Is This the End of LeBron James as We Knew Him?

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterDecember 12, 2021

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - DECEMBER 09: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers brings the ball up court during the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on December 09, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. 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 Justin Ford/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has held the designation of the NBA's best player for the better part of two decades, combining his otherworldly athletic ability with an incredible mental aptitude and unselfish play.

From winning back-to-back MVPs with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009 and 2010, to reaching his apex while winning two titles and an additional pair of MVPs with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013, to continuing his dominance by winning championships with the Cavs and Los Angeles Lakers, few players have realistically challenged James' place atop the NBA throne.

Until now.

While age and injuries have begun taking their toll the past few years, this may be the first time we can say with confidence that James is no longer the NBA's best, a run that arguably began in 2007 when he dismantled a championship Detroit Pistons roster and elevated a lackluster Cavaliers team to the Finals.

"He's still elite, an All-Star and all that, but not the best player in the league anymore," one Western Conference scout who watched James play this past week told Bleacher Report. "He's still dominant, but Father Time is showing. He still can't be stopped, but he can't do it for long periods of time anymore."

After getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs this spring for the first time in his career and missing 12 of the Lakers' first 27 games because of injuries and COVID-19 testing, James might be seeing his run end. 

Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry are all having better seasons. Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid are close to surpassing James as well.

This is a strange, new reality for James. The NBA world doesn't run through him anymore. The Lakers are just 14-13 as they adjust to life with Russell Westbrook and a flurry of veteran free-agent signings. Even with James, L.A. is 9-6.

Rosters have long been shuffled around James as he's jumped from team to team, but this latest retooling may be his most ambitious project yet, factoring in his age and mileage. The four-time MVP will turn 37 on Dec. 30 and is in Year 19. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone have logged more time on a court (regular and postseason) than James in NBA history.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

He has also begun to remodel his own game, once built on athleticism, now built on plowing through defenses on his way to the rim.

Like the rest of the NBA, he's also embracing the long ball. He's shooting a career-high 7.9 three-point attempts this season, encompassing just under 40 percent of his total shots. His average shot distance was just 9.6 feet six years ago, extended to 15.0 feet this season, the longest distance of his 19 campaigns. This is also a smart way to prevent further decline, as spotting up for three carries far less physical risk than driving on Embiid, Rudy Gobert or others.

The Lakers would actually benefit by getting James more catch-and-shoot opportunities. He's excellent off the catch this season (42.6 percent on 3.6 attempts per game) but poor when creating outside looks for himself (28.8 percent on 3.9 attempts).

The challenge for head coach Frank Vogel and the Lakers is how to preserve James. Make sure he ages gracefully. Hope he doesn't fall off a cliff after two decades of high usage.

Yet even with Westbrook and Anthony Davis on board, James still leads the Lakers in average minutes, scoring and usage, something that doesn't bode well for his remaining seasons.

Because of this continued responsibility, James has become a master of load management during games, something he's needed to do amid an average of 36.7 minutes per night, his highest mark since 2017-18.

"He's finding new ways to load-manage himself when he's on the court. He takes a lot of plays off for many reasons, either mad at his teammates or doesn't get back down the floor. He'll attack the rim, fall down and take forever to get up wanting a foul call," the scout told B/R.

"I don't think it would benefit anyone if he was playing 40 minutes per night every night; he'll break down, which could be what we're seeing. He's losing athleticism, speed, burst, explosion, but that's all Father Time."

Of course, trading for Westbrook was about adding another ball-handling star who could theoretically make life easier for James and relieve some playmaking and scoring responsibility, even if the fit was iffy.

While James' minutes are up, his usage has decreased with Westbrook on board, down to 29.4 percent, the lowest since his rookie season. When the two share the floor, James' usage drops to 28.0 percent compared to 30.3 percent when he's on the court without Westbrook.

This partnership has been good for James' longevity, but not the Lakers' success. Los Angeles has a net rating of plus-2.4 when James and Westbrook are on the court together this season. With James on and Westbrook off, this rating jumps to plus-4.5.

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 14: LeBron James #6 talks with Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings on October 14, 2021 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
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"LeBron's a bad GM; Russ is not a good fit there. He doesn't need an older roster around him. They still need LeBron to do everything—not a good recipe for this stage of his career," the scout told B/R.

It's long been a recipe for success to put shooters around James, something the Lakers shot themselves in the foot with by adding Westbrook, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo to a roster that already had Talen Horton-Tucker and Anthony Davis. L.A. is just 17th in made threes this season (11.9 per game) and 13th in percentage (35.3 percent), bogging down an offense that ranks 23rd overall (107.2 rating).

Vogel has done a good job of staggering James' minutes, as he's playing nearly the same amount in the first half of games (17.9 minutes) as the second (17.5). His productivity has clearly suffered the more fatigued he gets, however.

In the first half of games this season, James is averaging 12.7 points on 57.0 percent shooting overall and 44.7 percent from three. In the second half, these numbers drop to 11.9 points on 44.2 percent overall and 30.6 percent from three. In fourth quarters alone, he is at 42.7 percent from the field and 27.8 from outside the arc. The Lakers simply have to cut his minutes and try to keep him fresh for the end of games.

James may no longer dominate like he used to as a lead ball-handler who puts his head down and drives play after play, and that's OK. The Lakers can use him effectively in a number of different ways, including as a floor-spacing power forward, a playmaker from the elbows (where he's also shooting 85.7 percent) and as a roll man next to Westbrook.

Even if Antetokounmpo, Durant or Jokic should be considered the NBA's best player, James can still be an All-Star for a few more seasons, which should be extremely important to him.

A selection this season (which he'll likely get, considering the fan vote counts for 50 percent of the tally) would put James at 18 for his career, tying former Laker great Kobe Bryant for the second-most selections of all time. An appearance in 2023 would tie James with Abdul-Jabbar for the most in history, with a 20th trip in 2024 letting him hold the record by himself.

We've been lucky enough to witness James dominate the NBA for so long that not seeing him at the very top has been strange, to say the least. He's still a top-five player in the league, however, and could stay there if the Lakers can better manage his minutes and usage on the floor.


Statistics via Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.