In 2004-05, LeBron James put up 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. The 27-7-7 line was made famous by James. As of this writing, his career marks of 27.1, 7.4 and 7.3 mirror his second season almost to the decimal.
That year, LeBron led the league in playing time at 42.4 minutes per night in 80 games played, numbers that’d make even Tom Thibodeau swoon. His percentages read 47.2% from the field, 35.1% from three and 75% at the free-throw line for 55.4% true shooting. He made the first of now 15 All-Star appearances and narrowly missed the playoffs – something he wouldn’t do again for 13 years.
LeBron’s 2004-05 was arguably the greatest season by a 20-year-old in NBA history.
Fast forward to this season, and Luka Doncic is giving him a run for his money.
Doncic is currently putting up an absurd 30.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game – add a one to each of those numbers and we’re talking about Russell Westbrook’s historic MVP campaign of three years ago. Luka is getting this done in on 34.1 minutes per game and on 48.3% from the field, 33% from three and 82.7% at the free-throw line for a true shooting percentage of 62.4% (for reference, a true shooting in the 60’s is Curry and Harden-like). He’s upped his field goal percentage by six points despite greater volume and his free throw rate by over 11% – a much more accurate number, one would assume when considering his shooting stroke.
Oh, and Doncic has the Mavericks at 13-6 in fourth place in the Western Conference. They even beat LeBron’s Lakers Sunday night in convincing fashion.
Luka’s run, combined with his Rookie of the Year runaway last season, has analysts and fans alike wondering if he’s the best 20-year-old basketball player ever.
Is he? The numbers say yes – and the eye test might too.
As always, arguments without the possibility of direct examination face a few issues. 2004 LeBron and 2019 Luka will never be able to face off. Discussions of this nature also typically result in false aggregations: Comparing the totality of LeBron’s career to less than 100 games of Luka, or the suggestion that LeBron’s legacy leaves him immune to small-sample comparisons.
Of course, these arguments are silly; people like us wouldn’t do things like this if we couldn’t make frozen-in-time comparisons.
And the truth is this: 2019 Luka is more effective than 2004 LeBron. Whether he’s better is up for more debate.
20-year-old Luka being more effective than 20-year-old LeBron isn’t all a product of era. “Effective” isn’t a nod to advanced analytics or a way to say Luka’s only better because of today’s analytic focus. His numbers are just better.
Luka is scoring more points, in fewer minutes and on a higher percentage. He takes and makes more free throws. He also takes more threes (9.4 per game, admittedly a consequence of the state of basketball) and makes more – his 3.1 makes per night nearly triples LeBron’s 1.1, more than making up for the small advantage LeBron holds in percentage.
It’s interesting to think what Luka would do with 8 more minutes per game. If he played the 42 LeBron played, it’s safe to assume his volume would remain the same (his usage this season is at 36%, compared to 29.7% for LeBron). Even if his efficiency dipped, extrapolated over the extra minutes, Luka’s line would read something like 36.7 points, 11.9 rebounds and 11.5 assists. That’s insane to look at.
The passing is what makes this a real argument. Numbers can fluctuate based on a variety of factors – we’ve already discussed and know the impact the different eras can have – but the eye test, that same eye test proponents of past players tend to be fond of, says that Luka’s vision is similar to LeBron’s.
Luka is the ultimate decision-maker for Dallas. He regularly handles the ball out top, waits for a screen and play-makes from there. LeBron has done this his entire career and has done so a step ahead of everyone else. Luka is on the same trajectory. He’s one of the two or three best skip passers in the league and one of the five best pick-and-roll passers. His turnovers are even similar to LeBron’s.
The case in favor of sophomore LeBron is his defense and the lesser talent that surrounded him. LeBron came in as the most NBA-ready prospect ever from a physical perspective; he switched across four positions and possessed incredible quickness for a 6-foot-8 player.
However, the numbers show that Luka is comparable defensively. LeBron’s defensive rating in 2004-05 was 103; Luka’s is 105. Luka also holds a 2.6-1.5 advantage in defensive box plus/minus as well.
Now, it’s likely that LeBron was a better defender then than Luka is now. Some of those numbers are skewed by the aforementioned team around each. LeBron was flanked by Jeff McInnis and Ira Newble. Luka enjoys the company of Delon Wright and Dorian Finney-Smith. LeBron also had the rim “protection” of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden; Luka has Kristaps Porzingis and the athletic combo of Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell.
But the biggest tally in Luka’s corner isn’t who he’s playing with, but who he’s playing against. The ’04-05 Cavaliers lost a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot to the New Jersey Nets. The Nets had a strong top three: Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter and Jason Kidd. But Jefferson played 33 games, and Carter and Kidd missed 25 and 16, respectively. The Nets won just 42 games, and the rest of their roster was far from intimidating – Jason Collins led the team in games played at 80, and he shot 41 percent! As a center!
Meanwhile, Luka has single-handedly put Dallas in the thick of the West. In 2019, that means he’s matching up with the greatest talent the league has seen and doing it in a conference where 48 wins a year ago was rewarded with the eighth seed. Dallas is even with the Harden and Russell Westbrook-led Rockets and trails only the two L.A. title-favorites and the Nuggets. They’re eight spots ahead of where they finished last year, and it’s largely because of Luka.
Because LeBron is one of the two greatest players ever, it would be easy to dismiss this argument on its face. If you were to look back at LeBron’s 2004-05 and compare it to this year’s Luka season, the vaunted “eye test” may tell you LeBron was better…but it would be close. The things Luka’s done on offense to this point are spectacular, and he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. The numbers are a different story – they favor Luka in almost every category.
LeBron was All-NBA Second Team in his age-20 season. After beginning the year as a dark horse to make the Third Team, Luka’s a lock for All-NBA – and he’s pushed himself into the MVP conversation. If Dallas holds around the top half of the West playoff race, he’ll have as strong of a case as anyone.
In the end, whether Luka at 20 is better than LeBron was at 20 means nothing more than this – Luka is on track for greatness, like, historical greatness.
But LeBron’s been doing this for 17 years.
Maybe Luka is better now than LeBron was then. Maybe he’s not.
In either scenario, he still has a long way to go.
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