How LeBron’s First Dozen Years Stack Up Against The Greats

Kobe-Michael-LeBron

Image courtesy of: nextimpulsesports.com

I’m fascinated by history and how careers transcend different eras, styles of play and rules changes. It’s absolutely impossible to measure apples-for-apples the careers of Bill Russell and Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant against Dr. J. In this case, I’m going to compare the careers of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, through their first 12 seasons.

Given the degree of difficulty of comparing three players’ careers across 30+ years, the best we can do is to acknowledge the differences in rules, styles and free agency (remember the NBA salary cap was reinstituted prior to the 1984-85 season) in the greater context of our arguments. With this being said, I (along with the rest of the NBA fan base) have been mesmerized by how LeBron James’ career has unfolded. Hard to believe, the Cavs Game 6 loss to the Warriors last month marked the end of LeBron’s 12th season in the NBA. Where did 12 years go? And how many more peak LeBron years do we have left?

LeBron has already logged nearly 36K regular season minutes plus 9K playoff minutes, giving him a total of 44,746 minutes on his odometer. We’re not even factoring in the minutes LeBron logged for Team USA in ’04, ’08 and ’12. LeBron turns 31 in December, but this insane amount of minutes he’s already logged in his 20’s can’t be ignored. Not only is LeBron playing a ton of minutes but he also ranked #4 in usage percentage this past season, which measures the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor.

A hair over two years ago, we thought Kobe Bryant was invincible and the rock of that 2012-13 team. Prior to the 2013-’14 season, Kobe had never played less than 66 games in a full season (excluding the ’98-’99 & ’11-’12 lockout shortened seasons). However, in the Lakers’ 78th game in April 2013, Kobe snapped his Achilles tendon and since that injury two years ago, he has played a grand total of 41 games. He hasn’t been and will never be the same player, particularly since he has 19 high usage seasons and nearly 57K minutes under his belt.

Consider this as well: Michael Jordan recorded 49,991 career minutes across parts of 15 seasons (played 18 games in ’85-’86 due to broken foot & only 17 games in ’94-’95 due to his first retirement). At LeBron’s current pace (an average of 3,729 minutes per season), he would pass Jordan in career minutes at some point in late 2016, right around his 32nd birthday.

The net, net is that LeBron has recorded an unprecedented amount of miles on his odometer. Need more evidence? Here are the minutes per game splits for Kobe, Jordan & LeBron for their careers (obviously LeBron & Kobe’s minutes/game are subject to change as they continue their respective careers). The totals below only include regular season + postseason games and does not include international play.

  • Kobe: 38.0 minutes/game
  • Jordan: 40.0 minutes/game
  • LeBron: 41.1 minutes/game

When you assess LeBron’s game, he might be the best prepared to excel as he moves a tad past middle age (in basketball years), entering his age 30/31 season. I liken LeBron as a Karl Malone type of player, who abused players 10+ years younger than him in the low post and was a multi-faceted threat from that position through his age 39 season. Malone was also a lethal jump shooter, particularly off of those patented Stockton-to-Malone pick and rolls, and pick-and-pops.

Karl Malone

Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

LeBron is a better passer than Malone was and for that matter, is a better passer than Kobe or Jordan ever were at any point in their respective careers. LeBron has averaged 2.0 more APG than Kobe and 1.0 APG more than Jordan (6.7 vs. 4.7 vs. 5.7, respectively) through his first 12 years in the league. LeBron has surpassed 6 or more APG in 6 of his first 12 seasons, while Kobe has only accomplished this once in his 19-year NBA career. Jordan eclipsed 6 or more assists only three times in his 15-year NBA career. No one’s arguing that LeBron is a better passer than either Kobe or Michael. What’s staggering is how wide a margin he beats these two greats statistically. And who knows, we may have another four peak/a tad past peak LeBron years left to pad his stats.

Surprisingly, LeBron and Kobe are neck-in-neck when it comes to who holds the single season points per game record among this group. Kobe averaged 35.4 PPG on a 45-win ’05-’06 Lakers team that featured a 19-year old Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, as the only other players worth mentioning besides Kobe. LeBron recorded 35.3 PPG on a grossly undermanned ’08-’09 Cleveland Cavs team, which featured Boobie Gibson, Mo Williams and Delonte West as LeBron’s most capable backcourt sidekicks.

Jordan’s top scoring year was in ’87-’88, when he put up 35.0 PPG. Keep in mind that in that year, NBA teams averaged 108.2 PPG…that’s an average! In 2014-15, NBA teams averaged exactly 100.0 PPG. By ’95-’96, team’s PPG had dipped below 100.0 PPG (for the first time since 1956-57), when the league was plagued by back-it-down forwards (David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley) and guards that took the air out of the ball (Avery Johnson, Charlie Ward, Ron Harper). This sluggish pace persisted until the ’08-’09 season, when NBA teams finally broached 100 PPG again. Rules changes that were implemented in the early 2000’s, such as the 5-second back-to-the-basket rule, more stringent policing of hand checking and the 8-second backcourt violation, had a dramatic effect on offensive efficacy.

Another notable change is the evolution in the average size of an NBA player. When Jordan entered the league in 1984, the average size of an NBA player was 6’7” and 206 lbs. By this year’s draft, the average size of an NBA player remained 6’7” but weighed 218 lbs. While the game is not nearly as physical as it was 30 years ago (see Kevin McHale clothesline Kurt Rambis in the below video), the game churns out better, more well conditioned athletes than we have ever seen (re: 12 lb. increase in the same size basketball player). NBA athletes in 2015 have 365-day access to better medicine, trainers and prescriptive strength and conditioning programs, based on that individual’s strengths and weaknesses. The level of dedication year-round and knowledge of one’s body was not as prevalent, nor accessible as today’s NBA players.

In looking at statistics, it’s difficult to assess Kobe’s first 12 years without discounting his first two seasons, when he started a grand total of 7 games in his age 18 and age 19 seasons. His PPG totals from these years also drag down his career average, which comes in at 25.4 PPG. In comparison, LeBron sports a 28.2 PPG career average and Jordan averaged 30.1 PPG (the only player to accomplish a career 30 PPG average).

We forget that LeBron averaged 27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 7.2 APG in only his second season with the Cavs, in ’04-’05. Just two seasons later, he dragged the undermanned Cavs past Detroit and into the NBA Finals. Kobe was never asked to carry the burden as an 18-year old the way LeBron was following his ’03 draft selection. Kobe entered the league with Shaq, Eddie Jones, Robert Horry and Elden Campbell firmly entrenched as the veteran, steadying influences in the Lakers locker room. He didn’t crack the 20 PPG mark until his 4th season, when the Lakers took their first of three consecutive titles.

Jordan entered the league at age 21, and similar to LeBron, was immediately asked to carry the load for a 38-win Bulls team…to the tune of 28.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 5.9 APG in his first season. Jordan benefited from being three years older than both Kobe and LeBron when he entered the league, and was a more polished player than both of them in his first year.

In more ways than one, LeBron and Jordan had more parallel career paths than Kobe. Kobe won his first ring at the tender age

Image courtesy of: www.eonline.com.

Image courtesy of: www.eonline.com.

of 21 in only his 4th season, playing the ultimate second banana role to a then 28-year old in-his-prime Shaq. Jordan took an arduous 7 seasons and at age 28 he captured his first ring. LeBron didn’t capture his first ring until his 9th season in the league, at age 27.

LeBron had to fend off the mid 2000’s Detroit Pistons in the East early in his career, similar to how Jordan finally vanquished the Pistons in the East in ‘91, after they had ended the Bulls’ season the three previous springs. LeBron then encountered the late 2000’s KG-Pierce-Ray-Rondo Celtics, before he finally summited Mount Olympus in June, 2012.

Michael is unquestionably the greatest basketball player of all-time. Although Kobe has won 5 rings in 7 tries, LeBron will likely (if he hasn’t already) surpass Kobe as the better overall player. LeBron does sport a somewhat ghastly 2-4 Finals record, but in reality that record is really 2-2. His ’07 Cavs team didn’t have a shot and his ’15 Cavs team lost too many impact players for them to sustain during the course of a 7-game Finals series.

Kobe is a premier shot-maker and end-of-game closer, as well as an elite defender. He also won two titles as the first banana and three titles as the second banana (really 1A in ’01 & ’02 – how can you average 28.2 PPG and be considered a second banana?). LeBron won two titles as the undisputed first banana. Time will tell if he tacks on more titles as the first banana and if he pads his totals as the #2 guy on a great team in half a dozen years.

LeBron’s legacy is still far from completed while Kobe’s tank appears to have hit empty. Consider this, between Kobe and Michael, they captured 6 NBA titles in their 30’s. Given that LeBron just turned 30 six months ago, we may have seen peak LeBron, but we may not have seen the best winning LeBron. It’s the first week of July and I’m writing about the NBA — I can’t wait for the season to start.

About Jim Armstrong

Jim is a life-long sports fan and split his childhood between the ‘burbs of Chicago and central NJ, while throwing in a summer living outside of Boston into the mix. This explains his passion for the 90′s Bulls, late 90′s/early 00′s Knicks and late 00′s Celtics (he will explain in a future post). Jim never played a minute of college basketball or football but did complete a Tough Mudder recently and continues to play in basketball leagues year-round. If this doesn’t make him an expert, then I don’t know what does. Jim crunches numbers for a living and enjoys applying these analytical skills to his sports obsessions. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with his family, fishing and writing.

Comments

  1. Awesome analysis, Jim. I haven’t seen anyone really break down the (fairly drastic) differences in the eras that these three guys played in. You wouldn’t necessarily be compelled to do so if you simply looked at the timeline of their careers — MJ’s abutted Kobe’s and Kobe’s abuts LeBron’s — yet they are distinctly different eras of NBA hoops. Awesome read!

  2. Jimbo, love the article. really great stats on the different size of players and also the higher points per game. I agree that the 5 rings for Kobe vs. 2 rings for Lebron argument is irrelevant. It simply ignores too many important factors. I don’t think enough credit is given to Lebron for carrying two weak/injured teams into the NBA finals, even if the Eastern Conference was weak both years. That said, from a simply subjective perspective, Lebron seems to lack the same ruthless killer instinct that Jordan had/has. We see it from him at times – Game 2 Warriors, Game 6 Celtics, Game 6? Pistons. Also, can’t let this comment end without giving a shoutout to Pau for his performance in the finals of the Lakers’ second title run.

    • LeBron’s makeup is certainly different than Kobe’s or MJ’s, that’s a certainty. To your point, his killer instinct emerges at times but he thrives in the facilitator/distributor role as the ‘Point Forward.’ Moving into his 30’s, LeBron is well positioned for two reasons (among others): (a) He’s in a conference that is far inferior to the West and (b) He is on a team that has two stars in Kyrie (23) and Kevin Love (26) who are much younger than LeBron.

  3. Very interesting topic. It’s tough to label a player as the GOAT, and I appreciate how you incorporated statistics to the comparison without constantly throwing out numbers. You tied the stats into a story. While the average size of NBA players has gone up, it seems the game has become less physical – at least to the eyeball test. Another interesting factor I thought of is the reliance of the 3-point shot. This graph really shows the trend: http://www.besttickets.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/3PAT.png. The game has changed in that regard, and benefited slashers like Lebron. It helps with spacing, changes the momentum of games, and spreads the defense. I wonder if this trend popped up earlier in the history of the NBA, how would MJ’s game been different? Would his assist numbers be higher?

    • This chart is incredibly interesting and you make a great point. If the spacing of today’s game (with the stretch 4’s and the 5’s who can step out and shoot) was available in Jordan’s prime, it’s likely that Jordan’s assists numbers would have spiked. Thanks so much for this contribution, I really appreciate it.

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