You don't have to be the keynote speaker at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to understand that LeBron James is far and away the best player in the NBA right now. His basic box score stats (26.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 55.9 percent shooting from the floor, 40 percent from three) could tell you as much.
As could the big-picture results for the Miami Heat. The defending champions have extended their franchise-record winning streak to 19 games, courtesy of a 17-point blowout of the Atlanta Hawks. His numbers over that span are nearly identical to those he's posted over the course of the season.
Of course, even those numbers don't do justice to LeBron's basketball brilliance. One need only observe the way James glides past opponents on the perimeter, overpowers them in the post, shoots the ball with equal parts technique and touch and runs the break with Dwyane Wade to understand how uniquely amazing he is.
He's graceful, yet powerful. He's talented and tough. He doesn't take his prodigious gifts for granted, choosing instead to maximize them about as well as any player has in recent memory.
But to comprehend what makes LeBron James a champion, you have to look beyond the eye-popping stats, the flashy dunks and the prescient passes. Those things are all well and good for winning MVPs, getting voted into the All-Star Game and earning spots on the All-NBA first team.
What they don't do, though, is highlight the heart, hustle and hunger that have helped LeBron reach (if not exceed) the heights of hoops success that everyone and their mother expected he would when he went from a prep phenom at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, to the top overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft.
Offensively, LeBron's development is as much about where he scores as how he scores. James has always been superb at getting to the hoop and even better at finishing once there.
This year, though, he's taken his basket-attacking approach to another level. According to NBA.com, LeBron has attempted nearly half of his shots (46.6 percent of them, to be exact) at or near the rim, with another solid chunk (7.6 percent) coming off post-ups on the left block:
The vast majority of those close shots (about 85 percent of them) have come within the restricted area:
Of course, it's one thing to take so many efficient shots. It's another thing entirely to make them, be they wide-open dunks or tough layups in traffic.
Which he does. With startling frequency.
In fact, among players with at least 100 shots in the restricted area, only Andre Iguodala has converted them at a higher rate, and he's gotten less than half as many of that sort as LeBron has this season, per NBA.com.
As far as the rest of the painted area is concerned, LeBron's accuracy ranks him in the top five league-wide among those who've attempted no fewer than 100 shots from a region that's home to the NBA's "dead zone."
If we return to a more detailed breakdown of LeBron's shot performance, it becomes clear that his superb shot selection isn't limited to layups and dunks:
He's also deadly accurate on three-pointers from the right side of the floor. His shooting stroke has come a long way from the clunky catastrophe it once was, which the results make abundantly clear. It's now a reliable weapon for James, whose percentages—particularly from the right corner—place him in league with such marksmen as Chandler Parsons, Steve Novak and Kevin Martin.
Albeit on significantly fewer attempts. The point being, LeBron has evolved into arguably the most complete offensive player in the NBA today—if not one of the most complete of all time—and has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to wield that power to full effect.
Particularly in crunch time, which is when champions tend to work their magic, or so we're told. According to NBA.com, LeBron has scored the third-most points of anyone in the last five minutes of a game with his team either ahead or behind by no more than five points in 2012-13. Among those in the top 10 in such scoring, only Kyrie Irving and Ty Lawson shoot higher percentages.
But neither can touch LeBron's abilities as a facilitator in the clutch—nor can anyone else, for that matter. Scoring in crunch time has only recently become one of James' many fortes. He's long been among the league's smartest and most willing passers, even more so in the biggest moments of close games. More often than not, LeBron makes the proper basketball play under pressure, whether he takes the shot or not.
At present, James leads the NBA with 46 clutch assists against just nine turnovers. Nobody with at least 20 clutch assists can claim an assist-to-turnover ratio as good as LeBron's better-than-five-to-one mark, and only one other player—Paul Pierce, with 31 helpers—has tallied at least 30 assists in those situations.
Such is the mark of a champion operating on another level. LeBron certainly trusts himself to score important buckets, but also trusts in his teammates to make plays if need be. That trust, in turn, emboldens the players around him to step up their respective games and deliver on the faith invested in them by the best player on the planet.
Granted, LeBron happens to have some top-shelf teammates, including future Hall of Famers like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen. But, more importantly, he understands how to utilize each of those player's particular talents while also getting the ball out to lesser role players like Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.
LeBron may not be on Michael Jordan's level just yet, but, like Jordan, he understands that there will be times when he needs the Steve Kerrs and the John Paxsons of the basketball world to take (and make) pivotal shots.
He also seems acutely aware of the impact that a champion can and should have on the defensive end. LeBron's well on his way to earning his fifth straight first-team All-Defensive selection, and deservedly so. He's shown this season that he can guard (if not shut down) players at any of the five positions on his own.
It certainly helps that James is quick enough to stay with smaller guards and strong enough to fend off forwards and centers of similar or superior size. It also helps that LeBron isn't afraid to fly in for a momentum-turning steal or hustle back for a bucket-saving block in transition:
But, of greater interest is how LeBron is also smart enough to "quarterback" a defense nearly as well as he leads an offense. He's not afraid to bark out assignments, applaud his teammates when they make the right decision or correct them when they don't. The Heat rely on LeBron's knack for directing and involving his teammates on the defensive end, just as he does with the ball in his own hands.
As such, it should come as no surprise that the Heat are markedly better defensively when LeBron is on the court.
According to NBA.com, Miami allows just 99.8 points per 100 possessions when James plays, as opposed to 105.0 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That's approximately the difference between the Oklahoma City Thunder's seventh-ranked defense (99.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the Detroit Pistons' 24th-ranked defense (105.0 points allowed per 100 possessions).
In other words, LeBron's presence can, in some ways, transform a defense from lottery-bound to championship-caliber. Throw in the disparity in Miami's offensive productivity with James (112.7 points per 100 possessions) and without him (100.9 points per 100 possessions), and you wind up with a player whose impact can be felt on a 17-point swing.
Moreover, Miami's opponents shoot worse from the field, attempt fewer free throws per field-goal attempt, turn the ball over more frequently and grab offensive rebounds less frequently whenever LeBron's in the game, per NBA.com.
It's this overall defensive effect that truly separates LeBron from the rest of his MVP-hopeful peers. Kevin Durant is enjoying one of the most efficient shooting seasons in NBA history and has come a long way on the defensive end, but still can't quite measure up to James' lockdown individual defense, even though he averages more combined blocks and steals.
Chris Paul is a top-notch defender at the point and is well on his way to a fifth steals title in six seasons. However, he clearly would have trouble taking on any of the other four positions, if only because he lacks the requisite size and athleticism to do so.
Not anymore, anyway.
But defense wins championships, as we're so often told, and few players are more effective defenders—in terms of individual ability, team dynamics and versatility—than LeBron.
Of course, the same could be said of LeBron as an offensive wizard, which is all the more reason to savor his climb toward the peak of his powers and the success that his ascent breeds.
Whether you like the Miami Heat or not.