court by being near the top of all of these categories.
Lebron James not only dominates traditional statistics, he’s an advanced stats mercenary. Lebron by any metric is great, hence being considered one of the best players ever, but when compared to all of these great players, it’s not even a contest. Player efficiency rating (PER), is widely regarded as a stat that can truly quantify how valuable a basketball player is on the court. According to basketball-reference.com, PER, ‘The Player Efficiency Rating (PER), is a per-minute rating developed by ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger.
In Hollinger’s words, “The PER sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance while adjusting for pace.” ‘The King’s PER in year 15 is just astounding, it is a full four points better than his closest rival Karl Malone, who in all honesty is the only one who came close. Karl Malone, revered for how well he kept his body during his career, was the pinnacle of fitness later in his career. That James has easily outperformed him is a testament to the work that Lebron has put into keeping his body in phenomenal condition even at this late stage of his career. The only way to compare his PER in this season is to compare it to the all-time single season PER. Wilt Chamberlain holds the record of 31.82 in his fourth season in the league while he was 26 years old, and averaged a mere 44.8 PPG and 24.3 RPG. Lebron, at nearly 33 years old in his 15th season, would have the 9th highest PER ever if the season ended today.
Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), is a stat which directly correlates with the player’s direct impact on his team winning a game. Again, Lebron shows he is not just a superior player but absolutely vital for his team to succeed even in the regular season. The graph above shows that Karl Malone is Lebron’s only true challenger when it comes to comparing players in year fifteen in their respective careers. However, this is one time ‘The Mailman’ can’t deliver as ‘The King’ rules over all when it comes to players a decade and a half into their respective careers. The graph below is simply an amalgamation of all the stats mentioned throughout this article to show his utter dominance in every aspect of the game.
So, what does any of this even mean? We already knew Lebron is one of the best ever to play the game and his longevity has always been a big factor in that. It seems though that even comparing him to past greats isn’t fair. So who better to compare Lebron to other than, well, Lebron James! James’ tenth year in the league, when he won his second NBA championship and fourth MVP trophy is widely regarded as the greatest Lebron James season, statistically anyways. This was when Lebron was in the prime of his career at 28 years old and was playing for a powerhouse Miami Heat squad.
James slid to the power forward position and Coach Eric Spoelstra was using James masterfully to get him easy chances around the basket. This was pinnacle Lebron, the apex predator, the cerebral assassin, the final evolution. However, it seems Lebron still had more growing to do as a player and has developed even further. The graph below compares these two seasons. Lebron this year trumps his past self in points, rebounds, assists and TS%. In the 2012-13 season, James was one vote shy of becoming the first ever unanimous MVP. This year is comparable, if not more impressive. Is Lebron going to make history again and become the first player ever to win an MVP fifteen years into his career, five years after he won his last one?
Stats taken from Basketball-reference.com, Lebron James stats as of December 2nd 2017.
By Lee Shields