If the four major U.S. sports were broken up and then categorized as members of the X-Men, the NBA would undoubtedly be the shape-shifting mutant Mystique.
Like its blue counterpart, the league has thrived by possessing the ability to shuffle through several forms, overhaul its playing style and transform rosters and organizations at head-spinning rates, with this wild offseason being just the most recent example.
But for LeBron James, a player who has both helped shape and spearhead modern basketball into it’s most current state, it has conversely been dominant consistency that has propelled his teams and himself above the competition in the ever-changing NBA landscape. Until last season, at least.
During the 2018-19 campaign — and for the first time in over a decade — a James-led team was unable to make it to the postseason. He missed the most games in his career (27) due to a groin injury. And ended the year averaging his fewest minutes per contest (35.1) ever.
Beyond the quantifiable indicators mentioned, and even if we’re discarding another drama-soaked Lakers season, James also unfathomably looked… mortal… on the floor. For maybe the first time ever. His explosive bursts to the rim were less frequent, his thrilling chase-down blocks almost non-existent and his long relied upon extra gear seemingly was lost.
As a result, the natural question that now arises in the minds of the Lakers’ fans and opponents alike is whether these indicators were merely a pothole in what will continue to be an otherwise clear road, or the first signs of James’ expected eventual decline?
How and why did LeBron look different last season?
First, let’s not forget that even in a season many have been quick to classify as a “down year,” James still put up 27/8/8 on a nightly basis like a T-800 come to life and programmed to get buckets, drop dimes and snag rebounds. He may not have been the newest model of star, but he was still a reliable and impressive one.
With that said, the manner in which he got his storied counting stats and how effective he was in doing so does offer clues as to what’s still to come for the King, and why his widely-reported decline may have been slightly exaggerated.
At age 34, and after logging 46,235 (regular season) minutes, there is logistic and predictive reasoning for why James’ efficiency dipped (ex. his lowest true-shooting percentage since 2015).
In his first season with Los Angeles, James had the highest frequency of his shots come from behind the arc, while also posting the lowest percentage of mid-range looks of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass.
This combination of possessing a quick trigger from three and steering away from less non-paint twos also led to his highest Moreyball rate (a player’s percentage of field-goal attempts that come either from behind the arc or in the restricted area; 72.8 percent for James) ever.
While it’s possible that James may have simply chosen to take a more analytically inclined shot selection in an attempt to adapt to the way the league plays now, who he was playing with also likely played a large role where hi