Is this as good as it gets for LeBron?
“[Kevin] Durant is playing the best basketball of his life right now; [LeBron] James is not.”
In a single, simple, declarative sentence slipped into the second paragraph of a Feb. 14 piece, Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry crystallized the story of the 2013-14 season. That being: For the first time in the better part of a decade, this one hasn’t belonged to LeBron.
If an NBA-crazed friend came out of a four-month coma this afternoon, grasped my hands and, with a wild look in his eye, asked me to explain the season to him—and the doctors told me he could only digest information in 14-word increments—that’s precisely what I’d tell him: “Durant is playing the best basketball of his life right now; James is not.” He’d understand everything.
Goldsberry's sentence explains why the Oklahoma City Thunder have become the slight favorite in the chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. And it suggests, more importantly for our purposes, the existence of an intimately related question that, while tacit, is on the tips of more than a few tongues around the league.
The question: In the winter of his 30th year, with his stats slipping, a young rival breathing down his neck and his place in history secure, has LeBron James hit his peak?
Is it all downhill from here?
Well, Is It?
This much is clear: LeBron has declined in nearly every statistical area during 2013-14.
His total rebounding percentage is down to 11.8, off a 13.1 mark from a season ago. His 32.2 assist rate is his lowest in more than half a decade and two percentage points south of his career average.
His turnover percentage (14.7) is as high as it has ever been, his block percentage (0.7) is as low and his steal percentage (2.0) has never been worse. Even by measure of personal fouls—an important if overlooked aspect of production—James has backslid, his violations jumping from 1.8 per 48 minutes a season ago to 2.2.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat defense has slipped appreciably. After top-seven finishes each year since James joined the team, Miami is tied for 14th in efficiency, allowing opponents a generous 103.2 points per 100 possessions.
The advanced metrics pile on. James is offering .263 win shares per 48 minutes, down 18 percent from last year, his wins produced have dipped similarly and his player efficiency rating, while a healthy 29, is the second-lowest mark he’s posted since his age-23 season.
Now, player production, even for stars, tends to oscillate a bit from season to season. The athletes that play in the NBA are men, not automatons. Down years happen, and aren't necessarily cause for alarm. That said, a look at typical player aging curves suggests this decline, if that's what it is, may not be a temporary blip on the radar for James, but the beginning of the end.
According to Dave Berri of The Wags of Wins, players peak at 25 or 26, decline steadily until roughly 30 or so, then nosedive at age 32. Win shares tell a similar story. Research by Neil Paine—then of Basketball-Reference, now of the forthcoming FiveThirtyEight—suggests players top out at about 27, then slowly go downhill until their mid-30s, when they fall off the proverbial cliff.
With James 10 months shy of his 30th birthday, it stands to reason the future Hall of Famer is succumbing to the same mundane force—the steady encroachment of old age—that eventually brings all careers to a close.
Of course, these figures describe the trajectory of an ordinary NBA player. And while James is many things to many people—a 6'8" Rorschach test who's inspired loftier praise and harsher criticism than any player of this, or perhaps any, era—there's one descriptor that, from the moment he first captured the national imagination as teenage phenom in sleepy Akron, Ohio, has simply never applied.
LeBron James is not ordinary.
A Greatly Exaggerated Demise
Now James isn’t superman—he just plays one on TV—but despite the aforementioned dynamics, I think it’d be premature to conclude he's on the downside of his career. In fact, difficult as it may be to believe, the winner of four of the last five MVPs might still be ascendant.
For starters, despite his team's struggles, LeBron’s defense has been as sound as ever—which is to say it’s stifling.
Opponents are shooting 38.6 percent against James this season—32.8 percent from the three-point line—for .84 points per play, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). These are effectively identical to the numbers James allowed in 2012-13, when opponents managed .84 points per play on 37.2 percent shooting, and 2011-12, when he yielded marks of .83 and 39.2, respectively. The Heat defense may have slowed some, but we can't pin this on James.
Offensively, while he’s suffered a relatively modest downtick in several categories, James has been unprecedentedly efficient as a scorer, continuing to hone the devastating post-game he first picked up during the 2011 offseason.
As the legend goes, James, motivated by the humbling defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, went to Houston that summer to train with post-maven Hakeem Olajuwon. The game's best player returned for the 2011-12 season transformed, and better than ever.
“It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s post-up moves,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Goldsberry last spring. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one offseason. His improvement in that area alone transformed our offense to a championship level in 2012.”
And then he kept getting better. In 2011-12, fresh off earning his Ph.D. in the post, LeBron shot an NBA-best 73.7 percent from inside five feet. In 2012-13, continuing to master his craft, he hit 74.6 from that range. This season, he's upped it to a scintillating 77.8 percent.
Consequently, James has a career- and NBA-high true shooting percentage of 65.2 on the year. His first season in Miami, when he was a comparatively spry 26, his true shooting percentage was 59.4. In the most consequential aspect of the game—scoring points, and doing so efficiently—James isn’t merely holding off decline, but he’s still improving.
The guy’s aging like a barrel of Macallan. And that shouldn't change any time soon. For a player of James’ ilk, an extended prime is the norm, not the exception. Most superstars defy the typical aging curve.
Consider SLAM Magazine’s (fairly uncontroversial) 2011 list of the 500 greatest NBA players of all time. Of the top 10—a group that includes Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant—only Magic failed to play productive basketball well into his 30s, and there were obvious (and tragic) extenuating circumstances in that case.
History is clear on this point: Players like LeBron simply don’t age like other athletes. And LeBron, even among this distinguished cohort, seems especially likely to fight off Father Time.
Is LeBron's best basketball behind him?
The reasons are many: He's a physical specimen unlike anyone else on that list. He's never suffered a major injury. He has the benefit of advances in medicine, nutrition and training the NBA's other greats could only dream of. Perhaps most importantly, he's demonstrated a versatility in his game that's unusual and will allow him to continue to adjust to what opponents, and his body, throw at him.
He's adjusting already. Even the areas of his game where James is, statistically, slipping—rebounds, steals, assists—can be easily chalked up not to an absence of energy, but to an intelligent conservation of it. At this point in his career, and with the character of the team that's been built around him—which is to say, a dynasty in its twilight years—LBJ has no incentive to exert himself in the regular season.
For him, the games played between October and May aren’t an end in themselves, but a means to a more glorious one. They’re merely about preparation for the playoffs. Which is precisely how he’s treating them.
In this way, it's easy to see the phenomena that's causing speculation that James' best years are behind him—his declining numbers—as the very thing that will ensure he's healthy and productive for years to come.
Has LeBron hit his peak? Maybe, but the king of the mountain isn't coming down any time soon.
All statistics obtained from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted