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LeBron Is Still Getting Better

LeBron James might remain the best player in the NBA. He might remain the most valuable. He might even remain a player around whom a team can build a perennial Finals contender. But the question right now is, “Can LeBron remain this good for the rest of the season?” Because this LeBron is very close to as good as we’ve ever seen, in ways we’ve never seen before.

Just so everyone’s clear at the top: James is not the sun-eater he was in 2012-13, with the third and greatest of his Miami Heat teams. He may not be quite as incontestable as he was at the end of his first tenure in Cleveland, when he won back-to-back MVPs and dragged meager rosters on long and doomed and occasionally brilliant playoff runs.

But James is posting career highs in true shooting percentage (66.4), 3-point percentage (41.6), assist percentage (42.9) and block percentage (2.6). His free throw percentage (77.3) is the second-highest of his career. He’s shooting 80.7 percent within 3 feet of the basket and going to the rim about as often as he ever has. He has created more shots for teammates than anyone but Russell Westbrook, according to data from Second Spectrum, and he’s done it while playing 37 minutes per night — a heavy load for a player in his 15th season (who has also logged more than 200 playoff games).

The easy answer to the obvious question — How? — is that his jumper is falling. According to data from Second Spectrum, James is shooting an effective field goal percentage of 58.8 on step-back shots and 63 on pull-up jumpers — his two most common shot types after brute-force drives. Those dwarf his normal rate of makes on those shots over the last three seasons.

The large and sensible parts of the brain say this is unsustainable. That it’s fun to watch James play-act past glories while understanding that the underlying foundations have shifted, moved on — that James’s MVP-level start is a mirage of risky habits and clustered luck. The smaller, more rascally regions wonder: What if this is how LeBron goes late-Jordan?

James is one of the most amorphous stars I’ve ever watched from season to season. In various offseasons over the past decade, he’s picked up a post game, lost and recovered his 3-point stroke, added sneaky perimeter dribble feints and pivots, and refined the drive-and-kick game to its most basic and brutally effective elements. Who’s to say he hasn’t gone out and added the step-back midrange game that Michael made art and Kobe made genre fiction?

I mean, just look at this:

I’ve been watching LeBron for a lot of years, and I don’t remember him looking so fluid on those shots, so smooth through the hips and shoulders. That shot has always been available to him, it’s just always looked more calculated than natural — a computer making an arcane chess move more than a master moving in on the hunt. Now, it looks more graceful, a little tighter in the footwork. They aren’t suddenly perfect shots — there’s still the occasional (and occasionally more than occasional) wild launch from 35 feet or with a foot on or just inside the line, but they look better in aggregate. Maybe it’s easier to see it like that because it’s going in; that’s one danger of applying the eye test.

But it also makes sense given how well James has shot both from distance and point-blank. There’s simply more room to maneuver in the midrange if defenses must treat him as a 40-percent 3-point shooter and an 80-percent finisher at the rim — while also playing the lanes because he’s passing more than ever. That’s going to remain true for as long as James is canning 3s like this and remains unstoppable at the rim. The jumper can come and go, but it has been relatively steady since it went missing in 2015-16. The drives are more reliable.

The Cavs score 125 points per 100 possessions when James drives and finishes himself, passes to a teammate for a shot or is fouled (or he makes a turnover), and 118 points per 100 possessions on scoring chances that come from multiple passes after a James drive, according to Second Spectrum. Both rank first among players with at least 100 drives this season, and both are unlikely to change as long as James remains unstoppable, crashing into defenders and creating space where the defender had previously been standing.

One caveat: This isn’t the indomitable James. The onslaught is not exactly unrelenting. The pitch is not fevered. James is finding more success driving to the rim, but he’s also drawing fouls at a career-worst rate — his .294 rate of free throws per field goal attempt is down considerably from his career average .418 — and his turnovers are a hair under his career worst (from last season). These may be clues that James’s underlying skills have tailed off and his results will soon follow. Or they may be evidence that LeBron isn’t actually trying yet.

His defensive numbers confirm that he hasn’t returned to his peak. The Cleveland defense has been nearly 11 points better per 100 possessions when he sits, and ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus has him in the negatives, below James Harden and Kyle Lowry. RPM is famously skewed toward defensive-minded big men, but James has historically performed much better in the stat. So, no, James isn’t the clamp-down bear trap he was in his Heat years. But he’s in the top 40 for shots defended (a good sign he’s not getting blown out of plays) and opponents are shooting just a 46.6 effective field goal percentage against him (a very good number). While he’s giving up “good” shots (expected value 52.8 eFG percentage, adjusting for who’s shooting, which is one of the worst figures in the league), he’s depressing value on those shots by 6.2 eFG percentage points, sandwiching him between standout defenders like Kevin Durant and Paul Millsap once he’s actually engaged in the play.

We expect more from James because we’ve seen more from him. We’ve seen him slip from the best player in history to merely the best at this moment, and so his deficiencies call out in a way other players’ do not. Maybe he’s playing catch-up defense these days, or not drawing fouls the way he used to, or not willing Jae Crowder into making his wide-damn-open 3s. But 15 seasons into his career, he’s still getting better, and so far this season, the pieces he’s added have more than made up for the ones that have fallen away.

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Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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