LeBron James just had, arguably, one of the top NBA seasons of all time. In a compressed 66 game schedule, James won an MVP trophy, his first NBA championship,and Finals MVP. Not to mention an Olympic Gold Medal to boot. James also put up very respectable numbers last season as well averaging 27.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 6.2 apg.
From a basic statistical standpoint, James had a stellar year last year. Hell, even by all advanced statistics James played brilliant basketball. He earned every accolade that he received this year. James did all of this while facing a vitriolic audience throughout the NBA season. In one season, James’ statistical output has managed to take him from the guy that people love to hate to the guy that is still on track to rival Michael Jordan.
At the age of 27, LeBron has finally reached the pedestal that all players hope to stand on when they are drafted into the NBA. Winning a championship is every young player’s dream and you could see on James’ face that he was proud of that accomplishment.
From there, though, how much can James build on that? By this I don’t mean that James can’t be the dominant player that he’s been in the league for years now, I mean how long can he keep up being that dominant player. Could LeBron James actually be facing a decline? The numbers say that he is.
Originally, I had been researching to find out at what age do NBA players decline. The key to this is finding out when they produced the most wins for their team and at what point did they start costing their respective teams wins. Also, how consistent is this decline in wins? Is it a steady drop off or does it fluctuate with no consistency?
The perfect number for this was win shares–I had already figured that part of the question out. Win shares are the perfect tool for finding out how much of a slope a player is on because of what it takes into account. This is less about efficiency and more about wins a player produces. It takes into account the average points per possessions for the league, the team, the team’s pace, and the players offensive and defensive production. As a player ages, the latter two numbers will decline as will the players points per possession.
In an article by David Biderman of the Wall Street Journal, he sites a Dave Berri article that used a similar procedure using wins produced. Berri’s examined player data from 1977-2008 and found that a player’s decline typically starts around the age of 25. A study by Arturo Galletti has a similar data range within it. Galletti measured player peak age from 1955-77 by using Win Shares as well. He found that the peak age of most NBA players is between the ages of 25-30 and also most of them hit it at 28.
With that being said, James’ statistical data shows that this is effecting him as well. Contrary to popular belief, from a statistical standpoint LeBron James’ best season was the 2008-09 season where James scored 28.4 points per game along with 7.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds. James posted a 31.7 PER that season and had a career high in win shares of 20.3 wins. That was 31.8 percent of his teams wins that year.
Since that season, James’ win shares have steadily declined. They went from 20.3 to 18.5 the next season, to 15.6 the next year, to 14.5 last season. Even though James put up un-human numbers, he still had a drop in wins produced for his team. Given that James did play the first two seasons mentioned above in Cleveland where he was more of a focal point, that hasn’t changed in Miami. In fact, James usage rate has barely fluctuated since leaving Cleveland.
Though in his two Miami years, they’ve been lower than his final two Cleveland years where James hit his prime, there has barely been any change. James usage rate in his final two years in Cleveland was %33.8 and %33.5. Since moving to Miami James has posted usage rates of %31.5 and %32.0 respectively. All of those combine to make an average of a usage rate of %32.7 in the past four years. The range of the four years is only a meager %2.3.
LeBron James is a monster on the court, still. He’s a cerebral player that shows physical dominance over a large portion of the NBA as a whole. When you combine that with his skill and talent that’s going to cause problems in the league.
And of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. When you look at greats who have played for a while like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Jordan, Paul Pierce, and so on and so forth, James could be the same way. He can still produce at a high rate while steadily declining off of that high rate. Its a real possibility.
The numbers say that LeBron is on the decline, but we’ll see what he has to say about that next season.