By REED NELSON
(Full Disclosure: The writer is a Knicks fan. His perspective has been warped by a lifetime of disappointment, toxic long-term contracts and an evil warlock named James Dolan, a man who only emerges from his lair above the old Union Square Virgin Megastore on nights that the humidity exceeds 80 percent or when the Burlington Coat Factory is having a sale.)
Here’s a kind-of-true story: LeBron James was born in the year A43Y7 on a planet that locals affectionately refer to as Treepock. He was born with infinite lung capacity, a fondness for the analytics of an alien game called basketball and the ability to defy gravity on any atmospheric planet. His parents, Phondue Applehat and Xenon, Girl of the 21st Century, were the greatest athlete’s the small planet of Treepock had ever seen, but when the planet came under attack they were forced to make a decision: Send their son, LeBron, to a Great Oasis called Earth, or allow the arachnid armies of Klendathu, their shocking siege led by a rogue general named Vogel, to take him away. They sent him to Earth and he became the greatest athlete, human or non-human, the game of basketball has ever seen.
Everything but that last line is up for debate. He is the most absurd physical specimen that has ever laid extremely large rubber-and-leather wrapped feet on to hardwood. Evidence?
He’s smart, too.
And likes playing defense.
And only the blind offspring of Oedipus Rex1 would say that that wasn’t cool, and that’s because they would be jealous of our sight at that very moment because even they would understand the gravitas of Lebron’s coolness.
But I have a few questions for the LeBron Lovers. First and foremost, have you ever seen these two in a room together?
But I’m not really a LeBron guy. It’s not that I don’t fully appreciate what I’m seeing (although I sure I’m not), or that I have a disdain for ridiculous feats and ruthless efficiency (or at least a disdain I’m aware of), it’s just that I have so many questions. Like Why does LeBron’s ancillary production matter exponentially more than, say, a guy like Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard2? Besides that those two aren’t all that lovable, I mean? Or why does LeBron’s uncanny ability to accumulate literally eight’s of rebounds and assists during games somehow overshadow a guy like John Stockton’s ability to rack up 17 points to go along with his 14 assists? And why, if rebounding and assists are so important in LeBron’s case, is a guy like Dennis Rodman not considered at least a Second Team All-Time great given his nose for the ball? And if Scottie Pippen led the Bulls in all three statistical categories while Jordan was gone, and if he was as tough a defender as LeBron is (as most say he was), then why isn’t he talked about as much?
I guess the real question I’m asking is this: Why does what LeBron do matter so much more than what other people have done?
His best season doesn’t crack the Top 5 all time (without PER-bumps at least, more on that later). His best postseason (2009), might, but it’s debatable. He’s averaged 30 points a game just once (the statistical benchmark for elite scoring), and he’s yet to average 10 rebounds a game (the statistical benchmark for elite rebounding) or 10 assists (the statistical benchmark for elite distributing) for an entire season.
Yes, he does do more on the court than anyone since Magic Johnson — like playing a hybrid 1-2-3-4-5, developing a low-post presence to go along with 43 percent three-point shooting this season and locking down opponents to such a degree that some (like me) occasionally wonder where the Talent Ball from Space Jam is hiding. He also has gotten very good at delivering awesome mid-game fuck-word-filled speeches, which is always fun — but, minus advanced metrics, he is more Budweiser than an artisanal ale3. He’s become the poster child for the Player Efficiency Rating by being number two in every bar in America.
But PER might as well be called the LBJ. I wasn’t kidding. Before LeBron, we were cool quantifying greatness with our eyes. As fans, we were all, “Look! That’s cool.” Sure, we probably enjoyed Ricky Davis and Darvin Ham and John Salmons a little too much. But hey, we never needed to figure out exactly how much Troy Murphy mattered. Now it seems we need hard statistical data to measure exactly what we’ve already seen. To a degree, this makes sense because my eyes lie all the time4,but why does the new hotness in quantifying greatness essentially establish LeBron James’ game as the 158.3 baseline?
It supposedly incorporates the entire game on a per-minute basis, without isolating elements that lead to our arcane PPG, RPG and APG statistics. But doesn’t it also discount one, two and three-trick ponies? It’s a set of numbers designed to reflect positively on a player like LeBron James, a player who dabbles in all areas of the game, which is to say a “complete player,” while wasting little movement because he’s always doing something. He benefits from high field-goal percentages (which he should), and that shouldn’t be overlooked (I repeat, IT SHOULD NOT be overlooked. None of his game should be. And, because this has gotten slightly negative, I think LeBron is the best since Jordan, I just don’t know why he gets a pass for not scoring all the time while other guys get skewered for doing just that), but it never is. And neither are his other numbers, but that’s a phenomenon that only seems to happen to LeBron. Nothing ever seems to get discounted when King James is executing.
In ’87-88, Michael Jordan averaged 35 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 boards and 3.2 steals per game while shooting 53.5 percent from the field and leading the league in minutes, field goal makes and attempts. His PER that season? 31.7, the same number that LeBron achieved in ’08-09, while averaging 28.4 points, 7.2 assists, 7.6 boards and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 49 percent from the field. Here’s what that looks like:
Sometimes, I feel like my understanding of this stuff is more questionable than Justin Bieber’s courtside wardrobe choices, but HOW DO THOSE NUMBERS WORK?!? Jordan put in six more points a game while shooting 4.6 percent better from the field, blocking more shots, swiping more passes and not sacrificing more than two rebounds or assists to LeBron. I know, I know. There is way more to consider than just those numbers when looking into PER, but why should there be? Conspiracies are for weirdos and Joe Rogan, but how are those two seasons equal!? Please don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. The answer I’m looking for is ‘They aren’t, unless this number was designed to quantify all the things we think LeBron is doing on the court.’
But here’s a fun game: Let’s say assists were weighted like, say points, and were calculated by the number of points they directly contributed. If that was the case, couldn’t John Stockton be the recent benchmark of awesomeness? He, in his best seasons, would have been directly contributing to nearly 50 points a game. Seriously. In ’89-90, Stockton averaged 17.2 points and 14.5 assists per game. That means he was directly contributing to a minimum of 46 points a game (minimum because some of his assists could have led to three’s, but none could have led to less than two points). 46. His PER in that season? 23.9, the best of his career. That season, he also averaged 2.7 steals per game that season, shot 82 percent from the line and 42 percent from three.
By contrast, in LeBron’s best season — which, PER-wise, we’ve established was ’08-09, when he had a PER of 31.7, narrowly edging the ’12-13 campaign (31.6) — he directly contributed to 42.8 points per game. Yes, he did average five more rebounds a game than Stockton (7.6 to 2.6), and sure, he blocked about a shot per game, but Stockton led the league in assists while LeBron led the league in just one thing: PER, a category that he’s led the league in six straight seasons5.
In fact, LeBron has led the league in a “traditional” category just twice: In ’04-05 he led the league in minutes played and in ’07-08 he won the scoring title. Oscar Robertson, the player whose versatility is most often compared to LeBron’s, won the scoring title once (while averaging over 30 points six out of seven seasons), led the league in assists seven times (averaging north of 10 five times in six seasons) and even led the league in free-throw shooting percentage twice while never shooting under 80 percent from the stripe. LeBron, who is often lauded for his “effortless” ability to get to the rim and draw contact, has yet to shoot over 78 percent from the line. Somehow, the most “talented player of all-time” has yet to master the unguarded 15-footer. True story.
But I want someone to disprove me with the Old Stats. Call me Ned Stark while I bow down to trees with faces, but I like to watch the games, too. Watch Jordan dismantle Utah in the final two minutes of Game 1 in 1997. Watch the way he ends it with less than three seconds on the clock. Hard jab step, one dribble, pulls up, buckets.
Now watch LeBron against Indiana in Game 1 this season. Both players do it relatively easily, but one looks like the greatest stage actor of all time doing Richard III (Jordan) and the other looks like an athletic deity parting oceans before dropping a ball in a bucket. LeBron doesn’t get tired, he doesn’t slow down, he doesn’t seem human, but isn’t that part of the game? Didn’t we use to like our athletes to overcome adversity? Didn’t Celtics fans need Paul Pierce to reemerge from the locker room? Who doesn’t shiver when they see the Flu Game Gatorade ad? Willis Reed became immortal specifically because of his mortality. Why has LeBron made the Juggernaut so cool?
This isn’t a plea for people to dislike LeBron. If it were, no one would follow my advice. I wouldn’t follow my advice. But if LeBron James is indeed better than Jordan because of his versatility, because he does more things on a basketball court night in and night out and he does those things better than most (which he probably does on many nights), then shouldn’t the statistics back those up? He’s never averaged a double-double. In 16 seasons, Charles Barkley missed that mark just once, in his rookie season6.
LeBron James, you are not a human but you play a human game. We shouldn’t have to invent statistics to figure out how good you are. Jordan did just fine with the ones that were there. So did all the rest of them.
If I’m going to call LeBron James the best of all time, I guess I just need to know that he was the best at something, at least one thing, while he was playing, that’s all. For someone from the planet Treepock, that shouldn’t be too hard to pull off.
- You want Greek tragedy with mommy issues references within a Lebron piece? Doesn’t matter. You got them. Yes, that might have been made with malice. Ok, it was definitely made with malice. All I needed was a blind reference. I could’ve gone with Ron Eldard’s Oren Monash from the ’90s classic Deep Impact, but I didn’t. Deal with it. Or don’t. Fuck. If I’ve offended you, I’ve done it far too early. Jump.
- Melo won the scoring title this past season, averaging 28.7 points and seven rebounds, while Howard, whose best statistical season would appear to be either ’07-08 (20.7 points and 14.2 rebounds) or ’11-’12 (20.6 points and 14.5 rebounds) seem to always gain notoriety for the holes in their game rather than their dominant traits, while LeBron, who leads the league in very few things, gets lauded for his “Total Package.” Jump.
- Would fast food have been better? I don’t know what the parallel is. You can hate me for this, too. My shudder shades only allow me to see every other stat-line on Basketball-Reference anyways. Jump.
- Example: I still think Larry Johnson was fouled back in 1999. And no, I don’t believe everything I see on YouTube, which is why I maintain any video found on that website is suspicious. Including one’s in which Johnson doesn’t appear to be fouled. Sorry for the digression. *Puts arms up in the “L” shape.* Jump.
- If you are a weirdo or Joe Rogan, PER-creator John Hollinger began to start pumping the rating system hard back in 2002, in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2002, which is a year before LeBron was drafted. It wasn’t used a ton, however, until the mid-’00s, right as LeBron was coming into his prime. I’m not saying Hollinger has anything to do with the coincidence, I just think it’s weird that a statistic was essentially born with a player who happens to own six of the best 20 ratings of all time. It’d almost be like inventing fences for Babe Ruth, or putting in a three-point line a year before Pete Maravich was drafted. Jump.
- For four straight seasons, Barkley averaged 25-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. Jump.