(Erica Rodriguez/Los Angeles Lakers)
2019 Player Capsule: LeBron James
Before the 2018-19 season started, LeBron James had appeared in 95.1 percent of the 1,453 games in his 15-year career, including all 239 playoff games, and spent more time on a basketball floor than all but eight players in NBA history.
His indestructibility coupled with his best-in-the-world game was the key reason why the Lakers were projected as, at worst, a mid-tier playoff team in a loaded Western Conference. And that’s where they stood, in the No. 4 seed, when James suffered the most significant injury of his career on Dec. 25 during a blowout win at Golden State. It sidelined him for 18 of the next 19 games, and ultimately limited him to career-low 55 games.
LeBron’s first season as a Laker was unfortunately defined by that injury. The Lakers went just 9-18 when he didn’t play, and 28-27 when he did, though many of those losses came when Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart were also out with their own injuries.
In fact, when LeBron, Ingram and Ball all played, the Lakers went 15-8. That they only shared the floor together for 23 games was quite unfortunate.
With that said, when LeBron James was on the court, he was … LeBron James. He led the Lakers in scoring, rebounds, assists, made 3’s, made free throws and minutes.
He averaged 27.4 points (+0.2 on his career average), 8.3 assists (+1.1), 8.5 rebounds (+1.1), 1.3 steals (-0.3), 0.6 blocks (-0.2), 51.1 percent FG’s (+0.6), 33.9 percent 3’s (-0.4) and 66.5 percent FT’s (-7.1). He ranked fifth in the league in scoring, and 66 percent of his points were unassisted. He was third in the NBA in assists, with the most by a Laker since Nick Van Exel (8.5) in 1996-97, and thus the only NBA player in the top five in scoring and assists … which makes sense, considering he’s the only player in league history to rank in the top 10 in scoring (fourth) and assists (10th).
Some advanced stats? James ranked 8th in the NBA in PER (25.64), 4th in offensive box plus/minus (6.2), 5th in box plus/minus, 10th in VORP, 5th in assist percentage (39.4), 7th in usage (31.6) and led the Lakers on the full time roster in net rating (2.1).
LeBron’s production was similar to his prior two years in Cleveland, when he was efficient offensively, and picked his spots defensively, as almost any veteran of 15 NBA seasons that carries a massive offensive load should do. Naturally, his defense on a game-to-game and quarter-to-quarter basis wasn’t going to match what it was in the playoffs, or when he was 25, but he knows how and when to pick his spots to impact the game on that end as well.
The difference in 2017-18 was that he was building towards a clear playoff run in which his minutes and production rose to the level of almost nobody in NBA history (34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks in 41.9 minutes in 2017-18).
Due to the injury, he wasn’t able to build up to that point in 2018-19, but instead had to come back from six weeks off the court, and by that point, there proved too much ground to make up.
BY THE NUMBERS
5.3: Fast break points for LeBron, which led the NBA.
6: Teams (PHI, DEN, ORL, MIA, ATL, UTA) that averaged fewer isolation points than James, whose 4.5 per game ranked second in the NBA (next to James Harden, a ridiculous 18.1).
8: Triple-doubles in his limited action, tied with Luka Doncic for 4th in the NBA (Westbrook, Jokic, Simmons).
13.5: Points in the paint per game (5th in the NBA).
51: Points scored at Miami, LeBron’s season high, and 12th career 50-point game.
71.1: Shooting percentage in the restricted area, 3rd-best among 23 players with at least 450 attempts (Giannis Antetokounmpo 73.7; Rudy Gobert 71.7).
For the first time since 2005, LeBron will have a full offseason for the body that’s endured 10,049 playoff minutes, and 46,235 regular season minutes, to recover. In fact, the last game James played was on March 29, which gives him a full six months until the likely start of training camp at the very end of September.
Last season, James played 41.9 minutes per game in 22 playoff games that finally concluded on June 8 when Cleveland lost to Golden State.
Imagine what LeBron, already notorious for doing everything possible to keep his body in elite condition, can do with all the extra time? Or just consider the lack of additional mileage on one’s body, especially one that does so much on the floor.
For most players, offseasons are about adding a particular skill that isn’t in one’s toolbox, or transforming one’s body. James is so far ahead of the pack in both that it’s more about supplementing what he’s been building for so many years.
Might James like to see his 3-point and free throw percentages rise next year? Sure. But his toolbox is already pretty full, and the most important thing for him, one can guess, is finding the right balance between rest/recovery and strength building for his body.
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