On Monday night, LeBron James joined NBA great Oscar Robertson as the only players, past or present, to find themselves among the top 25 historically in points and assists. Seeing as the game of basketball has always been about buckets, this feat seems especially interesting and impressive. It's an arbitrary threshold of achievement, and counting stats are flawed in all kinds of ways, but no one really thinks about devaluing LeBron James anymore. His greatness speaks for itself. It's expected. It's understood. The most interest fans and writers and agents and executives take with James is in speculating about his desires and wishes and power.
That's all fine and well. It even makes sense. We know how good James is. We don't know the type of power he holds in Cleveland, over the NBA, but there's ample evidence to assume it's immense. It's why I had four students ask me what I thought about LeBron James getting a technical foul for going to the bench in frustration during game action, and not one ask me about Oscar Robertson.
"Mr. Zavac, did you see what LeBron did?"
"Mr. Zavac, do you think it was right for LeBron to do that?"
"Mr. Zavac, what would you do if you had been LeBron's coach?"
It's difficult for LeBron James to awe us with his basketball skills anymore. Amazingly, he finds ways to keep us on our toes all the same. You ask him a question about David Blatt following a game and have no clue what type of response you will get. The ambiguous nature of James' character and personality and power (though, let's be clear, very few people even attempt to insinuate he's anything other than a devoted family man that loves Akron and Northeast Ohio with teammates all over that love him) does seem to be detracting from actual changes to his game this season. In short, this version of LeBron James, through 14 games, has made major strides from the season he put together last season. Let's dive in a bit.
It starts with defense
And let's make this clear as well: it's not perfect. There are too many possessions where James is unhappy with an offensive possession, whether it be because of teammates or the officials, and just doesn't make it back down the court to play defense. It reached a crescendo in the Cavs' loss to the Detroit Pistons, and James later called out his teammates for lacking toughness. It's disappointing and frustrating to see, but it probably doesn't mean much in the grand scheme.
When James is dialed in, he's been very effective. He still plays his free safety role in the defense looking to swipe passes and take them the other way, and with Kevin Love playing quarterback, he's getting more and more easy breakaway opportunities.
When he does find himself on the ball, the outcomes have been fantastic. There have been times this year when it seems he takes it personally that an opponent is trying to score on him. We've seen that look in his eye when he sees a rookie like Justise Winslow on him. Winslow put up a good fight, but James' eyes lit up like he was excited to teach him a lesson offensively. Seeing it happen defensively, though, was not something that was a part of the equation last year. Already in the young season, James has derailed Sasha Vujacic and Nik Stauskas' games before they even got started. And hey, it's Sasha Vujacic and Nik Stauskas; of course James is going to have all the ability to disrupt their games. The choice to do it is what was notable.
Improved offensive efficiency
James' Player Efficiency Rating has ticked up by 1.4 points up to 27.3. PER as a catch all statistic is poor. It can't really account for defense, and it rewards players with high usage rates. There are other issues, but it's worth pointing out that James is scoring higher with the metric while maintaining the same exact usage as he had last year. He is turning it over less, he is rebounding more. His handle looks a lot cleaner.
He's also scoring more efficiently than he did last year, though it requires a bit of fancy accounting. James' true shooting rate of 57.1 percent is actually lower than his rate of 57.7 last season. There are two catches. James is missing more free throws, shooting just under 63 percent from the charity stripe. Kyrie Irving has also yet to play a minute. According to nba.com/stats, James' true shooting rate without Irving on the floor was just 53.3 percent, and his usage rate was over 40 percent. That jumped to 59.9 percent when Irving played, and his usage rate was a much more sustainable 29.4 percent.
Obviously, James hasn't shared the court with Irving once this season. Despite this, his true shooting rate has been good even with the missed free throws and his usage rate of 32.2 (the nba.com/stats calculation) is right about where you'd want. Without Irving, James has done more ball handling but turned it over less. Without Irving, James has made serious strides in his Cleveland efficiency.
Empowering Kevin Love
James has said it's a goal of his to get Kevin Love back to the All-Star game. Regardless of whether that happens or not, it's clear that Love is happy in Cleveland, and getting more opportunities. While Love's usage rate isn't near Minnesota levels, and Irving's return could complicate things, it's taken a jump from last season. The stretch power forward is spotting up all over the court, getting post touches, feeding Tristan Thompson when he gets position, utilizing his full skill set. The best use of that skillset might be spacing the floor, for the most part, for James and Irving. But for now, Love is in the groove and fully ingrained in the Cavs 11-3 start.
It goes beyond that, though. The personalities do matter. Whether it's James being open with criticism instead of tweeting not-so-subtle jabs, or making it clear that Love is valued, it's important to what the team is trying to build. Whether it's James spotting up intermittently while Love goes to work, or involving him in pregame rap sessions in the locker room, it's important to what the team is trying to build.
The Cavs are outscoring opponents
by 15.1 points per 100 possessions per nba.com/stats when LeBron James is on the court. They lead the Eastern Conference despite weathering injuries to Finals starters Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov. When James sits, the Cavs are outscored by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. The huge discrepancy is magnified by the Cavs taking so many body blows due to injury, but the standings aren't reflecting that internal damage. That's in large part a testament to the man and player LeBron James is.
So speculate away about James' sway and influence. I'll be right there with you. Shake your head at an answer or two from his next press conference. I'll be right there with you. Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard are playing like MVP's. So is LeBron James. Want to hang out with me on that one?
Unless otherwise stated, all stats via basketball-reference.com