People will often say he’s the same size of Karl Malone except he plays like a guard. Some people mention the incredible passing ability—not just for his position but in general. Some people will talk about his strength going to the basket and his otherworldly defense.
Well, Serge Ibaka might not agree with that last sentiment. If he starts arguing with you about the subject, just pump fake him and he’ll be out of your hair.
Do I think LeBron James is the most unique star to ever play the game? I think he’s very close to being classified as such. There is a big part of me that is hesitant to just give him that status because of the era we’re currently in and the eras that came before us.
When discussing whether or not a guy is the best ever at something or the most unique ever, one must consider the era in which they were playing. When George Mikan was dominating the BAA and the NBA, he was 6’10” and 240 pounds. Almost every other center playing against him was around 6’7” or 6’8” and weighed a lot less.
He was ahead of his time.
When Wilt Chamberlain was setting every scoring record imaginable in the 60s and 70s, he wasn’t just the biggest guy in the league; he was also a world-class track and field athlete. There wasn’t anybody else during his time that could do the things he was able to do athletically.
He used to make free throws by dunking them, causing the NCAA to change rules in order to stop him from doing it.
Then you get to someone like Magic Johnson—a 6’8” player that was probably the inspiration for everybody’s attempt at creating a player in basketball video games the first time around. For his era, there weren’t guards even close to his size, and yet he was able to do everything your typical point guard could do.
So is LeBron James unique to the era he’s playing in?
He is and he isn’t. The NBA has evolved into a league of hyper-athletic small forwards masquerading around other positions on the court. Positions are becoming less of a necessity and more of a novelty. Instead, coaches are putting out their best five-man lineups, regardless of what position a guy naturally plays.
LeBron embodies this more than any player in the NBA. He can literally play all five traditional positions and he gives you the versatility in your lineups that the mad scientists on the sidelines crave.
LeBron fits into his current era perfectly and maybe that’s what makes him so unique. There are four reasons he’s able to accomplish these feats and play anywhere on the basketball court.
I always have a problem with teams playing off of Rajon Rondo because it allows him to see the floor perfectly. For any great passer, the more of the floor you allow them to see, the better odds they’ll see the pass they need to make.
Because LeBron is such a perimeter-oriented player, the defense is at a catch-22 with him. The smaller perimeter guys are the only ones quick enough to stay with him until he bumps them out of position. And bigger defenders are too slow and worried about him driving to the basket. This means they have to play off of LeBron and it gives him a great view of the floor.
What makes LeBron such a great passer (outside of his vision) is his strength. James is so strong that it’s merely a flick of the wrists and a pop of his hands to fire a pass 25 feet on a straight line.
On this play against Dallas to start the season, Marion is playing off of LeBron (partly because LeBron is 30 feet from the basket but also because of the driving capabilities) and it gives LeBron an open view of the floor.
As Wade comes across the lane and plants in front of the basket (something every coach tells you to do), LeBron has enough room and strength to fire the pass in there before Delonte West can recover and pick it off.
Another way in which LeBron is so good at picking apart defenses is his passing out of the post. With today’s help defense rules and schemes almost completely taking away straight-up post play, patient passing out of the post is key.
LeBron watches the help defense set up shop. His teammates know that as soon as their defender turns toward LeBron, they can cut down the lane if a third defender isn’t shading the basket. That’s exactly what Udonis Haslem does here with Roy Hibbert hanging around Joel Anthony for no reason.
LeBron is one of the best bounce passers in the league too, which is instrumental in delivering the ball out of the post to cutters.
I put these two videos together to show you just how special his crosscourt passing is. One of the biggest parts about being a gifted passer in the NBA is willingness to pass. There are times in which we see stars (LeBron included) force up shots on drives where there isn’t much daylight.
On these two plays, LeBron’s drives are almost completely designed to set up the shooters in the corners with Miami. He uses himself as his own decoy for the defense, knowing they’ll suck in to take away whatever shot he might put up.
There are only a few players (Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo) in the league that rival LeBron’s crosscourt passing ability.
There are plays like this in which he dissects your halfcourt defense by being patient enough to wait for guys to be open under the hoop. When that happens, he can look away and deliver a bounce pass on the money for an easy score.
It leaves defenders wondering who was supposed to defend the player that scored because everyone was rotating over to worry about LeBron.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to make you watch individual clips of LeBron grabbing boards. But check out this video.
I used these three rebounds because I wanted to show you a couple of different ways in which he attacks the glass.
First, LeBron has been matching up against bigger players the last two years and he’s been much more adept at boxing out. Here he adjusts on a block by Wade and uses his strength and lower center of gravity to root Serge Ibaka out of rebounding position.
On the second rebound, LeBron skies into the lane to flush down the missed shot by Bosh. As soon as Bosh puts up the awkward shot, you can see LeBron tracking the flight of the ball like it’s some kind of prey. And once he decides to go get it, nobody really has a chance.
On the third rebound, it’s just an example of how he can use his athleticism in traffic to go up and snatch the ball. And his vice-like grip is so strong that it’s hard to tear it away from him once he gets two hands on the ball.
Consider this stat about LeBron. In the history of basketball, only five players have ever been able to score the ball at a clip of 25 points while dishing out seven assists and grabbing seven rebounds or more per game. LeBron has done it five times.
Guys that score and pass well just don’t really seem to find a way to crash the boards. And with LeBron, the cliché of having a “nose for the ball” does seem to fit. He gets a lot of rebounds just by being around the basket on missed shots. Sometimes, it’s that simple.
Defense All Over The Court
The key with what Miami does defensively, especially since Shane Battier signed with them, is they put pressure on the perimeter and switch almost everything. They can do this because they have the athletes to keep up with a lot of perimeter offensive weapons.
By knowing the help will be there if they get beat, Heat perimeter defenders are able to be aggressive and contest shots off the dribble. That’s exactly what LeBron James likes to do.
In this play against Paul Pierce, James does a fantastic job of forcing him away from the middle. When Pierce drives middle, LeBron slides his feet, cuts him off and forces him to find another way to get a shot.
While Pierce loves that pull-up jumper from the elbow, LeBron forces him to fade a bit more than he’d probably like and shoot the ball from farther out than he was likely hoping to.
Every coach in the league preaches to force guys baseline and use it as a defender. They want to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor because that gives you the most options on offense to beat the defense. LeBron does a really good job of taking away the middle.
In this video against Carmelo Anthony, LeBron seems to know exactly what Carmelo wants to do. He knows Melo loves to shoot the step back jumper and he takes away any space and comfort.
LeBron isn’t as physical as Ron Artest used to be, but he defends in a similar manner. He takes away the space the offensive player tries to create and make them feel like he's in their jersey.
I love this video of LeBron fronting the post against Gasol. You heard Jeff Van Gundy talk about how high school coaches want to teach fronting the post. This is textbook.
All of those wall sits your coach made you do over the years pay off right here. LeBron sits down in the post, keeps his butt on Pau’s thighs, and doesn’t allow him to get any leverage.
He beats Pau to the spot, he gets physical on each collision, and he keeps his arms bent and back so he can feel where Gasol will want to go next. He completely takes away the pass on the first possession and gets Pau to commit a frustration foul on the second possession.
And this is the versatility LeBron has added to his defensive game and to Miami’s strategy. They can go small because he’s willing to be physical with bigger guys and take away any advantage they might have. He still struggles to defend longer post players if they do get decent position on him, but that doesn’t happen often.
Then of course there is the chasedown block. He gets blocks in other fashions, but his ability to stalk and attack a layup on the fastbreak can get in your head as an offensive player.
You might hear footsteps and think he’s ready to imprint Spaulding on your forehead. It’s a psychological advantage that shows up every now and then.
Multi-faceted Offensive Game
There isn’t a lot missing from LeBron’s offensive repertoire. Like many NBA stars, you can’t defend LeBron one-on-one. Match him up with a small forward and he’s probably too strong to stop.
Durant did a lot to improve as a defender last season, but LeBron is just quick enough and far too strong for Durant to really stay in front of him consistently. And weak reach-in fouls against LeBron clearly don’t stop him from getting to the basket.
You also have those times in which LeBron is matched up against more traditional power forwards. Here Brandon Bass is left on an island and he really has no chance. LeBron’s crossover is a lot less sloppy than it used to be. It’s lower to the ground and quicker. That’s not fair for opposing 4's he’s going against.
There’s the athleticism James has. The Celtics do a good job of cutting him off from the basket on this play, and yet he still has the hangtime to gather himself in the air and put up a good runner. He’s so good at getting himself balanced and squared to the basket on these, that opponents are just hoping his depth perception malfunctions.
And then there’s his post game. For years, people cried for LeBron to put together a post game. Last season, he showed that he possessed an ability to score in the post. The problem was that he seemed reluctant to go do it.
In 100 games (including playoffs) during the 2010-11 season, LeBron had 205 possessions in the post in which he ended up with a field goal attempt, free throw attempt or turnover. He was 17th in the NBA with 1.04 points per possession, making 54.4 percent of his shots.
This past season, LeBron had 325 post-up possessions in 85 games. He got in the post and did a lot of damage. His numbers went down to 0.94 PPP (25th in the league) and 49.4 percent shooting, but his effectiveness and volume in the post helped diversify Miami’s offense.
As you can see from the video, LeBron has a lot of moves. He’s added the fade-away to both sides, he can do a quick spin as soon as he makes contact in the post and his hook shot is solid.
His outside jumper has gotten a lot better. Two years ago, he shot 44.5 percent from 16-24 feet. It dropped to 38.4 percent this past season, but his balance looks much improved from his days in Cleveland.
He still settles for it too much for a lot of people’s liking (including my own), and he has a tendency to fade unnecessarily. If he can iron out making that shot more difficult, you can expect his percentage to get back to his 2010-11 performance.
How He Can Become The Most Unique NBA Star Ever
So how can LeBron end up being the most unique star ever? As much as I don’t like him settling for long jumpers and three-point shots, adding that to his game as a more consistent weapon would probably set him apart from any other player there has ever been.
Now, don’t confuse that for me saying he’d be the best player ever. I don’t think that’s true. But I do believe he’d end up being the most unique player we’ve ever seen.
He’s a career 33.1 percent three-point shooter but did shoot a career-high 36.2 percent last season. If by some chance he was able to up that to around 40 percent, it would be hard to imagine a more unique player to NBA history than James.
As of right now, I’d give the nod to Magic Johnson as the most unique star we’ve ever seen. Considering his era and his ability, nobody has been as unique to the game as what Magic did out there.
Then again, LeBron is only 27 years old. He has time to get there, which is scary.