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The Evolution of LeBron James' Dominance

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The Evolution of LeBron James' Dominance
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Records are made to be broken. Or is that rules?

Well, either would fit when it comes to the best player on the planet, LeBron James.

He defies the laws of physics. No one is supposed to have this blend of size, strength, quickness and coordination.

He rewrites the book on efficiency. He shatters superstar expectation levels, leaving a new set no one could possibly reach but him.

He's rapidly approaching (or in some cases is already entering) uncharted waters, yet he shows no signs of slowing down. It's incredible to think of just how far the 11-year veteran has come. It's crazier still to think of the endless possibilities that lie ahead.

 

Regal Basketball Beginnings

In some ways, none of what James does should surprise any of us. He was supposed to be a transcendent talent.

He was a national name when he was still playing high school ball at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary—not just a notable prospect, either, one of those once-in-a-generation type of talents.

"At this age LeBron is better than anybody I've seen in 37 years in this business, including Kevin [Garnett] and Kobe [Bryant] and Tracy [McGrady]," said former sports marketing exec Sonny Vaccaro of then-17-year-old James in 2002, via Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl.

James was a "next" player, the top of an already elite class of basketball prospects. With that hype came expectations, and a relatively long leash to live up to that buzz.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, the media actually like seeing one of their rising stars take flight. There's a self-serving benefit in praising greatness that you had not long before predicted would come.

But James didn't need any clever spins to stand out from the crowd. The King made it clear early on that any crown he wore during the course of his career would be one that he earned.

James' NBA debut was more a celebration of his arrival. With 25 points, nine assists and six rebounds, the 18-year-old had found a take-off point for his legend to soar.

Since then, it's been one legend after another. Each one a bit cleaner, a bit closer to perfection than the one before it.

 

Constantly Improving

It's crazy to say this about someone who entered the league as young as he did, but James was almost mistake-free when he came into the NBA. He was selfless nearly to a fault, ready and willing to share the spotlight with teammates not always ready for that glare.

He was wise beyond his basketball years, but he still always found ways to develop his game each step of his career.

He's always been an unfairly gifted passer. He's a versatile defender, blessed with both the physical tools and mental instincts to stop scorers of all shapes and sizes. He's a force on the glass, despite having spent so much of his time away from the basket.

But James' evolution may be best tracked by his development as a scoring threat. It's impossible keeping him in this one-tool box, but simplifying the discussion makes it easy to see just how far he's come.

Now, none of us thinks of James as a scorer. But don't let his wide-ranging talent draw any attention away from the fact that he's one of the greatest scoring threats the league has ever seen. His career scoring average (27.5 points per game) leads all active players and sits third among the game's greatest scorers of all time.

USA TODAY Sports

This is not a rally cry for his scoring to get its proper respect, but rather a sign of just how advanced this skill has always been. His hat was in the scoring race before he could legally drink; if there was room for him to grow, it seemed like barely an inch.

But he found that inch, and then started building on top of that. James' stat sheets are historically brilliant, but one particular figure stands above the rest in my book—he's improved his field-goal percentage in all but one of his 11 NBA seasons.

That's impressive on its own, but there are some elements that need to be addressed.

Rookie season aside, this is a climb that has never dipped below 47.2 percent. That figure would be good enough for 54th among qualified shooters this season, sitting right between MVP candidates LaMarcus Aldridge (47.3) and Paul George (47.1). Let me slow this down for added effect here. The same shooting percentage that these two players are boasting in their potential MVP campaigns is James' worst mark in the last 10 seasons.

And the King hasn't just improved that figure, he's shattered it. He's shot no worse than 50.3 percent from the field in each of the last five seasons, peaking with this year's 59.0 percent success rate. That mark has him fourth among all shooters in 2013-14 and the only combo forward sitting inside the top 10.

He's attempted fewer than 3.3 triples per night just once since his rookie season. For someone who's only had a 37-plus percent long-range stroke for the last two seasons, those three-point attempts should be plaguing his stat lines. 

But James might be the most conservative player in the game. He doesn't let anything go to waste. He meticulously chooses his spots, always knowing that a good scoring chance can become a great one with enough effort.

There is no good way to defend him. He has top-25 scoring marks in almost every offensive situation. He's the seventh most potent scorer overall (1.14 points per possession, via Synergy Sports, subscription required). He has top-10 rankings as a post-up scorer (1.18, third), an off-ball cutter (1.46, eighth) and a transition scorer (1.46, eighth). He's No. 11 as a spot-up shooter (1.30), 23rd as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (0.88) and 25th coming off screens (1.00).

He's too talented to guard one-on-one and too good of a passer to bring help. Oh, and he's only continuing to grow.

 

Never Satisfied

Complacency should have set in by now. His accomplishments surely would have satisfied another player.

Maybe it was that first MVP award in 2008-09 or his first NBA title three seasons later. With three more MVP trophies and another championship ring having since been added to his collection, satisfaction should be setting in.

But it never has.

"He's a special dude," Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "He's always going to continue to stay in a state of uncomfortableness."

James pushes the envelope even when one doesn't exist. He's mastered the big things, now he's doing whatever he can to shore up the minuscule "weaknesses" that still exist in his game:

Before, he had more pressing deficiencies to clear up. His powerfully potent post game is a rather recent development. He used to let defenses off the hook when he set his sights from distance.

Now he's added both weapons to his arsenal, along with an extremely effective selflessness. He's given up touches, shots and ball-handling duties all in the pursuit of a greater good.

He's the focal point of Spoelstra's position-less offensive machine, the key cog in the league's second-most efficient offense (109.1 points per 100 possessions).

His physical tools have always helped, but his drive is what allows him to keep climbing this historical ladder, via Grantland.com's Kirk Goldsberry:

It's a lot of work. It's being in workouts, and not accomplishing your goal, and paying for it. So, if I get to a spot in a workout and want to make eight out of 10, if I don't make eight of 10, then I run. I push myself to the point of exhaustion until I make that goal. So you build up that mentality that you got to make that shot and then use that in a game situation — it's the ultimate feeling, when you're able to work on something and implement it.

It sounds cliched, and it is, but James wants it more than other players.

There isn't some statistical measure that he's chasing. There is no ideal size for his ring collection. He knows there's no way to settle subjective debates, but he feels this inherent need to present his historical case as completely and dominantly as he can.

"The man above has given me God-given ability and talent, obviously," James said, per the Associated Press. "I want to take full advantage of it."

What's terrifying is that none of us knows exactly what that means.

I would have thought four MVP awards and a pair of championship rings would serve as taking full advantage of those gifts. I would have guessed that a .565/.406/.753 shooting slash would have been good enough.

Obviously, I would have guessed wrong.

James might have found his own rarefied air above the rest of the basketball world, but clearly he has no plans of coming back to earth any time soon. In fact, it's just the opposite. He's still searching for anything and everything he can to help him create more separation between him and his peers.

He's the best player in the game now, possibly the best ever. And somehow he's still getting better.

 

Unless otherwise specified, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

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