Only a persistent nitpicker (and, perhaps, a screaming Skip Bayless) could make LeBron James' 2011-12 campaign look like anything other than one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history.
The Miami Heat superstar posted an otherworldly line of 27.1 points (third in the NBA), 6.2 assists (13th), 7.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals (third) on the way to posting a player efficiency rating (PER) of 30.7, topping the league in that regard for the fifth year in a row. More remarkably, James became the only man other than Michael Jordan to ever win the MVP, the Finals MVP, the Larry O'Brien Trophy and an Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year
I could go on for days describing the ways in which LeBron rewrote the rules of modern basketball last season, but I'd probably bore you to death with the details of something about which you were likely already aware.
What's most fascinating about James' latest masterpiece, though, is that it might only be the beginning.
Which seems insane at first glance, since LeBron's won three of the last four MVPs. But it wasn't until the 2012 playoffs that the Heat finally, truly and definitely became LeBron's (rather than Dwyane Wade's) team.
And all LeBron did in the postseason was put up 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals while shedding every clutch-related monkey that had clung so desperately to his back for years. "Suddenly", LeBron flipped the switch from choker to champion, which, presumably, means the pressure won't be so suffocating, at least for the time being.
But the prospects of LeBron improving upon near-perfection extend far beyond esoteric proclamations regarding weights lifted, labels busted and new days dawned.
Believe it or not, LeBron's game still has holes (albeit small ones) that could use some shoring up. His shooting, be it from the perimeter or the free-throw line, remains the biggest weakness in his largely-impeccable arsenal.
James was more accurate from the three-point line than league average for the first time in his career in 2011-12, when he nailed 36.2 percent of his attempts. That number is somewhat deceiving, though, as he registered a career-low in attempts per game (2.4). What's more, his accuracy dropped precipitously during the postseason, to 25.9 percent, as the frequency of his three-point tries ballooned back up to 3.7 per game.
Clearly, LeBron's three-point shooting remains a work-in-progress.
And if he's going to continue to take 5.6 "long twos" (shots between 16 and 23 feet from the basket) per game—tied for the most of any small forward and the ninth-most in the NBA—he'd do well to up the ante from that part of the floor as well. His 39-percent proficiency on such shots was only a hair above the league average (38.1 percent) and represented a dramatic decline from the year prior, when he converted a career-best 45 percent of his long twos.
Not that James should spend so much time floating around the perimeter anyway. If anything, it was encouraging to see him cut down on his outside shooting and spend more time scoring from closer in (we'll get to his post game in a bit). And, to his credit, James sharpened his stroke from just about everywhere else on the floor.
More importantly, LeBron must hone his form from the free-throw line if he's to take his game to the next level. He already ranks among the most frequent visitors to the charity stripe—only Dwight Howard took more free throws than LeBron and only Kevin Durant made more than him last season. James also checked in third among small forwards in "and-one" percentage (i.e. the percentage of three-point plays earned per field goal attempt) and ranked third at his position in free-throw attempts per field goal attempt.
Had James shot better than 77.1 percent from the line (73.9 percent in the playoffs), his stats would've been even gaudier, perhaps enough so to have challenged Durant for the league scoring title.
Beyond his shot, LeBron would also do well to cut down on his turnovers and boost his offensive rebounding numbers. James' turnover rate (13.3 percent) was the 11th-worst among small forwards who averaged at least 20 minutes over no fewer than 20 games last season. That, along with a declining assist rate—from a career-high 30.6 percent in 2009-10 to 26.9 percent in 2010-11 to 24.1 percent in 2011-12—points to a player who's not quite as efficient a floor general as he once was, even as his usage rate holds relatively steady.
As for his productivity on the offensive glass, LeBron came in a mere 18th among small forwards in offensive rebounding rate. Then again, the rate he posted (five percent) was the highest of his career and was still a hair above the league average (4.3 percent) at his position.
But the cause for LeBron's continued ascent into the basketball stratosphere has less to do with potential improvements in his game and more to do with the situation in which he now finds himself.
From a physical standpoint, James is just entering his prime, which is frightening considering how phenomenally he's played to this point in his career. He won't turn 28 until December 30th, meaning that this season may well yield the highest point of crossing between his physical prowess and mental acuity for the pro game.
Better yet, he'll be reaching his peak in an offense and on a team that (as mentioned earlier) is now undoubtedly "his". No longer will LeBron have to worry about stepping on Wade's toes or batting away those who'd deign to bring him down for one reason or another. He's a champion, and nobody can take that away from him.
As far as basketball is concerned, the Heat seem to have moved even further toward the LeBron-centric small-ball approach that worked so well for them during their run to the NBA title. The additions of Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Josh Harrellson this summer have only deepened Miami's arsenal of marksmen with whom to spread the floor. Allen's ability to knock down corner threes alone may well be worth an additional assist per game for James and, at the very least, will give opposing wings pause when attempting to help on LeBron's drives.
Those signings also seemed to signal an end to Pat Riley's perennial search for a traditional pivot. Chris Bosh's new-found willingness to man the middle made the decision that much easier to swallow.
As will the added time LeBron figures to see at power forward as a result. According to 82games.com, James actually did his best work in 2011-12 at the "four", where he registered an astronomical PER of 37.1. LeBron may be a bit undersized for the position defensively, but is still strong, quick and crafty enough to be a pest on that end of the floor.
At least, enough of one to further justify the explosion of opportunities he'll have to show off his Hakeem Olajuwon-derived repertoire of post moves. He was impressive on the block last season, but only took 31 percent of his shots on the inside. A more substantial move to power forward should benefit his production in that department, as it will his offensive rebounding, since he'll be closer to the cup more often.
Let's not forget, either, that LeBron's latest virtuoso came during a compressed season. He managed to dominate the NBA like few ever had despite having little time to practice with his teammates and rest his body during the regular season, as his Heat sprinted through their 66-game schedule.
Granted, everyone else had the same problem. One could argue, then, that James' feats weren't as impressive because he was achieving them against tired defenders and worn-out teams.
Nonetheless, the rising tide that comes with a return to normalcy—with a full training camp and time during the season for practice and rest—figures to lift all proverbial boats, including LeBron's. As a result, his teammates should play better, the Heat's sets should be crisper and, in turn, James' job orchestrating the whole operation should be that much easier.
Not that dominating the NBA to the extent that LeBron has is ever "easy."
Unless, of course, you're into picking nits, in which case LeBron will probably fall short of your expectations anyway.
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