If the four major U.S. sports were broken up and then categorized as members of the X-Men, the NBA would undoubtedly be the shape-shifting mutant Mystique.
Like its blue counterpart, the league has thrived by possessing the ability to shuffle through several forms, overhaul its playing style and transform rosters and organizations at head-spinning rates, with this wild offseason being just the most recent example.
But for LeBron James, a player who has both helped shape and spearhead modern basketball into it’s most current state, it has conversely been dominant consistency that has propelled his teams and himself above the competition in the ever-changing NBA landscape. Until last season, at least.
During the 2018-19 campaign — and for the first time in over a decade — a James-led team was unable to make it to the postseason. He missed the most games in his career (27) due to a groin injury. And ended the year averaging his fewest minutes per contest (35.1) ever.
Beyond the quantifiable indicators mentioned, and even if we’re discarding another drama-soaked Lakers season, James also unfathomably looked... mortal... on the floor. For maybe the first time ever. His explosive bursts to the rim were less frequent, his thrilling chase-down blocks almost non-existent and his long relied upon extra gear seemingly was lost.
As a result, the natural question that now arises in the minds of the Lakers’ fans and opponents alike is whether these indicators were merely a pothole in what will continue to be an otherwise clear road, or the first signs of James’ expected eventual decline?
How and why did LeBron look different last season?
First, let’s not forget that even in a season many have been quick to classify as a “down year,” James still put up 27/8/8 on a nightly basis like a T-800 come to life and programmed to get buckets, drop dimes and snag rebounds. He may not have been the newest model of star, but he was still a reliable and impressive one.
With that said, the manner in which he got his storied counting stats and how effective he was in doing so does offer clues as to what’s still to come for the King, and why his widely-reported decline may have been slightly exaggerated.
At age 34, and after logging 46,235 (regular season) minutes, there is logistic and predictive reasoning for why James’ efficiency dipped (ex. his lowest true-shooting percentage since 2015).
In his first season with Los Angeles, James had the highest frequency of his shots come from behind the arc, while also posting the lowest percentage of mid-range looks of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass.
This combination of possessing a quick trigger from three and steering away from less non-paint twos also led to his highest Moreyball rate (a player’s percentage of field-goal attempts that come either from behind the arc or in the restricted area; 72.8 percent for James) ever.
While it’s possible that James may have simply chosen to take a more analytically inclined shot selection in an attempt to adapt to the way the league plays now, who he was playing with also likely played a large role where his offense came from.
Instead of being surrounded by the traditional shooting threats he has historically thrived beside, the Lakers front office attempted to radically try something new by building a roster filled with playmakers. The result — as James put it — was a resounding fart noise.
The area of James’ game most noticeably and negatively impacted by the team’s failure in filling the perimeter with adequate shooters was his drives.
James was too often met with multiple bodies in the paint — including those of his own teammates — and struggled to find the slivers of space he had been accustomed to, which in turn made the occurrence of his thunderous dunks less common.
Notice how aggressively Marco Belinelli stunts off of Kyle Kuzma here on James’ drive. Belinelli’s “show” forces James to pick up his dribble early and force up a tough floater over nearly the entire Spurs’ defense as they swallow up the paint without fear of perimeter threats.
James would go on to convert his field-goal attempts off of his drives at a 53.1 percent clip, a big drop-off from his final campaign with Cleveland, during which he finished such chances at a 60 percent rate.
The combination of the consistently congested restricted area and the lack of viable shooting threats beside James may have ultimately forced him to settle for the long ball instead of his normal bursts to the middle. Rather than seeing the benefit of shooters, James had to become one.
This leaves open the possibility that we collectively may have potentially misdiagnosed James’ shot selection as athletic inability, when really it was borne out of necessity. If so, there are encouraging signs this could potentially change come October.
How and why LeBron may look different next season
There is no disguising the fact that next season’s Lakers roster was built in James’ image. While that’s not the most creative avenue of roster building, it has proven to be plenty safe, and more importantly, effective. It wasn’t broke, and even if it took them a year, the front office figured out they didn’t need to fix it.
The team’s brain trust seemingly learned from past mistakes, as they signed five players who have been 36 percent or better career 3-point shooters. Players who should keep those once anxious help-defenders securely attached to their hips, and free up driving lanes that were clogged a season ago in the process, making instances like this more frequent for James.
There is also the significant inclusion and role Anthony Davis will play for James as he enters the final chapter of his career. After months of both publicly and privately wooing the 26-year-old superstar, the Lakers successfully landed the talented big and are set to have one of the most potentially devastating duo’s in recent memory.
Beside the simple benefit of playing with another star, arguably the most important facet of the game that Davis will offer James is a chance to catch his breath.
Although they attempted to alleviate the 34-year-old’s work load last season with a polarizing roster, the Lakers still relied heavily on James to initiate — and in many cases be — the team’s offense.
During his 16th season, James was sixth in the league in usage rate, eighth in touches and over 45 percent of his possessions on offense came either as the primary pick and roll ball-handler or in isolation, according to Synergy. That hefty work load should be alleviated some with “The Brow” in tow.
While never tasked with the mega creation responsibilities that James has overseen in his career, Davis should still prove to be an invaluable secondary — and in some cases primary — offensive hub (16th in usage rate last season) for his new team.
There will undoubtedly come a point where the morning talk-radio hoopla of “who is the Batman and who is the Robin?” conundrum arises when it comes to James and Davis this upcoming season. But while that can be a necessary distinction on some teams, the mere fact that James even has a teammate capable of being the answer to such a question — and that he could can play beside him and off of as James enters his twilight years — is far more important.
Whether this means James is used in more off-ball scenarios, or in situations where he’s cutting off of Davis post-ups, hand-offs, etc, it likely will help maintain and preserve his body come the tail-end of the season.
Ultimately it may be James’ decision alone on how much of the offensive burden Davis is allotted, but after experiencing what he experienced a year ago, James will very likely be grateful just to have some capable backup.
Last season was a failure in many regards for James and the Lakers alike. But tucked away within it there are signs of possibilities to learn and grow from. James, the league’s seminal consistent force, proved that like every basketball player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers before him, he was unable to out-dribble change.
However, if there was ever a player who can delay Father Time’s inevitable cold embrace for as long as humanly possible, there are very few — if any — who have proven more able than James. And with the necessary tools and components now in place, James’ battle against the clock will be one hell of a showdown.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.