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Was LeBron James as Dominant as Giannis Antetokounmpo at Age 25?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 19, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 01: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers is guraded by Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the game at Staples Center on March 01, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. 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.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Divided by a full decade in age and distinguished by disparate paths to superstardom, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo might seem like they have little in common. But as they prepare to lead their respective conference-topping teams into the biggest matchup of the 2019-20 season Thursday night, it's worth exploring their many similarities.

The experience gap makes using the full statistical profile unfair; James has 10 extra years (technically nine years and 341 days, but who's counting?) of number-hoarding on Antetokounmpo. But with Giannis playing his age-25 season fresh off an MVP win, a position James shared exactly a decade ago, we've got the perfect opportunity for a snapshot comparison.

Giannis and LeBron trod different paths to their age-25 seasons.

James entered the NBA something akin to a finished product. Stardom was the immediate expectation.

Unlike so many prematurely anointed "chosen ones" before him, he delivered. Famous long before his NBA debut, he proved himself worth the hype with rookie averages of 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds in a whopping 39.5 minutes per game for the Cleveland Cavaliers—numbers not seen from a rookie since Oscar Robertson in 1960-61.

Antetokounmpo was a raw prospect, viewed only in person by world-traveling scouts or on what little grainy footage existed of Greek second-division basketball in 2013. Rail-thin and positionally ambiguous, he played 24.6 minutes per game as a Milwaukee Bucks rookie, averaging 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists. 

A rail-thin rookie version of Giannis, not quite ready for LeBron.
A rail-thin rookie version of Giannis, not quite ready for LeBron.Jason Miller/Getty Images

Giannis made up ground quickly, though, adding layers of corded muscle and an increasingly reliable jumper while learning to leverage his unique combination of length and power. The result: His current age-25 season looks an awful lot like the one James posted 10 years ago.

Antetokounmpo is only a third of the way into his campaign, but he's averaging 31.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks in only 31.2 minutes per game. During his age-25 season, James averaged 29.7 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks in 39.0 minutes per game.

Those playing-time figures complicate things, as the NBA has embraced a less-is-more approach to minutes over the last few seasons. On one hand, it's remarkable that Antetokounmpo is outproducing the 25-year-old James in several areas despite playing far fewer minutes. On the other, there's something to be said for James' durability, which, even now, remains superhuman.

Differences in pace force Antetokounmpo to relinquish some of the edge he gains by putting up comparable (and, in some cases, superior) numbers in less court time.

In 2009-10, James' age-25 season, teams averaged 92.7 possessions per 48 minutes. In 2019-20, that figure is all the way up to 100.8. The game is faster now, which affords Giannis more opportunities to get his numbers than James had on a per-minute basis.

A glance at usage rate and true shooting percentage produces comparison points that are less subject to pace and minute variables. This season, Giannis' 38.6 usage percentage dwarfs the 33.5 percent figure LeBron posted a decade ago, while his true shooting percentage of 61.8 percent more narrowly exceeds James' 60.4 percent.

LeBron posted extraordinary usage and efficiency rates before it became more common to do so.
LeBron posted extraordinary usage and efficiency rates before it became more common to do so.Elsa/Getty Images

Again, though, the game has changed.

When James exceeded 30 percent usage and 60 percent true shooting in 2009-10, he became just the fifth player in league history to hit the 30/60 mark and the first wing since Michael Jordan in 1990-91. Trends toward floor spacing and isolation attacks brought about by the three-point revolution have resulted in 24 of the 33 qualified seasons coming after James in 2009-10.

It's become more common for teams to rely on a single player for high-volume, high-efficiency production. In that sense, James' age-25 achievement was more extraordinary when measured against the norms of its era.

Defensively, the age-25 edge belongs to Antetokounmpo, who has superior physical tools to dominate that end than James (has anyone ever said that before?) and who may have benefitted from an early career in which he wasn't a top option. He had to learn how to contribute in other ways. Their steal rates are comparable, but Giannis securely owns the advantage in block rate and defensive box plus/minus.

We're dealing with incredible production from both 25-year-olds, which is why another parallel shouldn't be surprising: Antetokounmpo is in search of a second straight MVP award this season, the exact pursuit in which James was engaged 10 years ago. For what it's worth, LeBron's chase was successful.

Ultimately, each player owns an edge or two on the other, depending on which stats you find more persuasive. But those identical 12.5 box plus/minuses show we're dealing with a startlingly even comparison.

Milwaukee should probably hope the team-success/career-trajectory parallel isn't so similar.

James' Cavaliers won 66 games during his age-24 MVP season but fell short of a ring, much like the Bucks during Antetokounmpo's 60-win age-24 MVP season. After a 61-win age-25 season that concluded with a second-round playoff departure, LeBron left his small-market Midwest franchise.

James couldn't break through with Cleveland, no matter how individually dominant he was.

The critical distinction: Giannis isn't headed for free agency after this season. So although there's been no shortage of concern about his potential exit, and though trade requests have been extricating stars from their teams with increasing frequency lately, Antetokounmpo can't follow the exact route James laid out 10 years ago.

If he and his Bucks overpower LeBron's Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday, dominating them in a way that suggests the breakthrough James never enjoyed during his first Cleveland stint is possible, Antetokounmpo may not even have to look down that decade-old path.

As similar as their age-25 seasons seem, that could be the distinction that makes all the difference.

        

NBA Champion, co-host of the “Talking Blazers” podcast, and co-host of “Handles” on NBA TV, Channing Frye, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Portland Trail Blazers, trading Damian Lillard and/or CJ McCollum, James Harden, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love, and the Buffet Of Goodness.