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In Appreciation of LeBron James

LeBron James continues to do the extraordinary and unprecedented, relieving any doubts of what he’d be capable of in his 20th season.

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If I had to choose a single word to describe LeBron James, that would probably be it. After all, there are regular, normal superlatives like “great” or “incredible” or even “legendary”, which certainly all apply but just doesn’t seem to fully capture what it’s been like to watch LeBron play and all he’s meant to the game.

And then there’s unprecedented, a word that Webster simply defines as: never done or known before.

Is there a more fitting way of describing LeBron?

In the opening weeks of the NBA season I wasn’t quite sure what to make of LeBron or how to calibrate my expectations of him. Entering his 20th campaign in what would be his age 38 season, he’d already settled into rarified air in terms of longevity, accumulating a minutes total as countless as his many statistical accomplishments.

Would this be the year he stopped resembling the player he has always been? Would injury or general physical decline slow him to no longer being the type of top level contributor the Lakers rely on him to be? Would his production begin to fade as he (naturally) became more reliant on jump shooting instead of the all-out assaults on the paint of his physical prime?

After some deep thinking on the subject, I landed on the tried and true analysis I’ve used for the last half decade: doubt LeBron at your own peril. In other words, I’ll believe he’s a significantly worse and different player when I see it. And not just for a game or three or five, but for the better part of an entire season.

He’d earned the benefit of the doubt, I thought. Coming off a season in which he averaged 30/8/6 on 52% shooting from the field and 36% from beyond the arc, it seemed contrarian to believe there was some big drop off coming just because of his age or that he was entering his 20th season. So, again, until he showed otherwise, I was choosing to believe in LeBron’s ability to keep getting it done.

And, well, I’m feeling pretty good about that decision right now!

LeBron may not be as good as ever, but he’s still pretty damned good. The raw stats are one thing — and we’ll get to those in a moment. For me, it’s his general presence on the court, the mastery of all facets of the game he continues to display nightly, and how those things translate to that production. I could pull up countless examples of this from any number of games this season, but his performance against the Hawks on his 38th birthday is one I won’t be soon forgetting:

There’s not a thing on the court he cannot or will not do to either gain advantage for his own team — or eliminate advantages for the other team. He has every pass against any defensive alignment, any shot against any scheme set to deter him. He’s a master tactician in the halfcourt and a transition monster in the open court. He can still stare down an opposing offensive player too, willing to step up on any given possession to defend players ranging from Trae Young to Nikola Jokic and get a needed stop and then clean up the miss by snaring the defensive rebound.

All this is backed up by the numbers, which, again, are mind-blowing when you consider his age and number of seasons played. He’s averaging 29.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists this year. He’s shooting 51.0% from the field, a crazy number when you consider he’s only hitting 30.3% of his 6.8 attempted three pointers a game. He’s still getting to the foul line 5.7 times a night and is hitting 75.2% of them (higher than his career average).

Of the 11 players who have played a 20th season, none have averaged as many points, rebounds, or assists as LeBron. He’s tied for 1st in steals, is 3rd in blocks, and is 1st in overall field goal percentage. If only looking at 2-point field goal percentage, LeBron almost laps the field shooting a full 10.1% higher (60.1%) than the next closest player (Jamal Crawford, 50.0%).

If you want a larger sample of players to compare him to, there have been 83 seasons played by players who are at least 38 years old in which the player appeared in at least 20 games while averaging at least 15 minutes (i.e. players who were rotation level players who were able to appear in a statistically significant number of games). Of those seasons, here’s where LeBron’s 2022-23 per game averages rank in various categories:

  • Minutes: 1st
  • Points: 1st
  • Rebounds: 6th
  • Assists: 5th
  • FG%: 14th
  • 2-PT FG%: 3rd
  • 3-pointers made: 1st
  • FT attempts: 3rd

For further context, in some these categories (assists, rebounds, FG%) there are single players who appear multiple times above LeBron, which means his ability to produce these sorts of statistical highs have only been accomplished by a couple of other players at all.

Earlier this season LeBron passed Magic Johnson on the all-time assists list and later this season — health willing — he will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It’s like if Tom Brady had as many rushing yards as Adrian Peterson, or if Shoei Ohtani finished his career with more home runs than Willie Mays and more strikeouts than Nolan Ryan. The same player shouldn’t be able to do these things.

Never done or known before.

Sounds about right to me.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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