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Old LeBron Will Be Different, But He Might Still Be Great

Fresh off bringing the city of Cleveland its first championship in 52 years, LeBron James is still very much in his basketball-playing prime. Last June, he closed out one of his best playoff runs ever with a mind-boggling performance to end the finals, averaging 33.2 points (on 57.9 percent true shooting), 11.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 2.8 blocks and 2.4 steals per game as he led the Cavaliers back from down 2-0 to upset the Golden State Warriors.

But James also turns 32 in the middle of this upcoming NBA season — and as the cliché goes, Father Time is undefeated. (Except, apparently, in the cases of Serena Williams, Jaromir Jagr and Ryan Seacrest.) So as he approaches the decline phase of his career, it’s worth asking what LeBron might play like in his dotage, looking to his most similar historical doppelgangers for clues about the paths he might take.

James’s game has already undergone some remodeling over the years. Early in his career, LeBron was mostly an isolation/face-up scorer who wanted to drive — or pull up for midrange jumpers — and left his teammates to clean up the offensive glass. These days, James has a more diverse offensive repertoire: He can still perform the role of a wing scorer, barreling into the paint off isolations and pick-and-rolls, but he can also play off the ball — whether in the low post, as a cutter, spotting up from the outside or rolling to the basket after setting a screen — and he chips in more frequently on the offensive boards. This more well-rounded style has been successful for James over the progression of his career; he has three championships (plus three other Finals appearances) to show for it.

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But in a broader sense, James is still basically who he’s always been: a do-it-all megastar. Over his entire career, he’s perennially ranked among the game’s most efficient (and highest-volume) scorers, while also grading out as a great passer and defender and an above-average rebounder. To put James’s playing style in context, I ran a model-based cluster analysis on NBA player stats going back to the ABA-NBA merger.1 In every single season of his career to date, James was classified in the same rarified group as other all-around perimeter superstars — think Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant during the Lakers’ 2000-02 three-peat, and Tracy McGrady in 2002-03.

The cluster analysis found nine total groups of NBA player typologies, with LeBron typifying the “all-around perimeter” class of players:

AVG. PERCENTILE RANK
CLASSIFICATION TS% USG% AST% REB% DBPM 2016 EXAMPLE
Versatile big man 81 54 42 92 90 D. Green
All-around perimeter 55 87 68 56 61 S. Curry
Low-usage all-around 60 41 55 47 64 T. Duncan
Defense/rebound big 50 7 13 77 84 S. Adams
1-dimension scorer 51 85 52 35 14 D. Lillard
Offense-only playmaker 44 52 88 13 18 I. Thomas
Offense/rebound big 53 45 14 80 52 B. Marjanovic
1-dimension shooter 58 41 35 34 20 E. Fournier
Non-scoring role player 12 32 49 45 55 D. Green
Cluster-analyzed NBA player archetypes

Using model-based cluster analysis of NBA players from 1978-2016.
TS% = True Shooting Percentage
USG% = Usage Percentage
AST% = Assist Percentage
REB% = Rebounding Percentage
DBPM = Defensive Box Plus/Minus

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

That player type — the all-around perimeter star — is all the rage in today’s NBA. Nine of the top 10 players in the league in box plus/minus were classified in that category.2 For reference’s sake, here’s how the algorithm classified the top players of the 2015-16 season according to BPM (minimum 500 minutes played):

PERCENTILE RANK
PLAYER BPM TS% USG% AST% REB% DBPM CLASSIFICATION
S. Curry +12.5 100 100 95 48 54 All-around perimeter
R. Westbrook +10.0 65 99 100 71 92 All-around perimeter
L. James +9.1 89 98 97 69 91 All-around perimeter
K. Leonard +8.3 96 89 60 69 94 All-around perimeter
K. Durant +7.9 99 98 85 71 70 All-around perimeter
C. Paul +7.8 82 92 100 35 63 All-around perimeter
K. Lowry +6.8 84 90 93 38 64 All-around perimeter
J. Harden +6.7 92 99 97 50 40 All-around perimeter
D. Green +5.8 89 50 91 81 98 Versatile big man
P. Millsap +5.3 66 85 71 83 99 All-around perimeter
C. Aldrich +4.8 98 47 44 97 100 Versatile big man
N. Jokic +4.8 86 59 74 91 90 Versatile big man
A. Bogut +4.5 97 3 64 93 100 Versatile big man
P. George +4.5 67 97 79 61 71 All-around perimeter
T. Duncan +4.1 36 40 66 89 99 Low-usage all-around
A. Horford +4.1 75 64 72 71 93 Low-usage all-around
J. Butler +4.0 72 85 81 40 59 All-around perimeter
P. Gasol +4.0 39 85 81 93 97 All-around perimeter
K. Walker +4.0 65 91 87 32 51 All-around perimeter
R. Gobert +3.7 86 15 22 97 99 Versatile big man
D. Lillard +3.7 70 98 95 23 10 1-dimension scorer
B. Marjanovic +3.6 100 75 16 99 69 Offense/rebound big
M Ginobili +3.6 81 82 85 37 76 All-around perimeter
D. Jordan +3.4 98 21 9 99 98 Versatile big man
D. West +3.4 81 45 66 72 96 Low-usage all-around
Classifying the best NBA players of 2015-16

Minimum 500 minutes played.
TS% = True Shooting Percentage
USG% = Usage Percentage
AST% = Assist Percentage
REB% = Rebounding Percentage
DBPM = Defensive Box Plus/Minus

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

It’s no surprise that many of James’s most comparable players according to our CARMELO projection system — Hall of Fame talents such as Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Dwyane Wade and Scottie Pippen — also spent the majority of their careers through age 31 in the same all-around perimeter category as MJ and King James. A few of James’s top comps were classified in other groups — Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett were “versatile bigs,” essentially the big-man version of James’s do-it-all group (think of Barkley, KG and David Robinson as the archetypes), and Pippen spent a few years in the same “low-usage all-around” cluster as other efficient, passing-and-defense players like Alvin Robertson, Manu Ginobili and a young Magic Johnson. But James’s basketball DNA to this point has mostly been grounded in the tradition of the versatile perimeter prodigy.

Many of James’s historical peers saw their role change after their 32nd birthday, however. Some, like Pippen and Jason Kidd, saw their usage rates decline as they morphed back into the low-usage all-around mold in which they’d begun their careers. Others, such as Bryant, Dominique Wilkins and Alex English, retained their usage but became more one-dimensional, letting some combination of their assists, rebounds and defense slide as they focused more on scoring. (Gary Payton slid into an entirely different category — offense-only playmakers, passers whose rebounding and even defense slipped with age later in their careers.)

CLASSIFICATION
PLAYER THROUGH AGE 31 AFTER AGE 31 WAR NEXT 5 YEARS
L. James All-around perimeter
S. Pippen All-around perimeter Low-usage all-around +36.8
J. Kidd All-around perimeter Low-usage all-around +52.0
L. Bird All-around perimeter No change +28.8
J. Erving All-around perimeter No change +51.3
D. Wade All-around perimeter No change
C. Drexler All-around perimeter No change +45.9
V. Carter All-around perimeter No change +23.2
P. Pierce All-around perimeter No change +37.6
K. Bryant All-around perimeter One-dimension scorer +27.9
D. Wilkins All-around perimeter One-dimension scorer +18.9
A. English All-around perimeter One-dimension scorer +22.5
G. Payton All-around perimeter Offense-only playmaker +41.4
K. Abdul-Jabbar Versatile big man All-around perimeter +61.9
C. Barkley Versatile big man No change +50.6
K.Malone Versatile big man No change +77.7
K. Garnett Versatile big man No change +37.8
T. Duncan Versatile big man No change +41.2
H. Olajuwon Versatile big man No change +43.0
C. Anthony 1-dimension scorer All-around perimeter
C. Billups Offense-only playmaker No change +20.0
How did LeBron-like players evolve?

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Just as interesting as the paths of James’s perimeter precursors, however, are the trajectories of versatile big men such as Barkley, Garnett and Robinson. Rather than losing some aspect of their skills with age and falling into a lesser archetype, the great big men most similar to James — Barkley, Malone, Garnett, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon3 — retained their mix of valuable talents for the majority of their remaining careers. And although James himself has never been categorized among this group, the fact that a number of his similar players have (it was the second-most common classification for his comparables) and that those players ended up retaining more value from age 32 onward than their perimeter counterparts (big men averaged 52 total wins above replacement over the following five seasons, vs 36.2 for perimeter players) suggests that James’s best future could be in the paint as a big man, not out on the wing.

Of course, that transformation has already begun for James in many ways. In addition to his improved rebounding and post-up offense, he played power forward or center in Miami’s lineup 88 percent of the time over his final two seasons with the Heat. Even granting that positions are fluid and classifying them within lineups is an inexact science, this means James has a history of being one of the biggest and most powerful players on the floor. But as a small-ball big man in that scheme, James retained all of his usual perimeter-star stats. So the next evolution for an aging James may be to shed some of those characteristics and adopt the statistical fingerprint of a true big man, accentuating existing tendencies such as playing off the ball, crashing the boards and focusing on efficiency over volume.

It’s not necessarily a change that will — or should — take hold this season, particularly because the Cavs are more stocked in the paint than on the perimeter and James has always resisted taking on the physical toll of being a full-time big man. But it could be the picture of what the most effective Old LeBron might look like. Because as hard as it can be to believe for those of us who watched James grow up in parallel with our own lives, the final act of his NBA story is just around the corner — and if it’s anything like his career to date, it’s going to be fascinating to watch.

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Footnotes

  1. Using the R package mclust on qualified players’ seasonal percentile ranks in the following categories: true shooting percentage, usage rate, assist rate, rebound rate and defensive Box Plus/Minus.

  2. Power forward Paul Millsap is a bit out of place there, but he confused the algorithm by rating in the 66th percentile or better across all five statistical categories I analyzed. (Millsap is awesome.)

  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also classified in this group, but only on the basis of one season (he began his career well before the ABA merger). Over the rest of his career, he was classified as everything from an all-around big man to a do-it-all wing (surely a quirk of the algorithm, but he was also a better passer than he gets credit for) and even a separate category of offense-and-rebounding bigs that included the likes of Ryan Anderson, Moses Malone and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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