Coming into his 11th NBA season, we know what to expect from LeBron James by now. He's been the league's most talented player for somewhere between six and eight years running, and he's been remarkably consistent in what he brings to the table. However, we also figured it would take some time for LeBron to really get into a rhythm. After all, he's coming into a brand new team, with two other top-20 players in the league, and a first-time NBA head coach. Some time for James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving to hash out the scoring heirarchy within a complex new offense was a given, we thought.
When the regular season started against the New York Knicks, that line of thinking held true. LeBron struggled out of the gate, riding the emotions of his return to Cleveland into a somewhat passive and rattled performance. James shot 5-15 for 17 points, looked like he was forcing things a little too much, and didn't seem to be in sync with the rest of the offense, finishing with eight turnovers. This held through the Cavaliers' first three and a half games. James dominated the ball in the Chicago victory, shooting 30 times, but he *only* finished with 36 points on those 30 shots, and it was a fairly pedestrian game for him before he realized, "Oh, Mike Dunleavy is guarding me!" and tore through the Chicago Bulls' defense in the fourth quarter and overtime. James' performance against the Portland Trail Blazers was also a disaster, as he finished with 11 points on 12 shots and contributed more than his share of defensive lapses to the Cavs' 101-82 loss.
This run was to be expected; after all, key players struggling to assimilate to a totally new environment isn't at all uncommon. We've also seen this situation before with James: His October and November in 2010-2011, his first season with the Miami Heat, was a struggle, as he shot 44.3 percent from the field and averaged 23.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 7.7 assists with 4.2 turnovers per game in his first 18 games with the Heat. Those were relatively unheard-of low totals for James at the time (He rebounded to average 26.7/7.5/7.0 on 51 percent shooting, for reference). It was reasonable to assume that he would have the same issues with the Cavs.
Then the last two weeks happened. Since the loss to the Utah Jazz game, where LeBron posted 31 points and carried the Cavs' offense for three quarters before Irving went off in the fourth, LeBron has been the fulcrum we expected him to be for the Cavs' offense, scoring consistently from inside and outside and creating shots at a closer rate to what he did last season with the Heat. His shooting has been incredibly impressive: 61.9 percent in the restricted area, 46.2 percent on threes, and 47.8 percent on above the break threes. He's paced the Cavs in scoring in every game during their four-game win streak, including an outstanding 41-point performance against the Boston Celtics on Friday and a near triple double (32/11/9) against the New Orleans Pelicans. Since the Utah game, the Cavs have scored at an offensive rating of 119.2 points/100 possessions with him on the floor, and are outscoring opponents by 13.4 points/100 possessions.
His defensive performance, which received a lot of criticism over the first couple of weeks, has also rebounded significantly. James still may not be passing the eye test when it comes to perimeter defense, but he's been decent overall. According to SportVU data, LeBron's opposition is shooting at about 34.8 percent from three with him defending, which is exactly league average. Once opponents move inside the paint though, LeBron has had success defending, with numbers at 44.4 percent inside six feet (average shooting percentage of LeBron's assignments has been 61 percent). That's a very good swing, and it's indicative of LeBron's skill in both weakside rotation and isolation defense, both important factors for shoring up the Cavs' ugly defense this season. The Cavs aren't a good defensive team overall, which is reflected in his overall 108.9 defensive rating for the season. However, over the last five games, the Cavs have improved to 105.8 points/100 possessions allowed with LeBron on the floor, and their defense has cratered to 118.9 with him sitting. He's not making the dominating impact on that end that we're used to, but the numbers suggest he's been good over the past five games.
I expected LeBron to struggle a little bit over the first month of the season, given his previous history with the Heat in 2011 and the first three games for the Cavs. Things, however, have turned around quickly, and LeBron is already starting to look like he's assimilated to the system quicker than we could have imagined. He's currently leading the league in scoring, shooting and hitting more threes than he ever has in his career, and his chemistry with Love and especially Irving has looked like it has completely flipped since Utah. Heading into the season, I expected LeBron to be the leader in the MVP chase, even if he struggled to wow us out of the gate. I expected him to start clicking around the middle of December. If he continues to play this well, this quickly, though, he could have a better season than anyone imagined.