LeBron James is, of course, no stranger to the postseason: He has missed the playoffs only three times in his 17 seasons in the NBA, including his disastrous inaugural season with the Los Angeles Lakers. But though LeBron has been a fixture in the finals, he hasn’t usually been favored by seeding to get there. Only five teams led by James have been No. 1 seeds in their respective conference: the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers, the 2012-13 Miami Heat, the 2015-16 Cavs and this season’s Lakers.
James played a different role on each of those squads, and this season has been no different. We’ve already examined how James has turned himself into one of the best point guards in the league this year, with a career high in assists per game. But even outside of changing positions, he’s changed his game each time his team has grabbed a No. 1 seed. His evolution this season led to production that looked more like his form on title-winning teams in 2013 and 2016 than on the two No. 1 seeds that fell short.
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Throughout his career, James’s usage rate has matched his superstar status. But it has fluctuated slightly depending on his role with a team. For example, during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, when the Cavaliers were at the top of the Eastern Conference, James’s average usage rate was just below 33 percent. But with his top-seeded teams that won it all, in 2013 and 2016, his usage rate was under 31 percent. His rate was under that mark this year, too, at 30.8 percent.
The dip in his usage rate has also tracked with James’ scoring and effective field-goal percentage. When his usage was lower with his previous top-seeded teams, he posted a lower point-per-game average and shot a higher effective field-goal percentage. Over his first two top-seeded years with the Cavaliers, he averaged more than 29 points per game with an effective field-goal percentage under 54. James averaged 25.3 points per game this season, and his effective field-goal percentage was right at 55.
LeBron posted his highest effective field-goal percentage (60.3) of these top-seeded teams with the Heat in 2013. He attempted fewer three-pointers that season than he did in any of his other years finishing at the top of his conference — and the third-fewest of any season in his career. This year, conversely, he has taken the most 3-pointers of his career, even in this shortened season, and he was on pace to set a career high in made 3-point shots.
James’s supporting cast has certainly been a factor in his usage rate. With both the Heat and Cavaliers teams that won championships, James was surrounded by other stars and a bevy of lethal 3-point shooters. Having such help allowed the team to ask less of him on the offensive end.
This year’s Lakers added talent all around James, and for the first time in his career, James is not his team’s leading scorer. All-Star big man Anthony Davis leads the Lakers in scoring this year, averaging 26.1 points per game, and the duo has produced at an all-time level.
While James’s role has changed with each of his top-seeded teams, at least one thing hasn’t: the teams’ offensive production. Each LeBron-led team that’s finished at the top of its conference has also finished in the top half of the league in points per game and offensive rating. Each team finished its season with an effective field-goal percentage ranking among the top five in the league, as well. The Lakers’ 113.4 points per game and 111.7 offensive rating both rank first among all of James’s top-seeded teams.1
In addition to their offensive production, all five teams performed well on the defensive end. They each finished the regular season ranked among the top 10 in the NBA in defensive rating and opponent points in the paint.
The Lakers have struggled offensively in the bubble, concluding the seeding games ranked third-worst in offensive rating (104.5) and last in 3-point percentage (30.3). But despite the slow start in the bubble, the team has shown flashes of its capability with wins over the West’s No. 2 seed Los Angeles Clippers and No. 3 seed Denver Nuggets. If the top-seeded team can build on those wins and get back to its level of play from before the break, James could once again finish the season with a championship.
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