Where Does LeBron James' Postseason Rank with Best Career Efforts?

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Where Does LeBron James' Postseason Rank with Best Career Efforts?
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
James has been great this May. But was he even better five years ago?

LeBron James is having an unusually tremendous 2014 postseason.

This is a difficult thing to perfectly nail down, of course, but it certainly feels true. Without the objective lens of statistics, drawing distinctions between LBJ postseasons is like trying to compare from memory mountain ranges you visited as a kid. The seer is simply overwhelmed by scale. To borrow an expression, the impression is one of sheer size.

This might be his Everest though.

James has been his quintessential self in the last few weeks. He’s dropped one absolute classic already—his 49-point on 16-of-24 shooting May 12 bludgeoning of the Brooklyn Nets—and is toting averages of 28.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals through the Miami Heat’s first 13 playoff contests.

James pursuit of a third straight title has been laser-focused. "I'm motivated enough to try and get back to the finals" James told CBS's Ken Berger before Monday's 102-90 win over the Indiana Pacers, brushing off a question about the head games opponent Lance Stephenson had evidently been trying to play with him.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
In the 2014 playoffs, James and the Heat have brushed aside the competition.

Even before Monday’s win over the Indiana Pacers pushed their advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals to 3-1, the Washington Post’s Jason Reid painted James’ May effort as one of his finest.

There are many yardsticks to measure where Miami Heat superstar LeBron James ranks in NBA history. If the Heat returns to the NBA Finals this season, we’d have another good one…[A fourth-straight finals appearance] would be a significant accomplishment for any team, let alone one as flawed as this edition of the Heat. The mere fact that the Heat is even in position to accomplish the feat provides yet another example of why James is an all-time great.

Here’s another. According to Basketball-Reference, he’s leading the NBA in win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and player efficiency rating during these playoffs—each by a chasm-like margin.

“Chasm” isn’t overstating the case. The difference between LeBron and the rest of the NBA during what’s been played of the 2014 postseason is jarring. James has produced over 43 percent more win shares than the next-closest competitor—Paul George—while playing four games fewer than the Indiana Pacer.

James has also, for fans of trivia, passed the sport’s consensus GOAT in an arbitrary but telling stat. According to Numbers Never Lie (h/t to Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale), on Monday night, LeBron recorded his 74th career playoff game with at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, passing Michael Jordan for the all-time lead in that category.

ProBasketballTalk’s Dan Feldman underscored the magnitude of James’ accomplishment. According to Feldman, LeBron has hit the 25-5-5 mark in 49 percent of his playoff games to Jordan’s 41 percent.

(Unsurprisingly, LeBron compares even more favorably to his contemporaries. Feldman pointed out that James has recorded at least 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists 12 times in the last six postseasons. The rest of the NBA has combined for 11.)

As good as LeBron has been though, and he's been great, it’s possible that this isn’t his peak.

Win shares is a blunt measure of value, but it's an instructive catch-all stat. And according to the metric, James' most productive playoffs, on a performance-per-minute basis, isn't coming right now.

And it didnt come in 2012—when he and the Heat finally broke through. Or in 2013—when they rode an all-timer of a regular season to a second consecutive Larry O'Brien Trophy.

It happened way back in 2009.

Elsa/Getty Images
In a losing effort, James was unstoppable in the 2009 playoffs. Though the Cavs fell in the ECF, James averaged an astounding 38/8/8 line.

During James' penultimate season with the Cleveland Cavaliers—which ended with a six-game loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals—James was simply prolific. On the back of a usage rate of 36.4 percent, which is a greater share of team possessions than the selfless star has used in any postseason or regular season before or since, LeBron broke 25 points every night, scored at least 30 in nine of 14 games and tallied 40 points or more four times.

When the smoke cleared, James had averaged 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists and finished with a ws48 of .399 and a PER of 37.4. Both were the highest in the NBA in those playoffs and still stand as the highest of LeBron's career. So much for the pre-title narrative that James shrunk on the biggest stages.

Of course, the 2009 season ended without a title, or even a finals appearance, for the game's biggest star. But given his level of play, it's wrongheaded to blame this on James, to dock his performance points for the failure of his supporting cast. 

In fact, James was at his best in defeat. In the deciding series against Dwight Howard and the Magic, LeBron averaged a whopping 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists. He broke 40 points in three of the Cav's four losses.

It's a remarkable thing to consider: James is playing so well that, in some ways, no one’s ever been better. Except maybe for him.

 

Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference unless cited otherwise. 

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