NBA PM: LeBron James Flying Under Radar?



James Harden ushered in 2017 by entering the record book, recording the first 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound performance in NBA history to beat the New York Knicks. On the season, he’s now averaging 28.4 points, 11.9 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals, while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range. The Houston Rockets have been one of the pleasant surprises of this season, as they are currently 27-9 and in the Western Conference’s third seed.

Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook is making history of his own. He’s the first player to average a triple-double this late into an NBA season since Oscar Robertson finished the 1961-62 campaign averaging 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists for the Cincinnati Royals. Westbrook is currently averaging 30.9 points, 10.5 assists, 10.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Through 35 games, he has recorded 16 triple-doubles. The Oklahoma City Thunder are 21-14, which puts them in the seventh seed out West.

The jaw-dropping performances from Harden and Westbrook – coupled with all of the hype surrounding the Golden State Warriors, who may be the best on-paper team in NBA history – has allowed arguably the greatest player in the league to fly under the radar. While Harden or Westbrook will likely take home the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award if they keep up their spectacular pace, LeBron James is focused on adding a fourth championship ring to his collection and helping the Cleveland Cavaliers repeat.

By now, we all know that James is great. In fact, we tend to take his amazing performances for granted. At 32 years old, he’s averaging 25.6 points, 8.6 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. And James has been incredibly efficient, with a PER just under 27 and impressive shooting percentages from the field (50.8 percent) and from three-point range (37.3 percent).

InsideLeBronJamesThe advanced numbers show James’ two-way dominance as well. He ranks third in the NBA in Real Plus/Minus (7.15) – behind only Chris Paul and Giannis Antetokounmpo – which is a metric that takes individual’s plus-minus and adjusts it to account for the player’s teammates and opposition.  Also, James ranks fourth in Value Over Replacement Player (3.1) and fifth in Box Plus/Minus (8.8).

Perhaps most impressive is James’ passing. His 8.6 assists per game is a career-high. He is the best non-point-guard passer in NBA history (and a case can be made that he’s the game’s best passer period). His court vision is exceptional and the numbers show that he is an elite facilitator. This season, James ranks fifth in assist percentage (41.4 percent) and he also has the sixth-most assists among all players. In both categories, he’s trailing only All-Star point guards such as James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and John Wall.

It’s no coincidence that every team James joins becomes a perennial contender. Not only does he dominate on both ends of the floor using his freakish athleticism and skill-set, he also uses his basketball IQ to take over games. He has essentially become a coach on the floor, serving as an additional assistant on Ty Lue’s staff.

Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey recently pointed this out and summed up how James can greatly impact a game simply using his extraordinarily high basketball IQ.

“You can’t surprise LeBron anymore,” Casey told Sports Illustrated. “His intellect has caught up with his athletic ability. He coaches his teammates. He calls out our plays. He’s so ahead of the game, it’s not even funny.”

Despite his gaudy numbers and enormous impact on each game, James doesn’t seem to be getting as much as attention as he deserves. That’s because this elite-level production is expected from James at this point. Every year, LeBron puts up monster numbers and his team is in the mix to the win the title. At this stage in his career, the real surprise would be if either of those things weren’t true.

Take any stat line from James’ time in the NBA and it would be a career-year worthy of praise for just about any NBA player. But because James has been doing this year after year, he is held to a higher standard and we are no longer shocked by his ridiculous statistics.

It takes an otherworldly performance for James to surprise people and turn heads. That’s what happened during the 2016 NBA Finals, when he averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks to lift the Cleveland Cavaliers out of their 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy. That garnered attention because he was by far the best player on the court, led all players (from both teams) in every major stat category, dominated on both ends of the court, had unforgettable plays like “The Block” and ended Cleveland’s 52-year title drought.

But when James is just playing to the level we all expect, we shrug. Some even accuse him of “coasting” through the regular season because he isn’t making our jaws drop to the floor.

This is probably why James only has four Most Valuable Player trophies. It seems strange to say only four MVP awards, but he’s likely deserving of more. Many people around the NBA believe that voters were simply tired of awarding the hardware to James year after year, which is why they mixed things up and gave the trophy to Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry in recent years. Not to take anything away from Rose, Durant and Curry – they were fantastic – but a strong case could be made for James to win the MVP trophy every year considering how important he is to his team. Looking at the numbers, James has certainly been the most dominant and most valuable player in the league more than four seasons in his NBA career.

In addition to posting terrific numbers, James has led the Cavaliers to an Eastern Conference-best record of 26-7. Cleveland has the fourth-best offense in the NBA (scoring 110.6 points per 100 possessions) as well as the 13th-best defense (allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions). The Cavs lead the East in average point differential (+7.1) and they have a number of signature wins on the season.

Through 33 games, Cleveland has defeated fellow elite teams such as the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors (three times), Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics (two times) among others. They’ve won 13 of their last 15 games.

Kyrie Irving has obviously continued his development and Kevin Love seems much more comfortable in Cleveland’s system this year. Still, none of this would be possible without James’ dominance.

The monster numbers, the impressive wins against contenders, the expectation that he’ll lead his team in a seventh straight NBA Finals appearance… Not bad for a guy who is “coasting.”

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About Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.