We fell for it. Early season struggles of the Cleveland Cavaliers led us to believe that LeBron James might have lost a step as his 30th birthday approaches. That was wrong, it was knee-jerk, and we like to believe we’re better than that. A month of play is never enough to glean big picture concerns about a veteran’s performance, especially when he’s playing for a new team. It was obvious then, but narrative got in the way of logic. And three weeks removed from Cleveland’s nadir, The King has made it even more obvious now.
The 14-9 Cavaliers have won nine of their last 11 games since four consecutive losses in mid-November. And while the resurgent play of Kyrie Irving, increasing comfort of Kevin Love, and the team’s improved defense have dominated headlines over that stretch, it’s James’ typically dominant performance that has been at least as big an influence to Cleveland’s success.
LeBron’s recent shift to full-time primary ballhandler has received a fair amount of attention, and rightfully so. He averaged 6.8 assists per game up to November 22, the day the Cavaliers completed that four-game losing streak. James has gone for 9.0 assists a night in the interim while cutting his turnover rate by nearly two points, an impressive combination of additional responsibility and fewer miscues.
What fascinates and has been far less reported is that The King’s move back to dominant creator has coincided with an uptick in scoring and efficiency. He’s averaging 26.7 points per game in Cleveland’s last 11 contests – of which he’s played 10 – compared to 24.7 in its first 12 of the season. And after struggling to come close to maintaining his lofty shooting percentages of recent seasons in the early going, LeBron has rebounded to make 52.8 percent from the field during his team’s run.
But that spike hasn’t been the result of the altered shot selection it suggests. James still isn’t posting up as much as he did with the Miami Heat, and isn’t getting to the rim much more frequently now than he did during the season’s opening weeks. Instead, he’s simply finishing in the paint the historically accurate way to which we’re accustomed.
Here are LeBron’s shot-charts pre- and post- November 22. Note increased efficiency in the restricted area and a larger share of shots coming from mid-range (click to enlarge):
Remember preseason talk of a lingering back injury? It appears to have effected James’ performance over the season’s first few weeks. And we’d have have been quick to point that out if another star player began the year with uncharacteristic struggles, but LeBron’s superhuman health throughout his career led us to believe he wouldn’t be bothered by such an affliction. That’s a ludicrous take, of course, but one James inspires given his track record of durability and all-around excellence.
It’s no coincidence that LeBron is busting out dunks like these after avoiding them early:
More evidence of James feeling spry: free throws. He attempted just 6.9 freebies during Cleveland’s first 12 games, a number that would be his lowest since his rookie year if maintained over a full season. In LeBron’s last 10 games, though, he’s drawing fouls with the aplomb of his mid-20s – the 8.7 free throw tries he’s managed over that timeframe would be the most for any campaign in his last half-decade of play.
The King is averaging 26.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 9.0 assists on 52.8 percent shooting since November 22. Laud Irving. Be relieved by Love. Be encouraged by strides the Cavaliers have made on defense. But make no mistake, Cleveland’s turnaround has been most about LeBron gaining the physical and mental comfort that’s made him a four-time MVP and the game’s long-time best player.
After so much talk of this being the season of James’ eventually imminent decline, it’s time to admit how wrong we were. He’s playing at an unmatched level right now, and deserves as much praise for it as he did scrutiny during a middling start to 2014-2015.
What do you think?
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