When asked by ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth after the game to sum up his level of play, James wasn’t shy: “Probably an all-time high.”
That’s quite a statement from a guy who has won just about every individual and team award the NBA has to offer. It’s hard to justify his self-congratulatory statement by the numbers, but once you put his production in context with his age, he’s right.
James has been a more efficient scorer in past seasons — he won the scoring title in 2007-08 by averaging 30 points per game — and has had better years as a shooter. His 62 percent true shooting this season is his third-best in his career, trailing only 2013-14 (65 percent) and 2012-13 (64 percent). His Player Efficiency Rating this season (28.1), a measure of per-minute production standardized such that the league average is 15, is the seventh-best regular-season mark for James. And his league-leading value over a replacement player (plus-6.8), a box score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season, is also the seventh-best of his career. However, given his age and his heavy workload since coming to the NBA as a teenager in 2003-04, including trips to the NBA Finals in each of the past seven years, his ability to play at such a high level is remarkable.
In fact, he is one of two players since 1973-74, the first year data is available, to produce a true shooting accuracy in excess of 60 percent while also using at least 40 percent of a team’s possessions whether through the act of shooting or via assist. James Harden is the other. And remember: James is five years older than Harden.
There have been a few studies that show NBA players typically improve until 25 to 27 years of age, with peak efficiency occurring, on average, at 29 years old. James had his peak closer to his age-24 and age-25 seasons, in which he produced at least 12.5 points per 100 possessions above a league-average player, translated to an average team, also known as his box-score plus-minus, or BPM. But his consistency to play at a high level is what sets him apart from other notable NBA players. In fact, his scoring rate per game has increased the past three seasons at a time when the average NBA player is in the middle of a downturn.
The reason for James’s success in his later years is simple: more shots closer to the rim. In 2008-09, a 24-year-old James would often take shots on the perimeter, at least 16 feet from the basket. In 2017-18, 41 percent of his field goal attempts come from within three feet of the basket. Two years ago he established a career high at 46 percent. Shots in the restricted area are among the most efficient you can take, making James a better shooter as he ages.
But to pigeonhole James as simply a high-volume scorer doesn’t do him justice. His 17.4 potential assists per game is the second-highest this season after Westbrook (19.8) and his passes out of the pick-and-roll produce 1.13 points per possession, putting him in the top 25 percent of the NBA in 2017-18. His passes out of the post result in 1.01 points per possession, placing him in the 84th percentile. Plus, he grabs 2.1 contested rebounds per game, fourth most on the Cavaliers.
In the history of the NBA, there have been 38 Hall of Fame players to play 10,000 minutes or more from age 30 to 33. None have produced a higher BPM than James (8.6) during the regular season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is second on that list at 7.1 BPM followed by Julius Erving (7.0) and Karl Malone (6.9).
That’s just his regular-season performance — James almost always gets better in the postseason, and has produced double-digit BPM in nine of his 12 playoffs appearances. Michael Jordan only had seven such years in the playoffs, and he played 2,525 fewer minutes through his age-33 season. Among the 13 Hall of fame players with at least 2,000 postseason minutes from age 30 to 33, James also has the highest BPM of them all, producing more than four points per 100 possessions more than Hakeem Olajuwon, who ranks second among that group.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a 6-seed or a 3-seed or a 2-seed, 8-seed,” James said. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, I can be very challenging.”
Maybe a team’s greatest challenge of all time.