Taking Stock of LeBron's Historic Season
Last night against the Charlotte Bobcats, for the first time in his professional career, LeBron James shot better than 92 percent from the field. Showing remarkable restraint, he didn’t take a single shot outside of a 15 feet from the rim. And for the 67th time in his professional career, he put up 31 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
We don’t have many strict rules around here, but one of them is that when James has a historical night and most of the world takes the news as a perfectly normal event – his single-game player efficiency rating against the Charlotte Bobcats was only the fifth-highest of this season – we have to take a step back and take stock of what kind of season he is having.
Turns out, he’s having one of the best Frankenstein seasons the National Basketball Association has ever seen – a sustained performance that not only rivals the best of the league’s best, but one that takes from some of the best seasons ever and stiches them all together into a pick-and-roll running, three-point shooting, paint-dominating Chimera.
Larry Bird: 1986-1988
From 1986 to 1988, Larry Bird probably turned in the best back-to-back shooting seasons of all time. In the history of the league, only Bird has shot better than 52 percent from the field, on at least 15 shots per game, and 40 percent from three, with at least three attempts per game, while making more than 90 percent of his free-throws. And he did it in consecutive seasons.
James can’t compete with Bird on the free-throws, but take out the 90 percent requirement and James’ 2012-13 season becomes the third name on the list. The kicker is that James is shooting 55 percent from the field after his near-perfect night against Charlotte. Bird’s highest mark in these two seasons was 52.7 percent.
But let’s bring free-throws back into this for a moment. If we use true-shooting percentage, an amalgam of the values for field-goal, three-point and free-throw percentage, James is still having a more efficient season than Bird’s best despite being 18 percentage points worse from the charity stripe.
Shaquille O’Neal: 2000-2001
Shaq was the Most Valuable Player of the 1999-2000 season, but he was actually a slightly more dominant force in the paint a year later when Allen Iverson took home the award. That year, O’Neal took a staggering 680 shots in the restricted area (effectively at the rim) and converted on 76.6 percent of those looks – as opposed to 73.4 percent the season before with more attempts – and that mark went unchallenged, even by O’Neal himself, for the next decade.
Enter LeBron James.
In 1.8 fewer attempts at the rim per game, James is currently shooting 75.6 percent in the restricted area, the highest conversion rate in the league this season and in any season since Shaq’s prime. And if you factor in shots in the rest of the paint where James makes over half of his looks, he’s having a better season than Shaq in the paint.
In fairness to Shaq, James’ numbers are bolstered by dunks in transition, but as the axiom goes, two points is two points. A dunk is a dunk, and efficiency matters whether obtained with full-court speed or half-court power.
Magic Johnson: Career
Comparing James to Johnson is never going to be easy because while Johnson assisted on more of his teammates field-goals when he was on the floor over the course of his career, James has never used fewer possessions – to shoot, get fouled or turn the ball over – than Johnson did in his highest-usage season. Simply put, James has almost always been more of a scorer and while we may never know how many assists James could average over the course of a season, there’s a reason his totals don’t compare to those of Johnson.
But here’s what we do know:
According to Basketball-Reference.com, James owns seven of the best eight (with Tracy McGrady 5th on the list) PER seasons for players categorized as forwards, using more than 20 percent of available possessions while assisting on more than 30 percent of field-goals while on the court. Include Johnson, listed as a point guard, and Johnson’s best PER season comes in ninth on that list.
Johnson never had an effective field-goal percentage (accounting for the value of three-pointers) higher than James has (58.5 percent) this season. Johnson never grabbed more available defensive rebounds than James has grabbed this season. And James is turning the ball over less than Johnson ever did (four fewer turnovers per 100 possessions), while fouling less.
Player Efficiency Rankings
Whatever your feelings about PER, developed by Memphis Grizzlies Vice President of Basketball Operations John Hollinger, it is an incredibly useful tool for sorting individual (offensive) seasons throughout history. There’s a reason the names that dominate the All-Time PER List are Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
James isn’t turning in one of his best PER seasons, largely because he’s using fewer possessions per game and the formula for PER rewards higher usage – but his mark of 30.5 this season is still the 13th highest in league history. And among the seven players and 17 seasons with a PER of 30 or above, James this season has both the highest true-shooting and effective field-goal percentage of all of them.
None of this evidence alone should be enough to sway an MVP vote toward James and away from Kevin Durant, who has an even higher true-shooting percentage this season. There is far more to analyze before we can come to a suitable conclusion on that, and it’s a conversation for another day, months from now.
All the above information has to say, for now, is that James is not only having one of the best seasons of all time, but one of the most unique we’ve ever seen. As far as his efficiency goes, he’s Shaq at his peak, he’s Larry Bird in his prime, he’s rebounding better, turning the ball less over and fouling less than Magic Johnson and he’s shooting better than Michael Jordan at his best. He can also defend any position on the floor, and might be, while hardly on a consistent basis – he manages his energy – the league’s best defensive player.
And, per NBA.com, James is turning a better PER in the clutch – last five minutes, up or down five points – than Jordan did in 96-97 (which is as far back as our data goes). Jordan has the edge the following season, but in 45 games James already has more clutch assists than Jordan did in those two seasons with the Bulls, combined.
Now, about those free throws.
Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.