Saturday, April 13

How LeBron James keeps raising the bar in his 21st season: ‘It’s me vs. Father Time’

Father Time remains undefeated, but LeBron James has him hanging on the ropes.

The moment the 2023-24 NBA season tipped off in Denver, James was already playing at a higher level than any player in league history had after their 20th season. But James has taken that distinction to another level this season.

For starters, he’s averaging more points (26.4 points per game) than the other five players who played a 21st season combined (24.0). But what’s been most impressive about this 21st season is that James, who has already established an unprecedented level of efficiency and longevity throughout his GOAT-level career, has somehow become even more efficient in 2023-24.

Through 13 games, James is posting career-highs in field-goal percentage (58.6 percent), 2-point percentage (68.0 percent), effective field-goal percentage (65.2 percent) and true shooting percentage (67.1 percent). More specifically, he’s logging career-best shooting percentages on shots at the rim (82 percent), long mid-range jumpers (47 percent) and non-corner 3s (40 percent), according to Cleaning the Glass. His 39.7 mark from 3-point range has nearly matched his career-best 40.6 percent from the 2012-13 season.

How is James pulling off his career-best efficiency at his age while dealing with a left calf contusion?

“I don’t know,” James told reporters after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 105-104 win over the Houston Rockets on Sunday. “Show up. Show up, put the work in and then go out and trust it.”

James is showing up and playing at an MVP level for the surging Lakers, who have won five of their past six games largely because of his play. Without his nightly heroics, the Lakers’ slow start could easily have been disastrous. Instead, the Lakers are 8-6 and trending upward.

GO DEEPER

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James remains elite by most advanced metrics. He’s fifth in the NBA in Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM), fifth in Estimated Wins (EW), fourth in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), sixth in Box Plus-Mins (BPM), eighth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and 13th in Win Shares. He currently projects as an All-NBA second-team forward at a minimum, if not a first-team selection. He’s still easily a top-10 player, a remarkable feat.

James has had his cape on in clutch moments, when the score margin is within five points in the final five minutes of a game. He’s tied for second in the league in clutch points (38), first in clutch field goals made (14) and third in clutch field-goal percentage among the 54 players who have attempted at least 10 shots in such situations (70.0 percent). The Lakers are 5-2 in the seven games that James has played that have featured clutch minutes.

Most recently, James scored a then-season-high 35 points to help put away the Portland Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter in a hostile In-Season tournament setting last Friday. Two nights later, he dropped a season-high 37 points on Dillon Brooks and the Rockets, pouring in 23 points in the second half and icing the game with the go-ahead free throw with 1.9 seconds left after he swiveled past Brooks and attacked three Rockets defenders in the paint.

“He was outstanding,” head coach Darvin Ham said of James’ performance vs. Houston. “The LeBron we’ve all come to know and love over these 21 years.”

Only, James is playing differently than he normally has. With the Lakers entrusting the keys to the offense more to D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves, James is operating more as a dangerous off-ball threat, where he can leverage his basketball IQ, strength and athleticism in space. James is creating his own offense less often than ever. The percentage of his 2-point (48.0 percent) and 3-point baskets (75.9 percent) that are assisted by others are career-highs, according to Basktball-Reference.com.

His play-type usage has also marginally increased in several notable categories: he’s being used more off screens (up from 1.9 percent last season to 3.6 percent this season), as the roller in pick-and-rolls (up from 4.5 percent last season to 5.9 percent this season), in hand-offs (up from 3.4 percent last season to 6.2 percent this season) and in spot-ups (up from 9.5 percent last season to 11.4 percent this season), according to NBA.com’s player tracking stats.

Though most of these percentages are teeny upticks, they add up to a different offensive approach for James.

No Laker has benefitted more from the Lakers’ increased spacing – at least when their new five-out offense is functioning properly – than James. Los Angeles has progressively used him in more creative ways, leveraging his ability to read his own defender, teammates and the rest of the defense at superspeed.

Here’s an example: Reaves passes the ball to Jaxson Hayes and cuts away to screen for James, who immediately flows into receiving a dribble hand-off from Hayes. With a head start from the initial action, James blasts past Sacramento Kings big man Domantas Sabonis to draw a shooting foul.

On this variation of a similar action, Russell is bringing the ball up the floor as Anthony Davis screens for James to flare out to the other side of the arc. Russell bounces an entry pass to Davis and then sets a screen for James, freeing James up to grab a hand-off from Davis, pump-fake as defender David Roddy recovers and then takes one dribble to finish at the rim. (Davis’ timely roll certainly helps, as it drags his defender, Bismack Biyombo, away from the fray.)

Sometimes, the Lakers will be even more direct in getting James downhill off a screen. This time, Reaves dribbles up the right side of the floor and Christian Wood screens for James on the opposite side, allowing him to either flare, cut or curl, depending on how the defender reacts to the screen. In this instance, James takes a wider approach before accelerating toward the basket, using one dribble and his shoulder to clear out Orlando Magic big man Goga Bitadze for the finger roll.

“He’s playing phenomenal right now,” Davis said Sunday. “His shot is falling. He’s attacking the paint, making the right reads, doing it on the defensive end. He’s doing it all for us and it’s our job to try to compliment him and help him out with our shot-making or playmaking.”

Forty-seven percent of James’ shot attempts this season have come at the rim, his highest share from that distance since 2018-19, his first season in Los Angeles, according to Cleaning the Glass. That includes dunking more — or at least trying to — with 7.3 percent of his field-goal attempts being dunks, also his highest percentage since the 2018-19 season (8.1 percent).

“(My teammates have) been joking about me, saying that I lay the ball up too much when I got an open lane,” James said.

But James has been just as lethal beyond the arc, which is an important development for the Lakers’ crunch-time and playoff offense.

This is a more deceptive set: Russell and Davis run a quick two-man game, diverting the Trail Blazers’ attention away from James, who’s positioning to curl behind a Davis screen into an open 3-pointer at the top of the arc. James’ defender, Jerami Grant, is a step behind and goes under the screen. Bang.

Opposing defenses have historically sagged their off-ball defenders in to load up the paint against the Lakers in the James-Davis era. When the Lakers run pick-and-rolls with Russell or Reaves as the ballhandler, they’ll often station James on the opposite wing, one pass away, where he’s ready to either catch and shoot, catch and drive or pump-fake and drive.

This is an easy look for James, who’s shooting 44.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s.

This was supposed to be the season James took a step back and ceded more of the offense to Davis, Reaves and Russell. But while James’ usage percentage has decreased (from 33.3 percent last season to 30.2 percent this season), the Lakers have been as reliant on James as ever. They are 23.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than on the bench, a gargantuan figure. They’re markedly worse without him on both ends, which signifies LA’s continued issues figuring out how to survive when he’s off the floor.

“It doesn’t even feel like he’s 38,” Davis said.

It doesn’t feel like James is 38 because of his production, but he’s actually five weeks away from turning 39. He’s missed time due to significant injuries in four of his five seasons in Los Angeles, and his long-term health remains of utmost importance for the Lakers’ championship aspirations.

The Lakers’ plan to keep James on a minutes restriction of roughly 28-to-30 minutes per game lasted all of one game. James’ remarkable play, and the Lakers’ early season struggles, have led to him playing more than 30 minutes in 10 of his 13 games. Moving forward, the Lakers will need to strategically find pockets of rest for James – be it in the form of fewer minutes or fewer games – as they did on Nov. 12 when they sat James in their 116-110 win over the Blazers.

“The way he takes care of himself on all levels, it relieves some of that stress and some of that worry,” Ham said before that game. “The biggest thing is being smart with his stretches. The overall minutes are going to be what it is depending on the nature of the game. The way we play him, the increments in which we play him, that’s the thing you have to be mindful of. And what you’re doing on non-gamedays as well. … That helps us – when he’s able to meet us halfway in that regard.”

In the grand scheme of things, the Lakers’ performance hasn’t matched their 8-6 record. They are just 22nd in net rating as of Tuesday morning, a mark more indicative of a low-end Play-In or lottery team than a contender. They’ve struggled shooting the ball, matching their opponents’ energy in first quarters, taking care of the ball and protecting the defensive glass. The rotation is unsettled. Key pieces remain out.

But more often than not, it hasn’t mattered because the Lakers have James on their side, the greatest player of his generation — and perhaps the greatest of all time.

Whether this stretch is merely a hot shooting stretch, a newfound efficiency because of the offense’s spacing, another level of mastery or some combination of the three, James continues to inexplicably defy the aging process and carry the Lakers on his broad shoulders, with no sign of slowing down as he approaches 39.

“Just trying to push the limit,” James said. “See how far I can take this thing. It’s me vs. Father Time.”


(Top photo: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)