LeBron James isn't a great player—if not the best basketball player on the planet—just because he's blessed with physical gifts rarely seen in the sport.
Rather, what has made James a threat to his historical forebearers is the way in which he has improved from season to season. Since 2003, no year has passed in which LeBron hasn't stepped up his game in one way or another.
He entered the league as a prodigiously talented high schooler who couldn't shoot straight, was liable to lose his way defensively and could hardly locate the low block on a map. Since then, James has refined his shooting stroke to become a potent (and more selective) perimeter threat, nabbed first-team All-Defensive honors in each of the last four seasons and established himself as a power in the post.
So what's next for LeBron? What does the man who seems to have everything—three MVPs, two Olympic gold medals, a championship and an NBA Finals MVP—do for an encore?
Simple: He keeps getting better.
So far this season, it appears as though LBJ has taken to heart his newfound duties as a "point-power forward" for the Miami Heat. On the one hand, his averages in scoring (22.4 points), shooting volume (15.6 field goal attempts) and assists (5.6) are all down from his career norms, as are his minutes per game (33.0).
This isn't entirely surprising. For one, the Heat have three other capable scorers after signing Ray Allen this summer, so LeBron doesn't have to carry quite as heavy a load in that regard.
Nor need he be the primary point man now that Mario Chalmers (6.6 assists per game) appears to be coming into his own as a floor general. It's no wonder, then, that LeBron is averaging a career-low 2.0 turnovers per contest and a near-career-low 28.0-percent usage rate.
As for the minutes, James was victimized by cramps in the opener and got plenty of rest in recent routs of the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets. Don't be surprised, then, if his playing time the rest of the way is more reflective of the 73 minutes he logged between games against the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets.
In addition, LeBron is rebounding at a higher rate and getting buckets with greater efficiency than ever before. It's only natural that he would wind up with more boards (10.7 per game at a 17.6-percent rate, both career-highs) and more easy shots (.571 field goal percentage) now that he's spending more time next to the cup.
What's curious, though, is that James is actually attempting more threes (2.8 per game) and fewer free throws (4.4 per game) than he did last year. He's shooting both rather well, including a .571 conversion rate on his treys.
But never before has LBJ failed to get to the line more than five times per game in a given season. His drop-off in that department—to this point, anyway—is particularly jarring considering that his foul-shot frequency has been slashed in half (8.8 per game for his career).
Still, it's early—too early to think that James' play won't cause some of his numbers to creep up. LeBron may continue to take only 15 or 16 shots per game as he has early on, though there will inevitably be games in which he needs to take over as a scorer.
And does just that.
Chances are, too, that James will get to the line more frequently in the future than he has to this point. Whether he's attacking the basket from the perimeter or punishing opponents in the low post, LeBron is bound to get hacked and see his visits to the charity stripe trend upward as a result.
All of which portends a return to scoring something more in the neighborhood of 27.6 points per game—his career average—for King James.
Suppose, then, that James ends up putting the ball in the basket and setting up his teammates a bit less than usual while rebounding a bit more and shooting more accurately in all phases. Suppose his ever-evolving role—less time handling the ball on the perimeter, more time spent in the post and so on—leads him to produce, say, 25 points, eight to nine rebounds and between five and six assists a night while attempting fewer shots and hitting them them more frequently.
Would numbers like those represent a step forward in his game? Would they put LeBron on par with the greatest to ever play in the NBA?
According to Basketball Reference, they would.
But LeBron is at a point in his career wherein the individual stuffing of a stat sheet is irrelevant in and of itself. He will no longer be judged by how many points he scores, how many rebounds he rips down or how many assists he dishes out.
Rather, at the tender age of 27, in his 10th NBA season, LeBron's exploits will be measured against his ability to win championships. He already has one under his belt but will need to prove that he can capture another amidst the pressure of a repeat campaign. Only then will he etch his name alongside the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in the annals of basketball lore.
Because there's only one stat in the box score that matters when determining greatness—wins. And any improvement on LeBron's part won't matter unless he leads his team to many more of those.
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