Backpicks GOAT: #3 LeBron James

Key Stats and Trends

  • Led historically good offenses on a variety of teams
  • Has the best box and non-box statistical portfolio of the Databall era
  • Elite passer and perimeter defender, but overly ball-dominant at times

Scouting Report

LeBron entered the league as the best teenager in NBA history, a cocktail of size, athleticism and basketball IQ. From Day One, he was capable of explosive scoring with an aptitude for the skip pass.

But his jumper was streaky and his shot selection spotty.1 As he entered his physical prime, he combined speed, length (7-foot wingspan) and power (255 pounds, plus or minus 10 depending on the year) to bullrush the basket, bouncing defenders backwards as they made contact:

Yet he was quick enough to take point guards with the slightest of angles or explode out of a canon with ferocious backcuts:

LeBron’s speed made him a one-man fast break, careening down court with the ball like a heat-seeking missile:

His super-efficient transition scoring comprised a sizable chunk of his offense over the years (15 to 23 percent, depending on the season), and he’s finished in the top five in transition points in each of his last 13 seasons.2

Along with speed and power, LeBron’s other great differentiator has been his passing. He’s the most prolific skip passer in NBA history, constantly exposing weak-side rotations and finding corner shooters a level away:

His game evolved over the years, and in ’09 and ’10 he increased his already large on-ball role, carrying two of the 10 biggest loads in history. His passing rates, always good, graduated to another level that year. Note the velocity on the third pass below:

As a result of his increased primacy and evolved court vision, LeBron’s creation rates jumped from about 11 per 100 to a whopping 14 per 100, just short of the highest rates ever estimated. In my sampling, his quality passes leapt into the upper stratosphere, reaching Nash-like frequencies with a “good” pass on 8 percent of his possessions. He went from hitting about 75 percent of his high-leverage passing chances to about 80 percent, a rate he maintained through 2017. (In my tracking, this was below Nash, who was at 88 percent in Dallas and Phoenix, and Kevin Garnett, who was at 86 percent.)

LeBron missed his fair share of quality passes too, tossing ones that were off the mark — too hard or into too much traffic, for example — every 2 plays per 100 possessions. This is an elevated rate, a natural tradeoff of a risk-taking style, but the ROI on LeBron’s average attempt was lower than Nash’s, looking for outside shooters more than teammates at the rim (such as the last clip below):3

LeBron’s move to Miami reduced his on-ball scoring attempts, as the Heat traded some of those possessions for Wade-centric attacks. In 2012, James slid his game inside more, the beginning of a multi-year trend toward more efficient shots and a more versatile offensive attack:

When he was younger, LeBron pulled the trigger on more of those low-percentage, double-teamed looks after breaking down defenses. In Miami, he was more willing to pass those shots to open teammates, a trend that continued into his second Cleveland stint. The improved decision-making helped boost his scoring efficiency. 4 Most importantly, his 3-point shot improved, keeping defenses honest when they packed the paint against him. From 2007-11, LeBron shot 33 percent from downtown. Since 2012, he’s leveled up to just over 36 percent.

On defense, James improved in phases as well. In his first few seasons, he was prone to more breakdowns and lacked dominant defensive sequences. However, he would become one of the most impressive perimeter defenders in NBA history, gradually improving until 2008 before jumping a level in 2009.

He is one of the only players ever to truly guard all five positions on the court. Here’s a sampling of him guarding three All-Star players at the point, wing and center positions, demonstrating quickness, strength and technique:

He regularly diagnosed plays and anticipated where to be, sometimes directing teammates like a linebacker calling out the action before the snap. (For instance, in the previous clip, he sends the smaller Kyrie Irving to the wing, immediately recognizing the mismatch Boston would exploit with Irving on a big man.) He often sacked pick-and-rolls like he stole the opponent’s playbook — in the next clip, notice how he slides with the action before running to Dirk’s sweet spot. Once there, his help didn’t just mitigate an advantage, it mucked up the entire possession:

So much of defensive impact is about off-ball movement, and based on my scoring, LeBron’s instances of “good” help spiked from 2009 to 2013. He disrupted offenses in a variety of ways, jumping passing lanes, pinching down on dribblers or crisply rotating to the rim:

James was able to defend like this without fouling, regularly finishing near the bottom of the league in shooting fouls committed. His size bothered so many wings, and he used his strength to fight through screens and smother opponents at times:

He became known for signature chase-down blocks, but he also protected the rim in the half-court, erasing shots like another backline big:

LeBron’s block percentage lagged just behind the top perimeter rejectors during his best years, but his blocks were more valuable (per the clips above), frequently swatting these high-percentage looks near the hoop. According to play-by-play data, 43 percent of his blocks were within five feet of the rim, a rate eclipsed by only a few wings in the last two decades.

His defense was not flawless — in his Cleveland years, he could gamble a bit too much, trading physicality for risky gambits. He also missed his share of rotations — his rates from sampling would land in the bottom quartile of the league.5 He was sometimes overly stationary off the ball, and in the following play, ends up in no man’s land while diagnosing some off-ball action:

He’s been an elite defensive rebounder since his teens, posting rates above the 96th percentile for perimeter players for the last 13 seasons. His defense peaked from 2009 to 2013, then his activity started to wane in 2014 as the mileage piled up on his odometer. His closeouts were always a touch reckless, but that year they became more of a problem:

While his foot speed noticeably faded by 2017, a more slender James regained bounce in 2016, leading to a brief defensive renaissance; in 21 playoff games that year, LeBron set a career-high in block percentage, with rates that would fall in the 88th percentile historically among all players. In the last two seasons, he’s been prone to major defensive breakdowns as his activity has dwindled.

Over the last few years, his passing has continued to grow, finding tighter windows and more Grade A connections. His 2014 season was likely his offensive apex, although his 2016 year might have eclipsed it. At the time of writing this, a 33-year old James is at the backend of his prime (2018).

Impact Evaluation

LeBron’s one of the more complex offensive players ever to evaluate, not merely because of the breadth and depth of his skill shown above, but because he’s played some of the most ball-dominant roles in history and has redefined the stat sheet as the center of his team’s universe. His on-ball approach is heavier on scoring than pass-first wizards like Steve Nash and Magic Johnson, but volume passing and volume scoring won’t maximize most top-end talent. Instead, James is the greatest floor-raiser in NBA history, able to do more with spare parts than anyone ever by simultaneously bolstering an offense while upgrading the defense.

Even before he hit his stride in 2009, LeBron kept defensively-inclined rosters afloat. The ’05 Cavs posted a +2.3 relative offensive rating (rORtg) in 70 games with James flanked by Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — both viable post scorers and mid-range shooters — along with defensive specialists Ira Newble and Eric Snow, and toothless journeyman Jeff McGinnis. This was not a team of 3-point specialists feeding off of James’s gravity, but they still played at a .500 pace with a passable offense orchestrated by 19-year old LeBron.

The ’06 Cavs were even more impressive, thanks to a breakout year from James. With Ilgauskus and Gooden now accompanied by Larry Hughes (a moderate creator and inefficient scorer), the offensively-challenged Snow and two shooters (Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones), Cleveland churned out a 5.1 SRS when healthy (56-win pace) with a +6.6 offensive efficiency in 30 healthy games. A similar rotation ticked along at a 51-win pace in ’07 (3.4 SRS) in a larger sample, but the offense regressed to near-average, meaning the ’06 result was likely an aberration. (LeBron’s offense regressed slightly in ’07 too, likely contributing to the backslide.) Still, the period demonstrated that pre-prime LeBron-ball could buoy offenses while stuffing the court with defenders and a few shooters.

After grinding through an injury-plagued 2008 campaign in which they trotted out 21 different starting lineups, the Cavs doubled-down on a LeBron-centric attack. In 2009 and 2010, he elevated defensive personnel to heights that none of his Heatles teams ever surpassed. Cleveland posted a 9.6 SRS when healthy in ’09 (66-win pace) — Miami’s best full-strength SRS with LeBron was 7.7 — and those Cavs teams finished with offenses around 5 points better than average, when healthy.6

They did well to surround LeBron with skilled shooters — Mo Williams (44 percent from 3 in ’09) and Delonte West (40 percent from 3) — while Ilgauskas opened the floor as a pick-and-pop big; the results were certainly greater than the sum of the parts. Not everything fit though, as was the case in 2010 when they regressed a touch by giving minutes to an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal. The Cavs traded spacing and defense for Shaq’s quick-burst post scoring, but he graded out as a net negative.

Like Nash, LeBron was supercharging dependent talent — finishers who disproportionately benefited from shots served to them on a silver platter. So with his talents in South Beach, Cleveland crumbled in 2011. While most teams fall off after losing a superstar, none imploded like the Lebron-less Cavs; in 21 games with a similar group of players, they played at an anemic 18-win pace (-8.9 SRS) before injuries ravaged their lineup. LeBron’s not worth 40 wins on a typical club, but no player in history has correlated more strongly with such massive, worst-to-first impact.7

With better talent in Miami (and later in his Cleveland redux), his teams reached greater offensive altitudes, although, in traditional lineups their efficiencies were only slightly improved (indicating diminishing returns). Paired next to another superstar wing in Miami, LeBron scaled back his ball-dominance, and although those Heat teams never produced an all-time level point differential, every full-strength Heatles lineup bested LeBron’s Cavs on offense (per relative offensive rating):8

The best four-year offenses in NBA history have finished about 7 points ahead of the league. At full-strength, Nash’s Suns were nearly 10 points better from 2005-08, although they were small-balling lineups at the expense of defense. LeBron’s teams downsized at times too, and his best full-strength four-year offense was +8.1 (2013-16), in the upper stratosphere historically.

He never again matched the video-game numbers from his first MVP seasons in Cleveland, not because he was worse, but because he tapered down his on-ball role. He actually ramped up his solo performance when Wade went to the bench, improving both his volume and efficiency (!) as the Heat outscored opponent’s by 6.9 points per 100 with LeBron on the court and Wade off it from 2011-14. In his last two years there, Miami was +8.3 per 100 with James on and Wade off.9 Again, this speaks to the floor-raising power of a great quarterback.

LeBron wasn’t all offense though. He graded out as one of the best defenders in the league using my tracking-based metric in 2011. From 2011-16, he was also a key stopper on a number of high-end defensive units. Using four-man lineup combinations (samples can be too small with five-man groups), he played on five quartets that finished at least 6 points better than league average in defense efficiency.10 His best four-man group finished 14th in that time frame — a 2011 lineup with defensive banger Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh and Wade — holding opponents 9.5 points below league average while outscoring them by 14.5 points per 100. In 2013, Miami’s best four-man combination held teams 6.7 points below average with an undersized pairing of Bosh and Udonis Haslem up front.

According to this scaled set, his four-year defensive peak in adjusted plus-minus (APM) ranks 41st among perimeter players since 1997, although about two-thirds of the players ahead of him were defensive specialists.(LeBron’s best stretch was from 2008-11.)11 While this is a good result, it’s short of the very best defenders, likely a function of LeBron’s medium defensive usage (related to some of the inactivity mentioned in the scouting report).

James is, arguably, the king of overall plus-minus stats. 2018 is the 25th season of league-wide plus-minus data, which covers nearly 40 percent of the shot-clock era and touches 12 of the top-20 players on this list. None have achieved LeBron’s heights: He holds four of the top-five scaled APM seasons on record, and six of the top eight. Since 2007, 10 of his 11 years land in the 99th percentile.12 However, his seasons in Miami were a (relative) low point:

Just like rebounds or field goal percentage, adjusted plus-minus is a measurement, a fairly stable gauge of an involved player’s value on a given team. LeBron wasn’t worse during the years in South Beach — based on film study, he was better in most areas — but he wasn’t as indispensable to those Heat teams, and thus his impact measurements clocked in below his historic floor-raising efforts.

The above graph also jibes with the scouting report; as LeBron’s passing steadily improved and his shot selection grew more judicious, he synthesized with better talent, correlating with larger and larger scoreboard shifts after a nadir in 2012. This was a two-way street: As LeBron’s more efficient passing helped the talent around him — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love posted career-best marks in scaled APM in 2017 — his improved 3-point shooting allowed him to finish more plays setup by his teammates. (Notice in the previous charts how LeBron’s efficiency improved alongside Irving.)

Of course, James also ranks among the box score titans, tallying points like a pinball machine while playing quarterback. (A style approximated by James Harden today.) His statistical peak came in his original Cleveland days, hybridizing Magic-like table-setting with Jordan’s scoring.13 Only Steph Curry’s three-year regular season peak covers more real estate on the Big 4 box diamond featured in this series. In the postseason, LeBron’s Cleveland numbers trailed only Jordan, and his line in Miami matched Curry’s efficiency:

I keep invoking Nash, another ball-dominant engine like James, but LeBron is different in a handful of ways. Both have generated excellent results surrounded by shooters and pick-and-roll dance partners, but James maintains greater value next to other ball-dominant players (like Wade and Irving) thanks to his post game, offensive rebounding and thunderous cuts to the rim. This is a versatility advantage that makes LeBron a more valuable player in a wider variety of lineups and roles, which in turn makes him slightly more scalable (because better teams often come with other on-ball stars). On the other hand, he seems to relegate post players to the perimeter in order to open the lane, casting doubt on whether he could thrive next to a traditional low-post stud. Still, when compared to other all-time quarterbacks like Magic and Oscar Robertson, his defense gives him a considerable edge.

In total, Jordan is the only comparable perimeter peak in history, although James’s defense was slightly more impressive at its apex. Eight of LeBron’s last nine seasons are all-time level campaigns, pairing either good or great defense with transcendent offense. He’s logged enough mileage to challenge Jordan; this will be his 14th season on the All-NBA team, whereas MJ only made 11. Like the other great megastars who excel in non-scoring phases of the game, I do wonder if I’m undervaluing LeBron, given the unique shape of his offense.

In a few weeks, he will likely move to No. 2 on this list. If I had fewer reservations about his ball-dominance scaling (and his lack of spot-up shooting), he’d be a spot higher already, and I do think he has an outside argument as the highest-peak player in NBA history. And, barring injury or premature retirement, James will likely retire with the most valuable career ever. For now, he’s etched on the Mt. Rushmore of the sport at No. 3.

  1. In tracking LeBron possessions from 2004-06, he missed a creation opportunity for every two he found, a pattern that would hold until 2009.
  2. For comparison, this is nearly twice the percentage of Kobe Bryant’s offense that stemmed from transition and nearly three times Dirk Nowitzki’s, per Synergy.
  3. During his peaks years, over half of Nash’s assists were on layups, whereas James only posted a single season where more than 41 percent of his assists led to layups.
  4. In tracking, LeBron’s percentage of missed opportunities – those times where he attempted a double-teamed shot instead of passing to an open shooter – improved from a rotund 27 percent before 2011 (in 400 possessions sampled) to a more reasonable 16 percent since (in over 450 possessions).
  5. This was nearly identical to his 2010-11 tracking results, in which his error rates were higher than 70 percent of the league.
  6. SRS is a great approximation of team strength, but I’m not sure I’d side with the ’09 Cavs in a comparison with the ’13 Heat. Still, those Cavs were a championship worthy team who lost a close series to a white-hot Orlando team. Variance.
  7. One criticism of James is that his impact metrics are inflated by how dependent his teams were on him. There’s some truth to this — a team built around a distributor without a remotely suitable replacement will fall-off in his absence. Still, this is a minor point to curve for, given the heights LeBron can achieve with otherwise pedestrian talent.
  8. A positive defensive rating is considered good in the following chart.
  9. Based on play-by-play level lineups, per pbpstats.
  10. Among lineups that played at least 700 minutes. During that period, Andrew Bogut was on 12 quartets that held teams 6 points below average, Tim Duncan was on 11, Roy Hibbert nine and Marc Gasol eight.
  11. The notable two-way perimeter players ahead of LeBron: Baron Davis (36th), Manu Ginobili (35th), Chris Paul (29th), Paul Pierce (27th), Kawhi Leonard (14th), Ron Artest (12th), Luol Deng (11th), Paul George (eight), Eric Bledsoe (fifth) and Andre Iguodala (third).
  12. He ranks in the upper-echelon of regressed game-level data too.
  13. Note: This means LeBron’s box stats declined even as he improved as an offensive player.

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