By J.M. Poulard
As LeBron James prepares to make his seventh consecutive and eighth total Finals appearance, one cannot help but look back at the way his overall game has evolved through the years to help him accomplish this feat.
James has continuously added layers to his repertoire since making his debut in 2003 and his arsenal has made him both an impossible cover and all-time great lurking in the shadows of Michael Jordan’s supremacy on the throne.
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) May 10, 2017
Although that last sentence may sound blasphemous to some, it’s worth noting that James surpassed Jordan as the all-time postseason leader in points during the recently completed Eastern Conference Finals.
And interestingly enough, few would be label LeBron a scorer—himself included.
“I’m not a scorer, man,” James shared with B/R Mag’s Howard Beck. “I’ve worked too hard in my career to have that label, from the beginning. I want the right play, I’ve always loved the success of my teammates—and so, I’m not a scorer. I’m fortunate to be No. 1 in all-time playoff points. But I think that’s just a byproduct of me just playing the game the right way.”
Prior to truly embracing playing the right way, James had to take his lumps as a rookie and figure out the league. For instance, in Year 1, the coaching staff played him at point guard alongside athletic swingmen Ricky Davis and Darius Miles.
Davis and Miles were traded during the season to allow James to organically grow as a player and understand the rigors of the pro game. By the end of his first year, LeBron understood the sport and what was needed.
And much like his idol (Jordan), James understood he had to keep reinventing himself to reach his peak and enjoy success in the NBA.
No one knew his first peak would start in Year 2.
LeBron’s First Ascension (2004-2010)
James was a superb physical specimen coming into the league, but it’s probably safe to say that nothing could prepare him for the grind of the regular season coupled with the difficulties involved with playing against grown men.
Thus, it was difficult for the phenom to score efficiently as a rookie. But that changed the following year, as James came in far more prepared for the taxing demands of the game.
He came in as a devastatingly better finisher, more willing rim attacker and comfortable passer.
Courtesy of NBA.com.
James increased his restricted area field-goal attempts coupled with his conversion rate, free-throw trips and assists. His improvements in these phases – also incremental progress in his shooting – allowed him to dominate games from the perimeter and lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs.
This iteration of James was always on the attack and mostly only pulled back in the face of double teams to find the open man. During this timeframe, he averaged 29 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.8 steals and shot 48.4 percent from the field.
No performance captured his marvellous talent better than his 48-point performance in a swing Game 5 versus the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals:
At the time, this was said to be the signature game of his career given that his outstanding play helped catapult a Cavs team that started Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas next to LeBron into the Finals where the San Antonio Spurs swept them.
Surprisingly, this version of James that carried a subpar roster to the title round was the worse peak LeBron of them all, even though he did claim two MVP trophies and two All-Star Game MVPs. Nonetheless, his signature play during this era was a pretty good one:
Oh and by the way, a year after that play, he averaged 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists and made 51 percent of his shots during the playoffs. James had reached his apex as a player, or so everyone thought at the time.
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LeBron’s Second Climb (2010-2011)
After a second humbling at the hands of Kevin Garnett’s Boston Celtics (where many argued that the Akron native quit on his team), LeBron defected to the Miami Heat where he took his game to a new level.
It took a Heat team featuring James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh a full season to figure out how to play together, but James had reached a new level towards the end of the regular season because of a huge flaw that he finally turned into a weapon: his jump shot.
After years of shooting with a seemingly broken jumper, James finally turned it into a strength to help complement an already terrifying arsenal.
Courtesy of NBA.com
LeBron shot a career high 44.6 percent from mid-range (still best mark of his career) per NBA.com, and that addition helped him finally take out the Celtics in the postseason. It’s the most efficient shooting season (51 percent) he’d had up until that point in his career, and it aided him evolve further as a late-game threat.
Looking back, it’s weird that many questioned if James possessed the intestinal fortitude to carry his teams late – even though he did that during his entire first ascension – and that prompted ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh to opine:
“With LeBron’s recent clutch performances that drove the stake through the defending Eastern Conference champs, it’s time to debunk the myth of the “clutch gene.”
Haberstroh was correct, and LeBron provided a long list of resounding responses to his critics during the playoffs thanks in large part to his jumper:
James had a fantastic season and helped lead the Heat to Finals, where things took a weird unexpected turn. He inexplicably disappeared for long stretches of a series that Miami ultimately lost, which created a great source of embarrassment for LeBron. During the Finals, the Dallas Mavericks defended James with guards at times given that they knew the 6’8’’ forward would never take his defenders down into the block.
The defeat led many to wonder if James was fit for the title of “best player in the league,” despite the fact he produced on average 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and seven assists per contest that season. Although the campaign ended on a dud, it gave James the motivation to finally add the missing piece to an almost perfect repertoire: a low-post game.
LeBron’s Third Peak (2011-14)
After a stinging 2011 Finals defeat, James returned better than ever.
He had now morphed into a pick-and-roll assassin given the evolution of his tools. LeBron was still at his peak athletic form, armed with a jumper, tremendous passing ability and a devastating low-post game to thwart all would-be conquerors.
What’s more, LeBron moved more off the ball in an effort to exploit defenses occasionally attempting to load up on his teammates. As a result, James morphed into terrorizing force that even beat computers.
Indeed, in a feature written by Zach Lowe for Grantland in 2013, the Toronto Raptors shared their defensive simulator program to help the coaching staff figure out how to place defenders in optimal spots to thwart opposing offenses, and one player always beat the simulator.
“LeBron basically messes up the system and the ghosts (aggressive help defenders),” Rucker [Alex Rucker, the then Raptors director of analytics] says. “He does things that are just unsustainable for most players.”
That very same year, Kirk Goldsberry echoed some of Rucker’s sentiments at Grantland:
“James’s willingness to think ahead and facilitate for his teammates is what sets him apart from his fellow NBA megastars.”
Indeed, James became a master at picking apart defenses with his movement and precision passing. Previously, he was great at understanding defensive schemes and taking advantage of them, and by this point in his career he knew the weakness of every coverage he saw and which teammate had to get the ball to bend the defense to his will.
Sometimes, that meant a cross-court pass for a corner 3-pointer, and other times, the proper read was going into the low-post area and punishing his defender, which LeBron was now ready to happily oblige.
Watch how he backs down Paul George during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals for easy scores:
Well here, he does it to Kawhi Leonard during the 2013 NBA Finals:
If ever LeBron were going to be compared to Michael Jordan in proper context, this was the time. He had taken his talents to another level – again – toward basketball immortality.
During this run, James won two MVP trophies, two Finals MVP awards, led the Heat to three Finals appearances and helped Miami win two championships.
However, just before winning his first title, LeBron had to walk into the lion’s den and survive. With Miami facing a 3-2 series deficit during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat had to travel to Boston and face the Celtics in a game many anticipated James’ squad would lose.
The King wouldn’t allow it:
He had become hardened by his past failures, and it allowed him to rise to the top, despite never truly losing his grip on the title of best player in basketball. During this three-year run, he posted averages of 27 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists and shot a blistering 55.5 percent from the field. Also, he delivered in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in a manner that may or may not remind purists of a Hall of Fame 2-guard that once played in the Windy City:
In the final season of his third peak, James’ Heat was thoroughly eviscerated in the Finals by the Spurs – in five games – and LeBron now sought a new challenge: leading his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to a title.
He joined the Cavs as a free agent during the 2014 offseason, where he made his final rise.
LeBron’s Final Rise (2014-present)
After leading a team to four straight Finals, one might consider it sheer lunacy to dump that unit in favor of a perennial losing squad.
And yet, that’s exactly what LeBron did. Have a look at Cleveland’s record during the period that James was playing for the Heat:
*Lockout shortened season of 66 games.
Thus, what would prompt such “madness” from a competitor of James’ ilk? He provided an answer in a Sports Illustrated essay:
“When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio”.
Turns out he wasn’t a Mad King after all. Still, bringing a championship for his home state required a level of focus, leadership and basketball ability superior to anything he had previously exhibited.
After all, the Cavaliers team he was joining had no history of success, no cohesion and worst of all were completely terrible. Here’s what Sam Vecenie wrote in march 2014 (the season before LeBron re-joined Cleveland) for SB Nation’s Cavs blog Fear the Sword:
“The Cavaliers are a dumpster fire mixed with a train wreck. Watching this team has the same mind-numbing effects on one’s senses that the Kardashians do. It makes you want to claw your eyeballs out, stab your ears with an icepick, and then be repeatedly punched directly in the nose by a mixed martial arts fighter.”
James would be joining that. Sure, he was teaming up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (who joining Cavs via trade for No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins), but neither of them had ever been to the playoffs.
Cleveland needed the then 29-year-old LeBron to ball out despite accumulating almost as many miles (39,993 total minutes played) as Magic Johnson (40,783) during his entire career.
And yet, LeBron assessed the situation and reinvented himself to fit the roster and play to its strengths. There were a few bumpy rides such as figuring out how to coexist with Irving, maximizing the talents of Love, playing for a rookie coach (David Blatt) and then following a new coach (Tyronn Lue, the current Cleveland head coach), but James took all those challenges head on and conquered them.
Keep in mind, the Chosen One also had to factor in his diminishing athleticism into the equation.
James looked at the landscape and understood that his next step would be to play smarter than ever before. It became a simple game of math for LeBron, and that continues still today.
If he consistently attacks the weakest point of a defense on every trip, it allows him to conserve energy by keeping things simple instead of playing isolation ball against the top opposing defender.
This version of James spends a lot of time watching his teammates operate while he occasionally recoups on offense. Also, by consistently avoiding the top defender, it’s less likely he will wear down during the course of a contest, which allows him to routinely play north of 40 minutes and attack said defender late in games.
This LeBron has figured out basketball and manipulates all of the players on the floor in a manner that very few have been able to.
Noted basketball author Bob Ryan said as much in his book Scribe:
“He [James] has, thus reached a rare state of excellence, one known only to a precious few in the history of the game. I call it Game Mastery, meaning that a player is in complete control of his actions and he has the technical versatility to execute what his mind is telling him to do. Oscar Robertson was once there, as was John Havlicek. Lord knows both Bird and Magic reached that point, as has Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan was there for years, starting in 1991. And LeBron will be there until his body fails him.”
What is Ryan referring to when he speaks of Game Mastery?
It’s the ability to outthink both the opposing coaching staff and opposing players on the floor with smart decisions and selective aggression. Take this example from the 2016 Finals:
The Golden State Warriors never have a chance on this play. LeBron runs a wing pick-and-roll that forces Steph Curry to switch onto him, and from there, James methodically backs him down all the way into the paint and scores with a layup.
This older and wiser James plays the game at a speed that’s much different than everybody else. He’s slower, but his mind processes so much info that he ends up being ahead of every play. Thus, LeBron always sees what’s coming, and it’s turned him into one of the most unstoppable 32-year-old forces ever seen in the sport.
His only challenger in the history of basketball?
That Jordan guy.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons elaborated on this very topic going into the 2016-17 season:
“Seven years ago, I spent an entire chapter in my NBA book explaining why Jordan was the best player ever. I promised that I would never waver from that opinion. I’m wavering.”
Simmons’ explanation in the very same piece:
“The first 13 years of LeBron’s career were better than the first 13 years of anyone else’s career: four MVP awards, three titles, three Finals MVPs, six straight Finals, nine straight first-team All-NBAs, one iconic comeback, one vanquished curse, and a truly staggering level of durability and consistency.”
James’ uncanny ability to keep evolving is in fact reminiscent of Michael, even if some fans won’t allow LeBron’s brilliance to approach the mythology of MJ.
Jordan’s six championships were a product of his greatness and his unique knack for sensing what his teams required from him as he grew older. His game always matched with the times and his age.
One could use the words slasher, above-the-rim finisher, closer, passer, elite defender, low-post player and jump shooter to describe Jordan at various points of his career and be completely accurate.
The very same exercise applies to LeBron as well in a way that may make some uncomfortable because of some of his previously outlined blemishes (2010 playoffs versus Boston and 2011 Finals).
Bob Ryan made his case in the Boston Globe:
“But that does not mean that the LeBron we are looking at now cannot be thought of as Michael’s equal, and possibly even his superior. Who’s a better passer, and it’s not remotely debatable? LeBron. Who’s clearly a better rebounder? LeBron. Who’s more likely to drop 40 or 50 on you? Michael.”
To be clear, though, this isn’t to say that James is better than Jordan. Instead, the focus should be on realizing that LeBron has followed in the footsteps of the Chicago Bulls icon to leverage off of his longevity.
Consider this, Cleveland’s superstar has already begun to decline, and yet, he’s averaging a mind-numbing 25.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists on 51.9 percent shooting during his final rise. Oh and for good measure, he captured the 2016 Finals MVP by defeating a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team for the championship.
Not bad at all for a player whose career is now heading into its final arc.
This version of James is likely the last peak one fans will see. The next iteration should be appearing within the next three years when he passes the baton to Kyrie Irving. James will still handle running the offense and have ball-handling duties, but his main task will be to orchestrate things for Irving and Kevin Love.
James will still get a healthy dose of scoring chances, but he will focus more on distribution and could potentially lead the league in assists.
That’s the thing with LeBron’s skill set, anything and everything is always in play.
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