Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
LeBron James just won his third NBA title, in which he had the greatest NBA Finals performance in history. So why, why, why in the wide, wide world of sports do I have him ranked No. 2?
That is a very fair question. If the rankings were established solely on who was capable of playing the best, I would have him No. 1. He has a level no one else can reach. But he doesn’t maintain that level because, in spite of appearances, he actually is a mortal human being. And that other guy is a pretty solid basketball player, too. How much LeBron plays and how much he defers to teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will determine his chances at MVP.
A fifth MVP is very much in reach for LeBron James. The debate surrounding the near-32-year-old cyborg is whether he is in regression. If you look at his per-game averages, he certainly appears to be. The last two seasons, he’s averaged just 25.3 points, the fewest since his rookie year. But his other counting stats don’t show a great decline. And if you look at his numbers adjusted for possessions, he’s been pretty much where he’s been since he took his talents to South Beach:
As you can see, there’s really no evidence that he’s in decline based on what he’s doing while he’s on the court. The only issue is how much he’ll be on the court.
James has played an insane number of minutes over the last six years — far more than anyone in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only Monta Ellis has played more regular-season minutes since 2010-11 (I know, I too was surprised!). But when you factor in six straight trips to the NBA Finals, that’s a lot of extra minutes. Here’s a peek at the players with at least 15,000 combined minutes since 2010-11:
He has about 2,703 more than second-place Kevin Durant — the rough equivalent of an entire extra regular season (last year, he played 2,709). When you factor that with the league-wide trend of minutes being curtailed anyway, James’ production per game is diminishing because he’s playing less (and should continue to do so). There, the trend is undeniable:
So, while LeBron might still be the most dominant player while he’s on the court, he’s on the court less. And most analysts expect that to prolong his career, he’ll be deferring more touches to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Which is to say he could “plunge” all the way to third-best player if Russell Westbrook or James Harden have obscene seasons and elevate their clubs to top-two teams in the West.
On offense, James’ abilities are pretty well established. He’s virtually unstoppable with the ball getting to the rim. But if he has to rely on his jumper, he’s a below average but not horrible player, as demonstrated by his basic zone shot chart:
At the rim, he is ridiculous, both in terms of quantity and efficiency. His 478 buckets inside the little semicircle were the most in the NBA by a long shot. He had 70 more than second-place Andre Drummond, and he took only 16 more attempts to get there. While we focus a lot on three-point shooting lately because of “court stretching,” the rim is still the most efficient area. James’ 69.9 percent at the rim is equivalent to shooting 46.5 percent from deep.
James is still dangerous as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll (78.6 percentile) and in isolation (59.0 percentile), but he isn’t as dominant as you would think. If you can force him into a pull-up jumper, he’s relatively harmless (38.6 percent). Nor is he particularly impressive on the catch-and-shoot (47.1 percent).
Stopping LeBron is mostly a matter of shutting down his drives and the passing lanes. Part of what makes him so brilliant as a player is his unparalleled court awareness and ability to find the open shooter. Last season, LeBron’s teammates shot a 54.4 effective field goal percentage when he fed them the ball (whether he was credited with an assist or not).
Factoring in his scoring and passing, James had the third-highest Offensive Real Plus-Minus last year, trailing only Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Those are pretty good numbers for a man who is “regressing.”
In addition to his incredible offensive talents, James is also one of the best defensive players in the league. His 3.30 Defensive Real Plus-Minus was 11th overall and second at his position, trailing only Defensive Player of the Year winner Kawhi Leonard.
One of the interesting conundrums revolving around adjusting LeBron’s playing patterns as he ages is that he’ll be accruing more minutes as a power forward, where he is more effective, according to his position-adjusted numbers at Nylon Calculus. His DRE as a power forward was 8.6, and as a small forward “only” 4.3 (which is still exceptional).
Aside from Kevin Love, whose defense is suspect at best, and Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers just don’t have any real “big men.”
Based on his position numbers at 82games.com, his opponents posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 11.1 when James played small forward but 14.9 guarding power forwards. So that’s some drop-off, but it’s still decent. Although, when he’s playing power forward, that’s more beating he has to take.
He’ll be playing a lot of minutes with the likes of guys like James Jones, Channing Frye or Mike Dunleavy. In all those cases, James will probably be defending the 4. He’s certainly effective enough at it that the quality of play won’t be an issue, but you have to wonder if long term that could wear him down over the course of multiple seasons, particularly with the constant Finals runs.
The biggest concern for regression for LeBron right now might be wear-and-tear. It’s been a remarkably injury-free career, but as he takes more pounding, it could become a concern, which is another reason you’ll see the Cavaliers pay very close attention to his minutes.