LeBron James, Mortality and the Lakers

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

These gruff, and prophetic words are of course uttered from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lips right before his character, Dutch (the ultra cool protagonist from 1987’s “Predator”) sets off to face the equally ultra cool, dreadlocked alien/cyborg/ancient warrior in a fight to the death.

While the shockingly violent, yet pristine, 80’s film is not the usual source material to turn to when trying to encapsulate LeBron James’ first season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, the phrase simply — and strangely — sticks.

James’ first trek out West went the way some predicted it would, and others (namely Lakers’ fans) dreaded it would not. Even with James in tow, Los Angeles missed out on the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, dealt with tremendous scrutiny on and off the court and most recently, saw their former President of Basketball Operations/team legend, quit in public fashion and list ‘tweeting’ among the reasons for his shocking resignation.

It has been unrelentingly murky in la-la land.

For James, this generation’s towering pinnacle in terms of basketball excellence and longevity, the year also served as a deafening proclamation that he in fact bleeds too. And the league has not stopped licking its lips since realizing it.

Uncharted Waters

During the third quarter of a Christmas Day contest against Golden State, James experienced his most serious injury to date. While on the floor, and then when eventually huddled with the team’s training staff, James uttered the one grave admission that sent shockwaves across the league: “I heard a pop.”

James’ basketball career seemingly flashed before his eyes. In that brief moment, the indestructible force of nature he has always known as his body, was mortal. Fortunately, the “pop” was only a groin strain, and James returned before season’s end. But it was too late.

The Lakers’ roster was too grossly misconstructed and far too injury ridden. The locker room (in slight part to James’ own doing, directly and indirectly) was walking on eggshells. The organization as we have most recently learned, continued to be toxic and littered with mistrust and ineptitude. And even despite this, there were still a large portion of the basketball world that expected James simply to do what he has always proven able — overcome and conquer.

Yet, for the first time in a long time (2004-05) James was unable to carry a team to the playoffs. He would go on to miss the most games of his career (27) while also averaging his fewest minutes ever per contest (35.1). An acceptable reality for any other 34-year-old athlete, but for James, it proved unfathomable. As were the cracks that pierced his armor, and skin, along the way.

Changing His Spots

Let’s be clear, James is not “washed.” His unbeatable cheat code however, seems to wearing thin even if the numbers continue to dazzle. The former league MVP’s counting stats this year were as impeccable — if not better — than ever before.

This season, James put up a ridiculous stat-line of: 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists on near 59 percent true-shooting. He was also second (behind Paul George) among all small forwards in the league in both Real Plus-Minus (RPM) and Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM).

While his per game numbers were still incredibly in line with his career averages, the method in which he tallied them was slightly different compared to his past utilization.

As the graphs display, James spent nearly seven percent more of his usage as the primary pick and roll ball-handler this season compared to his most recent campaign with Cleveland. An area, the Lakers’ front office adamantly attempted to avoid.

The brain trust’s bold strategy to surround James with multiple “playmakers” opposed to the proven formula of shooters scattered on the perimeter, proved disastrous.

Injury aside, the often shrunk floor for the King and his teammates frequently generated a congested offense in large part to a bleak team-wide shooting year. Which was completely new for James, who consistently took part in top-ten offenses year after year (Los Angeles was 24th in offensive rating in the regular season).

He also isolated six percent less than he did with the Cavaliers, a potential positive in terms of the front office’s vision but in reality, may have been more likely a result of fewer space to navigate.

Biding Time

Although he still provided unreal production in his 16th season, James noticeably lacked his trademark ‘oomph.’ The thunderous dunks, the thrilling chase-down blocks and the bulldozing drives seemed few and far between, and also diluted.

Yes he still got to his spots when he wanted to, but it was noticeably more difficult.

While there could be a genuine case to be had that James once again was simply running on cruise control in preparation for ramping it up for the postseason, the expected signs of wear and tear may ultimately began revealing themselves.

Despite working within the most crowded paint in recent memory, James actually attempted more drives (12.3) per contest this season than he did last year (11.7) according to NBA’s tracking data. However, this did not directly correlate to aggression as James passed out of these scenarios nearly five percent more as a Laker this season compared to his drive attempts last year.

One potential reason for this was James simply getting stonewalled by defenders and his own teammates due to the poor spacing. There were many instances this year where James would get by his initial man but be immediately met by opposing players eagerly digging in/cheating off their assignments to offer help, forcing James to kick it out. Which often led to poor results.

This possibility is what the Lakers are likely banking on because if the alternative is true, this means James may simply beginning to lack the appropriate ‘oomph’ necessary to barrel his way past mere mortals like he used to. Which is something the organization must take very seriously, and plan accordingly.

Evolution is a Mystery

Despite his Terminator-like physique and brilliant per game production, James, like every other player before him, will eventually succumb to Father Time. Although it likely will not be overnight, there will be subtle signs of wear and tear. Of which, may have already occurred this season as seen in his play-type data:

According to Synergy, James’ per possession numbers were down nearly across the board this year compared to his final season with the Cavaliers, with a few exceptions of course (hand-offs/roll man possessions were among his lowest play type frequencies).

While not completely indicative of the next few seasons, this does directly fall within the expected timeline when someone of James’ age and mileage, begins to slow down. This is not to say James will completely run out of gas, but it may mean there may need to be some rewiring to keep the engine running as long as possible. Which may already be in the calculation.

Similar to his aforementioned approach on his drives, James also steered further away from the basket this year and began embracing the long ball in potential attempt to lessen his chances of injury.

According to Cleaning the Glass, 26 percent of James’ overall shot profile this season came from behind the arc. This was highest rate of his career. Which likely does not mean James will suddenly swap player archetypes like he is starting a new “MyCareer” save, but it may hint at potential and necessary alterations that he will overgo as his career finalizes.

End Game

Predicting what James will be, or look like, down the road is nearly impossible to do. Mostly, because his very being is impossible. Entering what will be his 17th season and as a 35 year-old, history has showed us that there should be no real expectation for anything resembling elite level play looking ahead, but when it comes to James, this is simply second nature.

He will likely continue to do what he always has, but it may just come a step slower — and that is okay. And it needs to be okay, and realized from both James and the Lakers for these final remaining years on his contract to be optimized.

He likely can not shoulder an entire franchise anymore like he used to. He may bleed once more. But he may not be willing to admit it, and that is where everyone involved within the organization must step in and structure this so all parties benefit.

An extremely difficult task within an airtight window. But a reality that must be accepted because like the mud-covered Dutch awaiting his foe, the league has anxiously caught on that James may not be indestructible after all, and a showdown for the ages is likely still just around the corner.

* Data provided by: NBA.com, Synergy and PBP stats  | Featured graphic courtesy of Aidan Lising.

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