With hopes of a second title to secure his legacy, LeBron is all business heading into the 2012-13 season.
LeBron James, the Miami Heat ‘point forward,’ will have the opportunity to etch his name in the annals of NBA history. James could become only the second player to ever average a triple-double for an entire season.
Only once has a player ever averaged a triple-double over the course of an entire season. Oscar Robertson, also known as the “Big O,” finished his second season (1961-62) with an average of 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game.
For historical context, the record for most triple-doubles accrued by a player over the course of a career in the National Basketball Association belongs to Hall of Fame legend Oscar Robertson with 181. Among active NBA players, 18-year veteran Jason Kidd has the most with 107.
Over the past nine years, pundits have often opined:
“This could be the year.”
“This won’t be the year.”
“It will never happen.”
There are few debates—relative to any player—that consistently persist throughout their career as much as this one: “Can LeBron James average a triple-double for an entire season?”
In a January 2004 column for ESPN’s Page 2—now detailed in his New York Times’ bestseller, The Book of Basketball—Bill Simmons wrote:
“When LeBron hits his prime and finally gets surrounded by quality shooters and big guys who run the floor, he’ll toss up a triple-double for an entire season. Comfortably. We’re talking 33/12/13 every night. LeBron sees everything in slow motion; he’s always thinking two moves ahead, like he’s playing chess…Not since Magic or Bird has someone connected with teammates like this.”
The way Simmons wrote that first line, he could have been seeing eight years into the future. However, due to the Cleveland Cavaliers' perpetual struggles to build a quality team around LeBron, Simmons later retracted his opinion that James could do it.
Few talking heads give cogent arguments one way or the other. Most bloggers, would-be writers and some journalists venture to pose the question and find a way to assert that it won’t happen. This is not without good reason, since only one person has accomplished the feat. Generally, all they do is throw a few stats at readers and proclaim the argument dead.
Not this writer.
This argument is not dead. If anything, new circumstantial evidence lends credence to the idea that LeBron could actually accomplish this exploit in the upcoming 2012-13 NBA season.
Is LeBron up for the challenge of going after something historic?
Compared to the competition that he played against, Oscar was more athletic and naturally gifted. The league was not yet fully integrated, having only a couple African-American players to each team.
There were also only 9 teams at the time.
Now, the NBA is a much bigger league with 30 teams. Integrated rosters are no longer an issue—teams today have talented players from across the globe.
Another key factor is age. Oscar was only 23 when he averaged a triple-double and if you were to average Robertson’s first five seasons, you’d find that he had a triple-double average after five years of play. He demonstrated greatness from day one and carried it into his prime.
James is already 27 years old and in the middle of his prime.
Finally, the last major hurdle is style of play. In the early 1960s, the NBA game was played at a breakneck pace. Consider that the league average was 118.8 points per game and there was no three-point line—yet the league average was 71.4 rebounds per game.
The scoring average wasn’t higher because they were better shooters—NBA average was only 44.8%. They scored more because they took more shots (about 108 attempts per game compared to the 2012 league average of nearly 66 shots per game).
More shots mean more assists and more rebounds.
Two seasons ago, ESPN.com writer Tom Haberstroh detailed a few reasons why LeBron won’t average a triple-double. In his article, he talks about the fortunate timing of Oscar Robertson’s career—fairly common knowledge. He also discusses rebounding.
“Here are the facts: No player in the modern era to average 7.3 or fewer rebounds has surpassed the 10-rebound threshold in the next season without being fueled by an enormous increase in minutes. A leap of that degree is unprecedented.”
Additionally, Haberstroh discusses what he calls a paradox, suggesting that Miami’s depth and talent will lead to blowout victories that will diminish LeBron’s minutes per game.
While there isn’t much that can be done to offset lost minutes due to blowout wins, there is plenty to be said in regards to the previous matter.
So, how can LeBron James overcome such seemingly-insurmountable odds?
With the supporting cast that he has around him, LeBron should be all smiles with a lot of assists too.
While it may be true that the league as a whole has slowed down tremendously in game pace over the past 50 years, this doesn’t mean that every team is running slow, clock devouring half-court sets.
This may have been true of the Heat during their 2010 campaign, but that is in the past.
In the extended offseason, thanks to the NBA lockout, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra went soul searching. In an effort to revive the Heat offense, which ranked 21st in pace the previous season, he found inspiration in college football.
After visiting with the Oregon Ducks and picking coach Chip Kelly’s brain, he devised a new offense for the Heat. He dubbed it the “Pace and Space.”
While they didn’t maintain discipline in keeping to their offensive plan throughout the entire year, their early-season and postseason play was good enough to improve the team’s overall pace rating to 14th in the league. Coming into this season, Coach Spoelstra hopes to play an even faster tempo:
"I hope to play faster. We turned it up a gear last year and I think we have the personnel to hopefully go even faster. I think with a normal training camp and a normal season we can build up that habit even more."
The "Pace and Space" offense relies heavily on floor spacing and use of smaller, quicker personnel, thus explaining the desire to shift long-time power forward Chris Bosh to center and moving LeBron into a hybrid swing/forward role.
This presents matchup problems for other teams because their big men will either wear down trying to keep up or pick up cheap fouls, while their smaller lineup will be physically outmatched in the post against Bosh and James.
Spacing is extremely important because having qualified shooters spread around the perimeter enables LeBron to work in the post while freeing up space for either Wade or Bosh to play off of him.
Any effort to double team can easily result in three-point shots dropping through the net.
This offseason, Spoelstra has sought the wisdom and input of several other coaches, including Billy Donovan of the University of Florida, creator of Kentucky’s "dribble-drive" offense, Vance Walberg and run-and-gun innovator Paul Westhead. He is looking to push the tempo, spread the floor and utilize unconventional lineups—making use of the Heat’s versatile players.
In the past two seasons, LeBron has been unable to take advantage of size mismatches in the post because of pesky defender’s reliance on the flop to draw offensive foul calls against James.
But the recent implementation of flopping penalties could enable the Heat to use LeBron even more in the post.
Additionally, to make the "Pace and Space" offense even more effective, the Heat have loaded up on perimeter shooters. They have signed Ray Allen (45% 3PT), Rashard Lewis (39% 3PT) and Josh Harrellson (34% 3PT) to a roster that already had four sharpshooters [Miller (40% 3PT), Jones (40% 3PT), Chalmers (39% 3PT) and Battier (38% 3PT)] and one more developing shooter in Bosh (29% 3PT).
To counter the historically-founded idea that the only way to increase rebounding production is with more minutes, why not change perspective?
More accurately, how about a change of position?
After witnessing the success James had at playing as the point guard on offense and power forward on defense at key moments in their playoff run, the Heat essentially have doubled down on the idea.
James has always led his teams in assists, but a move into a more permanent point guard role on offense could see his assist rate go up, especially with the shooters that he has at his disposal. Conversely, seeing more minutes in the post on defense could easily result in a spike in rebounding production.
To illustrate this point, consider that in their preseason opener against the Atlanta Hawks, James only played only 23 minutes and finished with 10 points, six assists and six rebounds. That's a lot of production for a game in which none of the regular rotation players saw more than 27 minutes—without Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, James Jones or Mario Chalmers.
This is a society where all sports coverage—all of the talk, all of the papers and debate shows—is always talking about legacy. How does this player measure up to the legends? What about this coach? Or what about that team?
In basketball, to talk about legacy is to talk about Michael Jordan.
How do you stack up to greatness?
Michael Jordan finished his career with six NBA championships, five MVP awards, one Defensive Player of the Year award, one Rookie of the Year award and 14 All-Star MVP awards. Jordan was selected to the All-NBA First Team 10 times and one All-NBA Second team.
He was a nine-time All-Defensive First Team selection. Jordan won the Olympic gold medal twice and retired from the NBA as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
For all of those accolades, Jordan never finished a season with a triple-double average.
Oh, sure—he came awfully close, finishing in 1988-89 with averages of 32.5 points, eight assists and eight rebounds per game.
If legacy is where it's at, where would finishing the year with a triple-double average en route to his second title place LeBron in the annals of history? Some NBA legends, like Charles Barkley, see in LeBron the potential to be greater than Michael Jordan—and that has become a hot topic since he won his first title.
Everything is in place for LeBron—the offensive system, a roster full of talented shooters, a new positional role to play—both on offense and defense.
Even Phil Jackson has weighed in on the potential of LeBron James' greatness in contrast to Michael Jordan:
"He's got all the physical attributes. He is a player that can play four positions. Except for perhaps the center spot, which he hasn't (been) given a shot at yet, he can play those other four positions quite well. This is unique; Michael could play three and was very good at all three of those, but as a power player that LeBron can become, I think he has an opportunity to explore and advance some of the status that he has already gained."
He has all the motivation he could ever need [to secure his legacy].
LeBron James can average a triple-double this season, and he probably will—once he has completely adjusted to playing in the post.
Aside from the unforeseeable future regarding his health, the only unanswered question is, “Does he want to?”