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LeBron Is Great At Everything — Even Point Guard

A handful of years ago, I analyzed which historical players LeBron James was most similar to in order to figure out how the legend might transition from his prime into the final phase of his career. As of his early 30s, James had played much like the perimeter stars of yesteryear, but his archetype had a few branching options going forward — including the potential to score less and focus more on all-around skills (think Scottie Pippen) or to morph more into a bruising, do-everything big man (think Karl Malone). The latter option seemed most intriguing, given that it appeared to be where James’s career was headed anyway and that it offered perhaps the most graceful long-term aging plan.

But James has proved once again that he is not bound by the constraints of ordinary basketball greatness. Just when it seemed like he might trend toward the paint, LeBron instead has veered further to the “guard” end of the playing-style spectrum — and thrived. First, he established himself as a master of the super-deep 3-point bomb, knocking down 33.6 percent of shots from 28 or more feet since 2017-18 (which ranks fifth among all NBA players1 over that span). And this year, when he was asked by head coach Frank Vogel to play point guard for a Los Angeles Lakers team without many other options, James has instantly become one of the league’s best at the position. As always, there doesn’t seem to be much that LeBron can’t do on the court when he sets his mind to it.

We can measure James’s effectiveness at the point in a number of ways, but the easiest is to simply look at his assist numbers. According to Basketball-Reference.com, James has been a helper on 51.8 percent of teammate baskets when he’s on the court, which both is a career high and good for second among all NBA players this season. An assist rate over 50 percent is pretty rarified territory; since the ABA merger in 1976, it’s been done only 17 times over a full season by qualified players. It’s typically a mark reserved for masters of the point guard craft, such as Chris Paul, John Stockton and Steve Nash.

James is also setting up high-quality looks with his passes. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, the expected effective field-goal percentage for teammates who shoot off of a pass from James is 54.5 percent, which ranks 18th-highest among the 196 players who have made at least 50 passes to shooters so far this season.

With James’s huge hike in assists have come extra turnovers — he now has a turnover rate of 14.0 percent, one of the highest in his career. But that’s to be expected, given his extra ball-handling workload. According to NBA Advanced Stats, James is currently second in the NBA in touches per game with 99.2, a 17 percent bump from what was already a very high rate a season ago. If we try to balance James’s assists against his turnovers with a single metric — in this case, John Hollinger’s Pure Point Rating, an enhanced version of the old assist-to-turnover ratio2 — James ranks third among qualified players this season, behind Indiana’s T.J. McConnell and Detroit’s Reggie Jackson. And neither of those guys are asked to do anywhere near as many other things (scoring, rebounding, defense, etc.) as the Lakers ask of James.

Finally, James’s effect on the Lakers’ offense this season has been immense. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Los Angeles is averaging 108.8 points per 100 possessions in the 316 minutes James has been on the court and a mere 89.7 per 100 in the 121 minutes he’s been absent. Even though James most often shares the court with Anthony Davis (another great scorer) and Danny Green (a deadly 3-point shooter), the Laker offense doesn’t suffer remotely as much without them as it does without James.3 It’s a big reason that James is tied for the sixth-highest offensive on/off rating in the league so far this year, according to FiveThirtyEight’s new RAPTOR player ratings.

Add all that up, and it’s surprisingly hard to find a point guard who’s been better than James this season when it comes to doing point guard stuff — such as setting up teammates, minimizing turnovers and making the offense run more efficiently.

LeBron is playing the point really, really well

Top five qualified point guards in the 2019-20 NBA season by assist rate, Pure Point Rating (PPR) and on/off offensive RAPTOR rating, as of Nov. 10

Player Ast % Player PPR Player RAPTOR On/Off
Derrick Rose 52.0 T.J. McConnell 13.1 Austin Rivers +14.5
LeBron James 51.8 LeBron James 10.9 Kemba Walker +13.1
Trae Young 47.4 Ricky Rubio 10.9 Frank Jackson +12.0
Luka Dončić 44.6 Monte Morris 10.1 LeBron James +11.4
James Harden 40.7 Malcolm Brogdon 8.7 Langston Galloway +11.3

Players are ranked in each category out of 69 qualified point guards. To qualify, players had to play at least 135 minutes and be listed as a “primary” point guard in FiveThirtyEight’s roster depth charts.

Sources: Basketball-Reference, NBA Advanced Stats, RealGM

And the scary thing is that in some aspects of the role, James is still learning how best to play the point.

“I’m getting better and better at the point guard position,” he told Spectrum SportsNet’s Mike Trudell after a recent win. “Just trying to know where my guys are, put them in a position to just be able to catch and shoot, catch and lay the ball up. Just making them as comfortable as possible out there, and coach Vogel is allowing me to run the show.”

The Lakers still rank just 19th in offensive efficiency, which, while an improvement over last season’s 24th-place finish, is still below where you might expect a team led by James and Davis to be. But L.A. is also tied for the best record in the Western Conference, and the team has to be thrilled with how quickly James has taken to his new role.

It’s just more evidence that, when it comes to playing the game of basketball, LeBron can still pretty much do whatever he wants — and do it well.

Check out our RAPTOR dashboard.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 15 makes from at least 28 feet.

  2. Specifically, it takes two-thirds of assists, subtracts turnovers, and then scales the results per minute played and adjusts for pace.

  3. Admittedly, some of this also has to do with the Lakers’ aforementioned lack of other point guards available to fill the role when James sits. While Quinn Cook (+5.0 on/off offensive RAPTOR) has done a solid enough job running the Laker offense, it has been notably worse when Alex Caruso (-5.3) is in the game than when he sits, even after accounting for the quality of Caruso’s teammates and opponents.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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