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February 10, 2012
Remarkable Numbers
How LeBron's Season Stacks Up

by Neil Paine

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The running mates have changed--well, not so much changed as undergone a complete makeover. Instead of the likes of Mo Williams & an aging Ben Wallace, LeBron James is now surrounded by perennial All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This was why James took his proverbial Talents to South Beach, after all: being Batman to Antawn Jamison's Robin can only get you so far. Even so, the King is doing his best statistical impression of his old, Cleveland-era self--a player who was supposed to be left behind when The Decision brought better teammates James' way.

This is the James we thought we'd see in 2011, before Miami taught more than a few overly optimistic projectors the harsh lessons of diminishing returns. During his final season as a Cavalier, James took on 34.0 percent of the team's possessions while on the court, averaging 1.209 points produced per possession, a level of productivity few have ever reached in NBA history. This was alongside a collection of role players like Anthony Parker & Anderson Varejao, and it wasn't even James' best season ever--the previous year, he averaged an ungodly 1.217 pts/possession on 34.2 percent of Cleveland's possessions, to go with a 99.0 Basketball on Paper Defensive Rating.

Surely James' accomplishments would multiply in the presence of Wade & Bosh, we thought. Instead, James averaged "only" 1.162 pts/poss despite a possession rate that dipped to 31.9 percent. The culprit? In retrospect, it's easy to point the finger at bad fit; for a pair of talents that come along so rarely, Wade and James' respective skills proved shockingly uncomplimentary, unable to elevate the duo to equal even the sum of its parts, much less transcend them.

But the James of early 2012 is beginning to resemble the inconceivably productive version we "witnessed" in 2009 & 2010. Translating his historical ratings to the 2012 environment of 103.0 pts/100 possessions, here is the progression of James' numbers since 2008:

Year   Age     Tm     G     MP      MPG     ORtg    %Pos    DRtg
----------------------------------------------------------------
2008    23    CLE    75    3027    40.4    111.4    33.6    99.2
2009    24    CLE    81    3054    37.7    115.7    34.2    94.2
2010    25    CLE    76    2966    39.0    115.7    34.0    97.3
2011    26    MIA    79    3063    38.8    111.5    31.9    97.4
2012    27    MIA    25     941    37.6    116.7    33.5    97.7

This has been James at his most offensively efficient ever (with a 61.7 TS%, including a career-best 42.8 FG percent on jumpers), representing the "skill curve" progression many saw in the cards last season. Some advanced metrics, especially SPM regressions, place James' 2012 slightly below his masterpiece 2009 campaign, simply because he isn't taking on quite as many possessions (in addition to assisting less and turning the ball over more, with a reduced FT%). But to James' credit, he has been putting the ball in the basket with ruthless effectiveness, after having largely dropped the three-point shot--which in recent seasons he was making at a below-average 33 percent clip--from his repertoire.

As is usually the case with James, though, there's a caveat to his return to Cleveland-esque productivity: LeBron has unquestionably played better in the eight games Wade has missed so far this season. Although his shooting and rebounding numbers are superior when playing alongside Wade, James is scoring with greater frequency, setting up teammates more effectively, and doing a better job of avoiding turnovers when his most gifted teammate is out of action. Basically, when Wade doesn't play, James performs at the level we last saw from him with the Cavs in 2010, but when Wade is available, LBJ more resembles the 2011 edition--still a phenomenal player, but somewhat disappointing output for a guy whose numbers once could be compared to those of a prime Michael Jordan without a hint of irony.

The issue, as always, is that both players need the rock in their hands to do their best work. James' peak seasons saw him touch the ball about 2.00 times per minute, a number that was reduced to 1.81 last year because he was forced to split touches with Wade & Bosh. Likewise, when playing with Wade this season, James has been touching the ball 1.82 times per minute ... but in the more productive Wade-less games, James is getting 2.07 touches/min. The fact that LeBron has crafted a somewhat more perimeter-oriented game in 2012 (29 percent of his shots have come inside, versus 31 percent last year and 36 percent in his final two Cleveland seasons) naturally lends itself to improved synergy with Wade, but his skill set still generates its best numbers when he can dominate the ball.

The other area where James' 2012 lags behind his 2009 is on defense. Four seasons ago, LeBron was an absolute terror at the defensive end, holding opposing SFs to a 13.6 PER and spearheading the league's 3rd-best defense with a 2.4 Blk% and 2.4 Stl%. The Cavaliers as a team were 5.8 points of Defensive Rating better than the NBA average that year, improving by 8.4 pts/100 poss. when James was on the court. The net result was a 2.8 Defensive Regularized Adjusted +/-, which ranked James 13th in the game defensively.

This season, James has hounded SFs into a microscopic 8.7 counterpart PER, but other metrics suggest that his defensive output has declined. Miami's defense ranks 10th in the NBA, only 2.3 pts/100 poss. better than average, and the Heat are actually 0.9 pts/100 poss. better defensively while James rides the pine. Individually, James' Stl% has held steady at 2.4, but his Blk% has fallen to 1.5, part of a declining trend in shot-blocking. All of these factors show up in the RAPM: James' rating is now 1.4, half of what it was in '09 and worth a 42nd-place ranking.

Of course, compare just about any season to James' 2009 and it's bound to come up short. By WARP, LeBron's 26.9 mark ranks third since 1980, trailing just Jordan's 1989 & David Robinson's 1994. It's the same story with Win Shares, where James is only topped by names like Mikan, Jabbar, Jordan, Robertson, & Chamberlain on the all-time single-season list. And according to a Basketball on Paper-based method that estimates the winning percentage of a five-man unit consisting of the player and four average teammates, James' 2009 was the most productive season since 1974:

Player                Year     Tm     G     MP      ORtg    %Pos     DRtg    LgRtg    Win%
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
LeBron James          2009    CLE    81    3054    121.7    34.2     99.0    108.3    .765
Michael Jordan        1991    CHI    82    3034    125.4    31.3    101.6    107.9    .761
Michael Jordan        1996    CHI    82    3090    123.5    31.2     99.4    107.6    .758
Michael Jordan        1988    CHI    82    3311    122.9    32.4    101.4    108.0    .752
LeBron James          2012    MIA    25     941    116.7    33.5     97.7    103.0    .751
LeBron James          2010    CLE    76    2966    120.9    34.0    101.7    107.6    .748
David Robinson        1994    SAS    80    3241    119.2    31.4     97.9    106.3    .741
Michael Jordan        1989    CHI    81    3255    122.6    31.9    103.1    107.8    .738
Chris Paul            2009    NOH    78    3002    124.4    30.0    103.1    108.3    .735
Michael Jordan        1990    CHI    82    3197    123.1    32.4    105.5    108.1    .733

Player                Year     Tm     G     MP      ORtg    %Pos     DRtg    LgRtg    Win%
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
David Robinson        1996    SAS    82    3019    120.5    28.4     96.4    107.6    .731
Shaquille O'Neal      2000    LAL    79    3163    115.0    30.7     94.6    104.1    .729
Michael Jordan        1997    CHI    82    3106    121.1    30.7    101.8    106.7    .728
Chris Paul            2008    NOH    80    3006    124.7    28.2    103.4    107.5    .722
Michael Jordan        1993    CHI    78    3067    119.3    32.8    102.4    108.0    .722
Michael Jordan        1992    CHI    80    3102    121.2    30.2    101.6    108.2    .720
Kevin Garnett         2004    MIN    82    3231    112.0    29.5     91.5    102.9    .718
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar   1977    LAL    82    3016    114.4    26.6     92.5     99.5    .718
Dirk Nowitzki         2007    DAL    78    2821    122.8    27.9    101.8    106.5    .717
Karl Malone           1997    UTA    82    2998    118.5    31.5    101.2    106.7    .717

There's no shame in falling short of the finest campaign anyone has assembled in recent memory, even if you're the architect of said tremendous season. Perhaps more pertinent than comparing James to his own past, then, is to ask how his present output is helping Miami move toward their ultimate goal of winning a championship. And the Heat is currently third in both Pythagorean Winning Percentage and SRS, boasting the game's third-best offense despite Wade's aforementioned absences. Whether he ultimately surpasses his 2009 numbers or not, LeBron James has Miami once again positioned to make a deep title run.

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Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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