Then vs. Now: Breakdown of LeBron James' Career Trajectory Through the Years

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Then vs. Now: Breakdown of LeBron James' Career Trajectory Through the Years
Jason Miller/Getty Images

When LeBron James debuted all the way back in 2003, he was just a fresh-faced teenager out of St. Vincent–St. Mary High School, attempting to live up to the massive hype that accompanied him as soon as he declared for the draft. Already gracing magazine covers, he was the future of professional basketball, and he didn't exactly fail to live up to those lofty expectations. 

Twelve years later, the NBA remains James' league, and that won't change in the foreseeable future. Even though the Association is brimming over with younger stars, he's still a leading face—not to mention a rather powerful figure in the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. 

"LeBron wants to be the guy that says, 'I was the one who brought a championship to Cleveland,'" Paul Silas, a former coach of the superstar, recently told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. "And if they win, he will be. He absolutely runs that team."

Even if James' status in the spotlight has remained constant, a lot has changed between then and now as James has transitioned from a rookie carrying the hopes of a generation into a dominant de facto player/coach/general manager. 

The four-time MVP has morphed from a negative presence on the defensive end into a superstar stopper. And though he's declined on that less glamorous end in recent years, the early returns from 2015-16 indicate we could be looking at a return to normalcy on that side. 

He's worked tirelessly to shore up his biggest weaknesses, developing a dominant set of skills in post-up situations and becoming a significantly more dangerous shooter from the perimeter, even if he's mired in a slump at the moment. 

Above all else, he's not the same player who dropped 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists and four steals against the Sacramento Kings to open his Cleveland career, though he's still recording similarly gaudy lines. 

 

An Offensive Juggernaut

Jason Miller/Getty Images

If there's one thing James has always known how to do, it's provide his team with positive contributions on the offensive end. Even as a rookie, he averaged 20.9 points and 5.5 assists for the Cavaliers—admittedly with far less efficiency than he's enjoyed in recent years. 

In fact, James is one of the few players in NBA history who have managed to string together a dozen seasons scoring at least 20 points per game, and he's set to make it a baker's dozen in 2015-16, barring any unforeseeable collapses. The complete list is littered with Hall of Famers and players who will join that exclusive group soon after they retire: 

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17)
  • Karl Malone (17)
  • Kobe Bryant (14)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (13)
  • Shaquille O'Neal (13)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (13)
  • Michael Jordan (12)

But we can actually make James stand out even more by incorporating another element of his offensive game. His passing has made him even more special, since he's always been blessed with a preternatural ability to read the court and see lanes no one else can.

James has recorded at least 20 points and five dimes per game each and every season of his career, leaving him alone in first place. Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird are the closest to him, each recording nine qualified campaigns, while no active players are nearer than Kobe Bryant (eight) and Dwyane Wade (five). 

That's an eerie level of consistency as a distributor. James' high-water mark of 8.6 assists per game in 2009-10 is undeniably impressive for a forward—even for the best passing forward of all time—but it's equally noteworthy that he's currently averaging 5.6 dimes in 2015-16, and that's his worst average ever. 

However, we're still not factoring in what makes James not just great but downright legendary.

For a player with so much offensive responsibility year in and year out, the Akron, Ohio, native is quite good at maintaining control over the ball. Even more impressively, he's developed into a player who refuses to take bad shots with any semblance of frequency—a stark contrast from the teenager who shot 41.7 percent from the field during his first NBA go-round. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Though he's regressed since returning to the Cavaliers, James was an efficiency master with the Miami Heat. In both 2012-13 and 2013-14, he actually managed to post true shooting percentages above 64 percent, which is just about unheard of for a player simultaneously functioning as a go-to scoring option. Only he, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant and Kevin McHale have been that efficient while scoring at least 26 points per game, and he's the lone standout to join that group twice. 

Offensive box plus/minus (OBPM) is a metric that factors all of this into the equation, and if you're interested in the nuances of how it's calculated, you can find all the information here. Basically, it measures how many points better an average team's offense is per 100 possessions with the player in question on the court rather than a perfectly average offensive contributor. 

Using OBPM, while also taking James' playing time and the pace of his teams into account, we can come up with an approximation of how many points he added during any given season. Naturally, that number has been rather high during each and every year of this future Hall of Famer's career: 

Note: 2015-16 stats are prorated to 82 games, based on data through Nov. 5's games.

The per-36-minute figures are even more telling, especially because they eliminate the impact of the lockout that shortened the 2011-12 campaign: 

Is any of this particularly surprising? 

James trended up at the beginning of his career, with the 2006-07 season serving as the lone exception. That was a massive aberration, as his scoring average dipped to 27.3 points per game while he struggled to maintain his percentages and posted "only" six assists during the average contest. That was actually the only season between 2004-05 and 2012-13 in which he didn't pace the Association in OBPM

But after the conclusion of the '07 campaign, he kept moving in the right direction, peaking in the final year of his first stint with Cleveland. That season, he averaged 29.7 points and 8.6 assists while shooting 50.3 percent from the field, hitting 33.3 percent of his looks from beyond the arc and knocking down 7.8 of his mind-numbing 10.2 free-throw attempts per game. 

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

James' numbers dipped once he joined the Miami Heat and had to learn how he could best work alongside Wade and Chris Bosh, but he gradually improved while becoming an absolute master of efficiency. And lately, he's trended down, as we've seen issues with his back pop up—most notably when he needed two weeks off during the 2014-15 go-round for rest, relaxation and rehabilitation. 

Even during the downward trend, James' points added on offense are ridiculous. They're not as jaw-droppingly crazy as what he did during his peak years, both during the first Cleveland stint and after refusing to miss shots in South Beach, but still quite good. 

In 2009-10, James added approximately 548 points on offense. Throughout the entire league, the closest players to him were Wade (368), Kevin Durant (308), Steve Nash (259) and Chauncey Billups (246), which means James more than doubled the contributions of all but two players in the NBA. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Three years later and at the second peak of his bimodal career trajectory, James added an estimated 500 points on offense, compared to the expected contributions of an average player. This time, his closest competitors were Durant (376), Stephen Curry (370), James Harden (323) and Chris Paul (319). He at least doubled the output of all but seven other standouts. 

There's no more doubling going on these days, but it's a testament to James' immense offensive ability that even in 2014-15, after undergoing a substantial decline for two consecutive seasons, he was near the top of the leaderboard. With 297 points added, he trailed only Curry (514), Harden (443), Paul (423) and Russell Westbrook (404). 

We've seen cracks chipping away at the facade in recent years, but it's not like James has devolved into anything less than a superstar on the offensive end. 

 

Longstanding Defensive Excellence

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You don't become the best basketball player in the world without playing a little bit of defense. 

While it's easier to remember his high-flying exploits, dime-dropping ways and ability to punish a defense for showing the tiniest hint of a weakness, James' defense has always helped make him such a special forward. To that point, though he's never actually won Defensive Player of the Year, he's at least appeared on the ballot multiple times. 

In 2009, he finished a distant second to Dwight Howard, drawing four first-place votes in the process. He earned another four one year later but dropped down to fourth in the standings, trailing Howard, Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace. The 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons saw him finish ninth and fourth, respectively. And after a second-place finish to Marc Gasol in 2013, he came in at sixth in 2014 and a mere 13th during the last completed season. 

Stellar as it may be for a forward to get so much consistent recognition in an award traditionally dominated by rim-protecting centers, James might actually have gotten less credit than he deserves. Though he was a liability on the defensive end during his rookie season, he's bulked up and settled down ever since, using his immense physical tools and court vision to wreak havoc year in and year out. 

Using defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), the counterpart of OBPM, we can estimate how many points James has saved throughout his career: 

Note: 2015-16 stats are prorated to 82 games, based on data through Nov. 5's games.

And per 36 minutes, so that we're no longer factoring in injuries, time off and the 2011-12 lockout: 

Naturally, James' true peak came during the height of his athletic prime. He may only have celebrated his 24th birthday during the 2008-09 season, but that was six years into his NBA career, back when he was still a whirling dervish who delighted in the chase-down blocks that he pinned to the backboard with such bombastic fervor.  

Though steals and blocks aren't particularly great indicators of defensive prowess, it is notable that 2008-09 was one of just two seasons in which James rejected more than one shot per contest. He spent a little less time on the court during his average outing, and he parlayed that extra energy into enthusiastic contributions from the opening tip until the final buzzer. 

As Jodie Valade reported for the Plain Dealer back in '09, this was the first time James truly cared as much about defense as he did offense: 

Not that James never played defense before, but the Cavaliers swingman said his main off-season goal last year was to improve defensively. He learned the Cavaliers' defensive schemes inside and out, worked on footwork and angles and perfected his patented "chase-down block" maneuver. He simply began to care more.

"It means more to me now at this point in my career than it did in the past," he said. "I'm not saying I didn't care about defense. It just means a lot more to me. I care as much about defense as I do about offense."

That season, James saved approximately 203 points on the defensive end—easily the most of his career. Howard, who won Defensive Player of the Year, checked in at 233 points saved, and no one else topped James' mark. In fact, the next-best mark by someone who didn't typically line up at center came from Shane Battier—115 points saved, putting him outside the top 10. 

However, that year—while clearly the zenith of his defensive career—stands out as an aberration. He's still been dominant in other seasons, though never quite to the same extent. Take 2012-13 as an example, since that's the other time he finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, most notably because of his much-hyped ability to guard all five positions on the court. 

"We're at the point where it's possible LeBron will never win DPOY, so he's right to be angry that he's not gotten more consideration for the award and public praise for his defensive effort," Tom Ziller wrote for SB Nation in April 2013.

And he was partially justified in his rage during the year in question. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During that season, the penultimate one spent with the Heat, James saved 130 points despite missing six games. That actually only placed him at No. 9 in the league-wide hierarchy, well behind Joakim Noah's 230 points saved and Marc Gasol's 227. 

But again, positions come into play, as Paul George was the only player who spent a significant time guarding wings to finish above James. And George (No. 7) had the luxury of teaming up with two more top-15 defenders—Roy Hibbert (No. 6) and David West (No. 14)—while James' most impactful cohort was Joel Anthony (No. 34). 

The claim to fame here isn't that James has made the biggest defensive impact in the league. Instead, he's outclassed other similar players for the better part of a decade, even if he's fallen victim to the trees in the lineup on a regular basis. 

 

The Total Package's Peak

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When you're one of the league's best offensive players for such a sustained stretch and a positional stalwart on the other end of the 94-by-50-foot rectangle, you're naturally going to thrive as an overall contributor. And thrive James has throughout his entire career, making the All-Star squad during his sophomore season and never looking back.

The overall accolades are ridiculous. He's won MVP four times, become the fastest player in league history to reach 25,000 points, earned a scoring title and so much more. The list could drag on and on. 

But when did he peak? We can determine that by combining offensive points added and defensive points saved: 

Note: 2015-16 stats are prorated to 82 games, based on data through Nov. 5's games.

And, as always, there's the per-36-minute version: 

Here's where we have to address something we've been ignoring up to this point: LeBron's sudden defensive resurgence. 

Against all odds, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Cavalier is averaging a career high in steals per game (2.6) while registering the most impressive DBPM (4.6) of his time in the NBA. He's turning back the clocks with his intensity on the point-preventing end, constantly jumping into passing lanes and recovering in the blink of an eye. Whereas his foot speed and reaction times were noticeably slowing in prior seasons, that no longer seems to be the case.

His matchups are quickly realizing it, per NBA.com's statistical databases

LeBron's Resurgent Defense
Season Typical FG% of Assignments FG% with LeBron Guarding FG% Difference
2013-14 45 43.5 -1.5
2014-15 44.4 42.9 -1.5
2015-16 38.7 24.2 -14.4

NBA.com

This is a bit too extreme to be legitimate. Maybe it's a product of guarding weaker offensive players in the early going or a fluke of sample size. Maybe he's going to wear down as the grueling nature of the 82-game schedule takes its toll and he feels the full brunt of his immense offensive burden. 

Chances are good that James will regress to the mean—to some extent, at least—and that will bring his overall total points added down to a more reasonable mark. After all, his career has followed a pattern that makes logical sense. 

Early on, he consistently improved until peaking in 2008-09 and 2009-10—the anomalous dip in 2006-07 notwithstanding. He took a massive step in the wrong direction after the infamous decision to leave for South Beach and gradually built his profile back up while learning how to thrive alongside new, ball-dominant teammates. 

Then, as his physical talents began to erode a bit in 2013-14, he declined before moving back to Cleveland and experiencing the same arc gone through during the beginning of his stint with the Heat. It shouldn't be surprising that he's faring better in the second year of the second Cavaliers era, even if the offense and defense should move in opposite directions for the rest of the year. 

What makes James special isn't the career trajectory but rather how much more impressive everything is when compared to what we see from a typical superstar. The peak is higher, the dips don't drop as far down, and everything in between falls in line. 

This modern legend won't be compared to typical superstars, though. The bar is right where it's always been set—in a direct comparison to Michael Jordan:

Note: 2015-16 stats are prorated to 82 games, based on data through Nov. 5's games.

Factoring out playing time by looking at the per-36-minute version is especially important here. Not only does it help account for the sophomore season Jordan lost with a broken bone in his foot and the comeback that took place deep into the 1994-95 campaign, but it also aids James, who didn't spend quite as much time on the court as the presumptive G.O.A.T. during his average game: 

Jordan got off to a faster start, and his peak was slightly more impressive. But James has been able to stave off substantial decline to an even greater extent, and, when compared to Jordan's, his trajectory looks more like a plateau than a mountain. 

From the sixth season of their respective careers on, James has only been trumped by the legendary Chicago Bull once, and that came when he was first figuring out how to work with Wade and Bosh. 

If you subscribe to the school of thought that Jordan will forever be the greatest player of all time, you're probably already seething. Usually, it's hard to find a stat that points to anyone but the six-time champion (and playoff success admittedly isn't being factored in here).

But if you're not already sitting down, please find a chair: 

Jordan is at an innate disadvantage because two of his seasons were cut so short, but that's the reality of the situation. He can't go back and change the past, and he doesn't have any more years left in the tank.

No matter what happens, James will finish his career with the higher number, barring a ridiculous decline in 2015-16 that's followed up by immediate retirement. And it's not just going to be a byproduct of remaining in the NBA ranks for a longer time. 

What the current superstar has already done in his career is remarkable, taking a typical trajectory and boosting it up to nearly unforeseen levels. And truthfully, we don't know what's going to come next, particularly after he's gotten off to such a promising start in 2015-16 on the defensive end.

One thing, however, is certain. 

The Jordan-versus-James debate remains a legitimate one, and the latter's side is still getting strengthened with each passing year. What was once only a distant hope when he entered the league back in 2003 has now become a reality. 

 

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and my own databases.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

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