Lebron on the downhill slippery slope

January 26, 2016

Instead of writing a cool, hip introduction to this column, let me make it clear why this is being written. Our sports editor heard some reports about some radio personalities saying that LeBron James is on the decline, and he wanted me to give my take.

Is LeBron James on the decline? The short answer is yes.

Before we get into the details, let me preface one last time and say that everything that follows is not pro- or anti-LeBron, it is just the reality of his situation.

LeBron James is on the decline. His best years are behind him. He is slowly becoming less and less dominant, and his stranglehold as the NBA’s best player is not as firm as it used to be.

You could go even further and say that LeBron is not the best player in the league anymore. LeBron is on the decline, which can be proven by three factors: health, statistics and consistent impact on a game-to-game basis.

He is not the athlete he used to be, and that is saying something, because he is still a freakishly good athlete. But the slight deterioration is obvious, he gets beat off the dribble by smaller guards more often, he does not elevate as high with the same consistency and his effort on defense has dropped significantly in the past two seasons.

LeBron has resorted to what could be called the cherry picker defense, rather than recover on blow bys,  he opts to sprint down the court for easy baskets via outlet passes, in hopes that the man he defended turns the ball over or misses the shot.

He constantly poaches for steals, roams around in the half court and now rarely covers the opposing team’s best players unless it’s his positional matchup.

He still puts in effort on defense, but not like the LeBron of old. This is not because he’s an NBA diva, who doesn’t care, it is just a side effect of aging in the NBA. For most greats, the first thing that goes along with their athleticism is their defense.

I’m not saying LeBron has gone full James Harden circa 2014, but he does show signs of being a bad defender from time to time.

Next on the agenda are the numbers. It is simple, the stats do not lie. You could look at how his points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game averages have all dropped, but those are not good indicators in explaining a decline.

The five major per game averages can be easily doctored by playing more minutes, they don’t delve into how efficient a player is. At the heart of LeBron’s greatness is, or was his efficiency.

He is the most efficient player since the turn of the century, and possibly of all-time. He’s led the NBA in player efficiency, a heavily weighted advanced offensive statistic six times, which is only second to Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, who did it seven times.

PER is definitely a flawed stat that is not kind to great defensive players, but its baseline reading is pretty good, the season-by-season leaders in PER are usually the best players in the league.

He had a seven-year stretch where his field goal percentage improved every season, with his peak year coming in the 2013-14 season with a mind-boggling field goal percentage of 56.7. Lastly, during the 2012-13 NBA season, LeBron set an NBA record with six straight 30-point games, where he shot over 60 percent from the field.

To summarize, LeBron was an extremely efficient player in his prime, which is not the case anymore. His PER has dropped, his field goal percentage has dropped, his shooting percentage from 10 feet and out has plummeted. In fact, he has become a poor mid-range to long range jump shooter.

His true shooting percentage, win shares, box plus/minus (BPM), and value over replacement player (VORP), all of which are advanced statistics, have dropped off, some more significant than others, meanwhile his usage percentage has not changed.

Ok, so two down, one to go. His all-world ability does not directly correlate with his diminishing game-to-game impact. James is still considered the best player in the NBA because of his overall game and his ability to impact a game in various ways.

That assertion is true and it will still probably be true for another season or two. Theoretically, LeBron can still change a game better than any other player in the NBA because of his talent level, but in reality, he cannot do that every game because of his previously mentioned dip in athleticism and efficiency.

Every all-time great goes through this. They get the benefit of the doubt based on past achievements, even when a better player comes along. In reality, Kareem was better than Wilt in ‘69. Jordan was better than Magic and Bird in ‘88. Shaq was better than Jordan in ‘98. LeBron was better than Kobe in ‘08 and now Curry and probably a few others are better than LeBron in 2015.

The once malleable, omnipotent and robust James has come and gone. He is now a slightly more human version of superman.

It’s tough to think that LeBron is past his prime and entered the stage of his career where he shows signs of decay. The guy is barely three decades old, still putting up eye-popping stats, to go along with nightly highlight reels.

But that is what makes this guy so freaking great, even as a player in decline he is still really good. So stop worrying NBA fans, LeBron still has some good years ahead of him.

Javier Cortez may be reached at [email protected].

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