LeBron James Completes Historic NBA Shooting Season
The kingly play of LeBron James has been one of the most compelling aspects of the NBA since his entrance into the league eleven years ago. Lately, however, the experience of watching the world’s greatest basketball player ply his trade has taken on an entirely new significance. Outrageously efficient shooting is producing historic implications.
Every trip down the floor serves as a reminder that James simply cannot be stopped. His every touch of the basketball brings its own terrifying potential. He goes wherever he wants to go. He does whatever he wants to do. He scores seemingly at will, and with mid-boggling efficiency. Without much concern at all for defenses, physical limitations, or the confluence of factors that invariably guide the performances of all of his fellow competitors. He is perhaps the most dominant player in NBA history.
When one reaches such a level of on-court brilliance, said person invariably develops an arrogance about his play — a me-first attitude that negates the potential contributions of others. It’s only natural. Not James. Despite being perhaps the most dominant player in NBA history, and despite being constantly vilified for his deference in spite of that dominance, James continues to be among the most selfless superstars in NBA history as well.
What makes LeBron James such a unique basketball talent? Perhaps it’s his never before duplicated combination of dominance and selflessness. In the history of the NBA, the list of players to average at least 25 points per game, while shooting at least 54% from the field and averaging at least 6 assists per game in a season is as follows:
No other playmaker has ever had a scoring season as potent, and no premier scorer has ever had a season with such productive passing as James. And James hasn’t just done it once. He’s done it twice. In a row. And he didn’t just eclipse those numbers. He shattered them!
Last year, James averaged 26.8 points and 7.3 assists per game, while shooting a blistering 56.5% from the field. He also grabbed a team-leading 8.0 rebounds per game.(1)
This year, he bettered even those numbers. He averaged 27.1 points and 6.4 assists per game, while shooting 56.7% from the field. He also grabbed a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game.(1)
That combination of skills is nothing new for James, who was trumpeted as something of a Jordan-Magic amalgam since entering the league. But there’s an obvious distinction to be made between being a can’t-miss prospect and a superstar player who apparently can’t miss. We’ve seen plenty of elite scorers and top-notch playmakers, but James deftly walks that line in a way that no player ever has before, and has continued to build out his game in a way that takes full advantage of his prodigious skill set.
So how impressive is the 56.7% he just produced?
It’s the best shooting percentage in the league this season among non-centers, and the fourth best overall. It’s also the best shooting percentage among all players who averaged at least 20 points per game, centers included!
Consider this: Kevin Durant just put together an MVP season. His numbers were crazy good. But, even in his best ever season, he still only shot what might otherwise be considered a spectacular 50% from the field. That’s a whopping seven percentage points lower than what James produced. That’s massive!
But James’ shooting prowess transcends just this season. It’s historic. It eclipses the best shooting seasons of the best small forwards of all time!
For perspective, the highest Chris Mullin ever shot in a season was 55.3%, Julius Erving 54.6%, Alex English 54.2%, Larry Bird 52.7%, Scottie Pippen 52.0%, Rick Barry 51.1%, Kevin Durant 51.0%. Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, Dominique Wilkins, Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek never even shot 50%.
In NBA history, a total of nine small forwards have produced a total of 16 better shooting seasons than James just posted:
But even this list is somewhat misleading.
Encapsulated within these 16 seasons is an average of fewer than 9 three-point attempts, which naturally drag down a high shooting percentage. LeBron took 306.
Strip those away in order to make the results more comparable, and James made 651 of 1047 two-point field goal attempts on the season. That’s a 62.2% clip — the single best such mark among small forwards ever!
That bears repeating: LeBron James just produced the best shooting season on two-point field goal attempts for any small forward in NBA history!
The league has been around for 63 years. It was founded on June 6, 1946 (as the Basketball Association of America, or BBA, and adopted the name National Basketball Association, or NBA, on August 3, 1949). In all that time, not one small forward has ever shot the ball as accurately, on as many two-point attempts, as James did this season.
So, how did he do it?
The natural tendency might be to think that James benefited substantially from having played with his future Hall of Fame teammate Dwyane Wade – much like Worthy benefited from Magic and Kareem, and Maxwell benefited from Bird and Maravich. But you’d be wrong for thinking that. James logged 2,902 minutes on the season, of which only 40%, or 1,161, were with Wade. In fact, while both James and Wade shot better than 50% from the floor in those minutes, oddly, both shot better from the floor when they didn’t play together.
He did it by relentlessly attacking the rim, with equal parts grace and ferocity. Despite being the team’s primary ball-handler and playmaker, James took 44% of his shots from within five feet of the rim, and converted a video-game-like 78% of them!
Which begs the question: How in the world did he ever even get there so often, against teams committed to stuffing the paint with three, four, or even five defenders — let alone finish with such incredible accuracy (through all the banging, body-slamming, close-lining, forearm-shivering, grabbing, head-locking, tackling, tackling, tackling, yanking, and other such rough-housing), and all the while still manage to keep his teammates engaged and involved?
Don’t allow yourself to think it was the result of transition opportunities. It wasn’t. The Heat didn’t employ a fast-paced, transition-fueled offense. They were just 17th overall in fast-break points per game, and 27th overall in pace. James produced his staggering numbers without the benefit of easy baskets, in one of the slowest offenses in the league.
But don’t let the gravity of his success from within five feet of the rim allow you to diminish his performances from elsewhere on the court. From 5-to-15 feet, he shot a still ridiculous 48%; that’s a whopping five percentage points better than his closest rival Kevin Durant. And from beyond 20 feet, James’ 40% mark matched that of Durant.
James, always weary of historical milestones, is now shooting 49.7% for his career.
Among small forwards who have averaged at least 20 points per game for their careers, James is sixth all time, behind Adrian Dantley (54.0%), Marques Johnson (51.8%), Bernard King (51.8%), Julius Irving (50.7%) and Alex English (50.7%).
If James duplicates this season’s seemingly-incomprehensible pace, he too will pass 50% shooting for his career.
If the past is any indication, he won’t just duplicate it. He’ll better it. James has increased his shooting percentage every year for the past seven years.
All statistics contained in this post are based on the NBA’s own statistical database, and are subject to minimum qualifications for inclusion, where applicable. The minimum qualifying standard, by season, adopted by the NBA in compiling its database can be found here. These are the same qualifying standards utilized by all major sources of such statistical ranking.
(1) There is no use in parsing history to incorporate such dominant rebounding as well because, well, James is already the best by a long shot even without them.