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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
LeBron James is doing it again.
Just when you think age might be entering the equation, and this 6’9″, 250-pound locomotive should start slowing down, he silences that talk with a miraculous moment of basketball wizardry. Or rather, an NBA season’s worth of those gems.
This is the 35-year-old’s 17th campaign in the Association, and he’s still showing new skills and zero signs of rust. He hasn’t ceded his throne to anyone, and he has the Los Angeles Lakers poised to contend for the ultimate crown.
There’s little value in comparing James to his peers, since other than maybe Michael Jordan, no one has ever had a career like his. At this rate, James is only comparable to his own shadow, which is what we’re out to do here. By examining everything from traditional and advanced analytics to achievements and the eye test, we’re running through all 17 of his campaigns to see where 2019-20 stacks up.
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TONY DEJAK/Associated Press
Everything needs a starting point, so we’ll use the same launching pad as James’ career.
His first NBA go-round would be a banner year for 90-plus percent of the players to pass through the Association. He averaged 20.9 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. The only other freshman to hit all of those marks was Allen Iverson.
This was James’ only season without an All-Star selection, but he still punctuated it with the Rookie of the Year award. That this would easily qualify as the worst campaign of his career just highlights the level of historic dominance we’ve witnessed over the past 17 years.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Statistically, James’ first tour of duty in Hollywood was business as usual. He debuted for the Lakers with 26 points and 12 rebounds, triple-doubled his fifth time out and, by year’s end, had averaged at least eight rebounds and assists per game for the third time in his career (tied for the second-most in NBA history).
But December added unusual hurdles to his marathon. For starters, he daydreamed about teaming with Anthony Davis. While it seemed an honest response to a reporter’s inquiry, it also got the gears going on the Purple and Gold’s public pursuit of the Brow, which created uneasiness in the locker room among James’ younger teammates.
More damaging, though, was the groin strain James suffered on Christmas Day that shelved him for weeks. He’d eventually hang it up early and wound up playing a career-low 55 games, while missing the postseason for the first time since his sophomore campaign in Cleveland.
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MARK DUNCAN/Associated Press
James has only missed the playoffs three times in his career, so those seem like a natural way to fill out the bottom of this list. Saying that, it’s near impossible to pin that lack of success on him.
In just his second NBA season, he transformed from a prospect with unlimited potential to a full-fledged star. He led the league in minutes (42.4!), swiped a career-high 2.2 steals and was the season’s only player to average 27 points on 47-plus percent shooting—and the only one to average 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game.
The Cavaliers fired coach Paul Silas with just 18 games left in the campaign and then skidded to an 8-10 finish, even though James averaged 30.3 points per game over that stretch.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
James’ return to Cleveland after his sojourn in South Beach wasn’t always a feel-great story.
He took an in-season trip to Miami while rehabbing nagging knee and back injuries. He clashed with first-year NBA coach David Blatt, whose hopes of installing the Princeton offense were scrapped as James moved himself onto the ball and began orchestrating some sets. He also let the media know he hadn’t consulted his coach on the changes.
“No, I can do it on my own,” James told reporters. “I’m past those days where I have to ask.”
This Cavaliers club rarely seemed comfortable, but James still steered the team to 53 wins and a 12-2 record during the Eastern Conference playoffs. He went on to push the Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals, despite losing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury. James, who averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the series, nearly became the second player ever to win Finals MVP while playing on the losing team (Jerry West, 1969).
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JEFF ROBERSON/Associated Press
While the 2004-05 campaign crowned King James as a star, the 2005-06 season proved all the hype was real. There was no longer any denying we had an all-time great on our hands.
James averaged a career-high 31.4 points per game, somehow finishing third in the scoring race behind Iverson and Kobe Bryant. James also made a loud argument for the MVP—he took the silver medal behind Steve Nash—by carrying Cleveland to its first playoff trip in nearly a decade and only in its fourth 50-win season ever. James’ highest-scoring teammates were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes and Ronald “Flip” Murray.
James made his postseason debut in 2006 and was predictably magical. He triple-doubled in his first career playoff game, topped 40 points in his third (and his fifth) and averaged 35.7 points per game on 51.0 percent shooting in his first series. For a follow-up, he lifted the Cavs to a 3-2 lead over the top-seeded Detroit Pistons in the second round before eventually falling in seven games.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
Statistically, James wasn’t quite himself during the 2006-07 regular season. But remember, it’s all relative to his ridiculous personal standard. No one else would consider 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game as a “down” year.
The playoffs proved his saving grace, though, and delivered the clearest view to date of outright basketball sorcery. During the conference finals—Cleveland’s first appearance there since 1992—he blitzed the top-seeded Pistons for 48 points in a critical double-overtime Game 5 win, scoring 29 of the Cavaliers’ final 30 points and each of their last 25.
“We threw everything we had at him,” then-Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups told reporters. “We just couldn’t stop him. … He put on an unbelievable display out there. It’s probably the best I have seen against us ever in the playoffs.”
James and the Cavs made their first NBA Finals appearance shortly thereafter, where the San Antonio Spurs promptly swept them.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
James has one scoring title on his resume, and he secured it in 2007-08 with an even 30.0 points per game. But the spotlight didn’t shine on Northeast Ohio too often. With the Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen) and Los Angeles Lakers (Pau Gasol) loading up for what felt like an inevitable Finals clash, the league’s two most storied franchises dominated the NBA news cycle.
Tack on perhaps the finest campaign of Chris Paul’s career, and James was left sitting fourth in the MVP voting—despite becoming just the third player ever to average 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game.
James also came as close as anyone could to spoiling that championship-round collision between Boston and L.A. The fourth-seeded Cavaliers pushed the top-seeded, 66-win Celtics to seven games in the second round, somehow losing Game 7 despite a 45-point performance from James on the road.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
It’s tough to rank this season without knowing how the story ends. If James can carry his third club to a championship—as a 35-year-old, no less—this campaign could jump into his top five.
For now, though, it nestles in at No. 10. Some statistical categories will say we’re overrating it. His 49.8 field-goal percentage is his lowest in five years, and his 26.0 player efficiency rating ranks sixth-lowest in his career.
But he’s predominantly playing point guard for the first time in his career (again, as a 17-year vet), and he’s speeding toward his first assists title with a personal-best 10.6 helpers per night (1.3 more than the second-place Trae Young). He has also helped turn a dramatically reshaped roster into a contender on the fly, deftly shared the spotlight with Davis and found the legs to post his best defensive box plus/minus in four seasons.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
James’ first season with the Heat started with a rough patch (nine wins, eight losses and one bump heard ’round the world) and ended with a fizzle (4-2 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals). But in between, it was basketball savant-like behavior, as was expected from a roster so stacked the typically buttoned-up Heat had a pep rally when James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
This was the only season in a five-year stretch that he didn’t win MVP, but he made a compelling case for it. He virtually monopolized the advanced analytics, pacing all players in PER (27.3), win shares (15.6), box plus/minus (8.1) and value over replacement player (7.8). He also averaged 26.7 points on 51.0 percent shooting and 7.0 assists per game, even while he and Wade tried sharing joint control of the offense.
The Heat went 58-24 and won all three rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs by a 4-1 margin. They built a 2-1 advantage on the Dallas Mavericks in the championship round but then collapsed amid one of the worst three-game stretches of James’ career (15.3 points on 44.4/16.7/40.0 shooting).
“I left that Finals like, ‘Yo Bron, what the f–k was you on, man?” James recalled on HBO’s “The Shop” (h/t Ben Golliver of the Washington Post). “… After that Finals, I was like, ‘That’s never happening again. I may lose again, I may not win everything, but I’ll never fail again.’ … That was my greatest achievement to overcome that.”
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
It’s hard to say exactly when James began his transformation into a basketball cyborg, but it was clearly complete by this, his age-32 season.
For only the second time in his career, he led the league in minutes per game. This was his 14th NBA season. That combination shouldn’t be possible, but normal rules don’t apply to the King. Oh, there’s also this: He averaged eight rebounds and eight assist