Is LeBron James' All-NBA 1st-Team Run Coming to an End?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2019

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 12:  LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Chicago Bulls on March 12, 2019 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

LeBron James is averaging 27.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists with a 59.6 true shooting percentage (TS%) for the Los Angeles Lakers. Even five years ago, that would've felt like a no-brainer first-team All-NBA line.

Actually, it would've felt like that during most seasons.

But 2018-19 hasn't been most seasons. Not only is LeBron's streak of 11 consecutive first-team selections in jeopardy, but second-team honors don't feel like a lock, especially now that the Lakers have put him on a minutes restriction.

If ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) made the decisions, he'd be the first forward on the second team. He's sixth overall and behind just Paul George (No. 1 overall) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 5) among forwards once we rule out Anthony Davis, who's played 96 percent of his minutes at center. Jacob Goldstein's player impact plus-minus (PIPM) has LeBron all the way down at 13th overall, behind Giannis (No. 1), Kevin Durant (No. 2) and George (No. 3).

If you sort every player with at least 250 minutes by the average of their ranks in 10 catch-all metrics (RPM, PIPM, box plus-minus, win shares per minute and game score per Minute, plus the cumulative variations), LeBron checks in at No. 13 overall and No. 4 among forwards. Again, he trails Giannis (No. 1 overall), George (No. 5) and Durant (No. 6).

And in that exercise, Kawhi Leonard (No. 16), Blake Griffin (No. 18) and Pascal Siakam (No. 19) are all hot on his heels.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Every forward named thus far plays on a squad with a better win percentage than the lottery-bound Lakers.

But this isn't how All-NBA teams get selected. Some voters may still give weight to LeBron's legacy and his near-triple-double averages.

Even that might not be enough. Take NBA.com's John Schuhmann as an example and note the other four roundtable members agreed LeBron's first-team streak would end: 

"As things stand now, I would have four forwards—Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard—ahead of James on my All-NBA ballot. And it seems doubtful that James, with the Lakers playing out the string and the other four forwards all contributing (on both ends of the floor) to much better teams, can replace any of them in the final month of the season."

For the first time in over a decade, LeBron doesn't have the numbers, narrative or team success to claim status as one of the NBA's top two forwards.

Giannis is the betting favorite for MVP, per OddsShark. Basketball Reference's NBA MVP Award Tracker gives him a 52 percent chance to secure the honor (James Harden is second at 20.7 percent). He's an absolute lock for the first team with averages of 27.0 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals on a Milwaukee Bucks outfit cruising to the league's best record.

Then there's George, who's third in the MVP odds and seventh on the tracker. In February, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard endorsed him for the game's biggest individual prize:

Lillard shared that sentiment right after George dropped 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in an Oklahoma City Thunder victory over his Blazers. He's cooled off a bit since then, but his net rating swing of 18.9 points per 100 possessions is still the best among rotation players, according to Cleaning the Glass.

George's per-game marks—28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.3 steals with a 58.6 TS%—fall a bit behind LeBron's, but he's been an iron man this season. The catch-all numbers such as RPM and PIPM also do a good job illustrating how much better he's been on defense.

And, of course, if Giannis and George are first-teamers, that's it. That's the end of the streak.

Durant may steal that second forward spot from George, but it almost feels like an impossibility for LeBron to do so. Again, the 34-year-old might actually be closer to third-team recognition than earning top billing.

2nd-Team All-NBA Contenders
PlayerRPMGame Score per 36 MinutesNet Rating SwingProjected Record
LeBron James5.5223.31+8.8 (92nd percentile)37-45
Kawhi Leonard2.6622.64+2.0 (63rd percentile)59-23
Blake Griffin3.1618.37+4.9 (78th percentile)41-41
Pascal Siakam3.7915.61+14.6 (97th percentile)59-23
ESPN, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass, FiveThirtyEight

Given the improbability of such a jump, we'll likely witness the end of a streak that hasn't received enough attention. Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron himself comprised the top five of the MVP vote the last time he wasn't on the first team. Tobey Maguire gave us emo Spider-Man, and the very first iPhone released that year.

Over those 11 seasons, LeBron averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.6 steals with a 60.4 TS%. Those are remarkable numbers for anyone in a single season; LeBron maintained them for over a decade.

His 258.7 wins over replacement player (value over replacement player multiplied by 2.7) during that stretch tower above the 179 earned by second-place Chris Paul. In fact, the gap between LeBron and CP3 was about the same as the separation between CP3 and eighth-place Kyle Lowry (97.7).

Karl Malone is the only other player in NBA history to string together 11 consecutive first-team All-NBA selections, and he was nowhere near as dominant throughout his streak. From 1988-89 through 1998-99, the Utah Jazz legend accumulated 194.9 wins over replacement player, just ahead of Michael Jordan's 189.8. Jordan, of course, missed some time to play baseball.

Throw in LeBron's four MVPs, eight consecutive Finals appearances, three championships and one scoring title, and this is arguably the best prolonged stretch of individual NBA basketball.

While this season will almost certainly end the streak, it should also give us a chance to reflect on those 11 years of dominance. 

         

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games March 13.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and SLC Dunk. You can follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) or listen to the podcast he co-hosts with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, Hardwood Knocks.


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