But in the aftermath of a campaign that, by the unfairly elevated standards we use to judge James, can only be termed a failure, the NBA's biggest superstar stood tall. And for that reason, there's a case to be made that James just finished his best season ever.
We'll return to that broader idea momentarily. First, it's worth taking the time to analyze how James' 2013-14 season stacks up against some of the most impressive campaigns of his career.
For starters, James shot the ball better than ever last year, building on an incredible streak of eight consecutive seasons in which his field-goal percentage improved. Think about that for a second: James shot 47.6 percent from the floor way back in 2006-07.
And in every single season since then, he's improved that accuracy rate on an annual basis.
Though the trend hasn't been as perfectly sustained, James' effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage also hit all-time highs in 2013-14.
Toss in the fact that LBJ was the game's most efficient scorer in the restricted area, topping all players with an absurd 78.3 percent accuracy rate near the bucket, per NBA.com, and there's even more evidence that this season might have been one of James' very best.
Just for fun, it's also worth mentioning that on the rare occasions Miami's offense allowed James to venture into the corners, he was murder from those prized offensive areas, too. King James buried 60 percent of his attempts from the left corner and 52 percent from the right. Though he totaled just 45 tries from those spots altogether, his marksmanship was positively stunning.
By and large, James was smarter than ever about shot selection this past season. A career-best 39.9 percent of his total field-goal attempts came from within three feet of the bucket in 2013-14, per Basketball-Reference.com.
In addition, James cut his mid-range attempts to the fourth-lowest frequency of his career. Just 8 percent of his shots came from 10-16 feet.
In fairness, though, James' overall numbers—both traditional and advanced—didn't measure up to his career highs.
Here's where his basic stats ranked in terms of his overall career:
Note: As an example, James had seven other seasons in which he averaged more than 27.1 points per game, so that stat ranks eighth in the chart below.
|Points Per Game||27.1||8th|
|Rebounds Per Game||6.9||9th|
|Assists Per Game||6.3||8th|
|Steals Per Game||1.6||6th|
|Blocks Per Game||0.3||11th|
And here's how his advanced metrics compared:
|Effective Field-Goal Percentage||.610||1st|
|True Shooting Percentage||.649||1st|
|Player Efficiency Rating||29.3||5th|
The upshot: If you only look at James' statistics, 2013-14 wasn't his best season.
You have to consider context, though.
James soldiered through 77 regular-season games without a whole lot of help, playing over 1,100 more minutes than Dwyane Wade, who missed 28 contests. Chris Bosh was a solid sidekick, logging 79 games in his own right.
But as the season wore on and the postseason began, it was clear James didn't have anything close to a second star who could help him. Wade disappeared in the Finals, Shane Battier proved he was done, Mario Chalmers cratered and Chris Andersen looked broken in the playoffs.
So when we consider James' overall season numbers charted above and when we look at his Finals averages of 28.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and four assists on 57.1 percent shooting from the field and 51.9 percent shooting from long distance, keep in mind that he accumulated those stats with virtually no help at all.
Think that's an exaggeration?
Consider this shocking breakdown of the Finals from Kyle Wagner of Deadspin:
Here's how bad it was: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined to post a game score of 18.5 (7.9 and 10.6, respectively). In 2007, when LeBron and the Cavs were swept by the Spurs, Drew Gooden and Boobie Gibson combined for 17.5. This is not flattering company, obviously. If you expand to the teams' top seven non-LeBron rotational players, the '07 Cavs actually pull ahead, with a combined Game Score of 42.2 to the '14 Heat's 36.2. (The average cumulative game score average for the numbers 2 through 8 players in a Finals is 47, because generally, teams in the Finals are good. The Spurs 2 through 8 combined for 66.) Which is to say, LeBron had more help in the Finals in 2007 than he did this year.
Knowing that, James' numbers look even more incredible—both in the regular season and the Finals.
And here's the most impressive thing of all: In a year where James would have been as justified as ever in getting frustrated with teammates or complaining about a lack of help, he rose above those urges, reaching a new level of maturity.
In losing out to Kevin Durant on what would have been his fifth MVP award, James was gracious:
LeBron on reports Durant wins MVP. "Kudos to him. Much respect. He deserved it. He had a big-time MVP season."— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) May 5, 2014
And after dominating in the Finals (only to lose), James was even classier in his reaction. There was no doubt after the Spurs' triumph that the best player hadn't won the series—the best team had.
Per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, James, incredibly, took the blame everyone knew belonged someplace else:
"Obviously, I didn't do enough," James said. "Not disappointed in any of my teammates, just wish we could have come through, played a better series."
Now, maybe it seems a little generous to praise a guy for handling adversity like an adult. But remember, James has suffered more failure while playing brilliantly than any modern-day superstar. There are some who'll never get past the fact that James can be a historically great player without winning everything all the time, but even the most unreasonable of his critics have to acknowledge James' remarkable composure in instances of defeat.
In looking at the whole picture, James' 2013-14 campaign might have been his best ever.
Sure, you have to stretch a little to get there. But if you consider the ineptitude of his teammates—especially when he needed them most—James' better-than-ever efficiency and generally excellent overall numbers, well...it's not hard to conclude James performed at his zenith last season.
It's tempting to say that the graphic at the top of this article depicts a boy growing into a man. But that's not really accurate. James was very much a man when he came into the league; part of the reason he was a lock to go No. 1 out of high school was because he had the physical capabilities of a guy 10 years his senior.
What that picture really shows is one man growing into a another one, a better one—one with all the talent in the world who, eventually, learned he couldn't do great things on the strength of that talent alone, one who, even when the assistance he'd learned to count on failed him, would still accept responsibility for the outcome.
Where he goes from here is anybody's guess. Perhaps after some time to think, James will conclude he's better off leaving the Heat for a better situation. Maybe he'll re-up at an even bigger discount in order to facilitate the acquisition of a few more live bodies in Miami.
One thing is for sure, though: The vastly matured and measured James won't do anything rash. If we learned anything last season, it's that James doesn't pull the trigger unless he's sure he's making the right decision.
Maybe the statistics weren't all at their peaks last year. But really, who cares?
As a complete player and person, James outdid himself in 2013-14.