LeBron James is the best player in the NBA this year and his performance towers over almost every other player by such a margin that there shouldn’t be a debate about Most Valuable Player; there should just be a coronation for the player sometimes referred to as King James. Yet there isn’t. Players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Chris Paul are brought into the discussion and with the exception of Paul, it’s illustrating that we have misunderstood the concept of value. It also indicates the strength of what has been until recently a fairly quiet backlash against James.
The King James version of basketball this season has been frighteningly good. While James hasn’t had any games to rival the 48 point performance he dropped on Detroit in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Eastern Conference Finals, a game where he scored 29 of his team’s last 30 points. His overall totals are nothing short of incredible. He is averaging 30.8 points 8.2 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game, while shooting 48.6 percent (3 percent higher than the league average). Or put another way, James has scored or assisted in 42.9 percent of the 6892 points that his Cavaliers have scored this season. And did I mention that he missed six games with a hand injury?
LeBron may be putting up numbers comparable to the great early seasons of Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double (more than 10 points, rebounds and assists) in1961-’62 and nearly did so in the seasons that preceded and followed that one. While James 7.3 assists and 8.2 boards per game are remarkable figures they don’t seem to compare to Robertson until you consider a key extenuating factor: pace. Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals played a much faster tempo than today’s game goes at. Thus games had many more possessions per contest, higher scores, and opportunities to bolster offensive statistics. In ’61-’62 Cincinnati shot 45.2 percent from the floor, about the league average today, and scored an average of 123.1 points per game. Today’s NBA teams score an average of 100.3 points per game, which should give you a sense that that vintage film of the NBA in the ’60s is not artificially sped up or anything; Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and other greats simply played at a time where fast breaks were the norm, not the exception.
The comparison between James and Robertson is enlightening as it reveals one of the key differences between the NBA now and the way the game was played 40 years ago. The comparison between James and his peers today turns the spotlight from the hardwood to the analysts themselves. Let’s look review James key numbers: 30.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists, and 48.6 percent shooting. Kobe Bryant’s tally is 28.6/6.2/5.4/46.1 percent. Garnett’s tally is 18.8/9.5/3.4 53.4 percent. Paul’s tally is 21.7/3.9/11.2/49.7 percent.
Paul’s superb season has inspired debate comparing his numbers to Magic Johnson’s best years. That’s very, very high praise and it’s telling that such an amazing season can only come close to James accomplishments this year.
There are two problems in recognizing James’s feat. For one, we don’t try to measure value in the proper manner. The discussion is full of all kinds of superfluous and extenuating arguments. Some folks argue that Bryant is the one player in the league who you want taking the last shot with the game on the line. This is true but much the same can be said for San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry, especially in the playoffs. The difference between having James on your team and having Bryant (not that anyone would complain about being forced to choose either superstar) is that with James there will be fewer games hanging in the balance at the end.
Some folks have noted that Bryant has never won the MVP despite being a top player for many years, which is interesting but irrelevant to the discussion. The best argument for Garnett is that Boston is now the best team in the league, but his arrival in Beantown this summer coincided with that of another all star, Ray Allen and a top assistant coach, Tom Thibodeau, who helped make the Celtic defense into an airtight vise. The case for Paul is largely the same case for LeBron, but a shade weaker.
Basketball is a game where the object is to score more points than your opponent or hold them to fewer points than you score. In this case the statistics are not a playground for geeks, but a numerical representation of each player’s production and well, these numbers don’t lie. LeBron James is having a magical season and we should appreciate it in the moment rather than waiting for historical perspective.
I think the resistance to accepting James greatness is the media overkill we’ve suffered surrounding his image. James has been hyped as one of the greatest ballers ever since he was a junior in high school. It’s only natural that such hype, even cute stuff like his LeBrons Nike campaign, would inspire contrarian resistance.