As the new season gets underway, all eyes in the NBA are on LeBron James and his new team, just as they were four years ago. The 14-15 Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot in common with the 10-11 Miami Heat, from the massive spotlight they are playing under to a head coach without a lot of NBA experience and three star players learning to play together. The biggest difference between the two teams is their best player, who had to do a lot of growing up in the last four years.
LeBron James at 26 might have been the most impressive athlete in the history of the sport. He was a bundle of fast-twitch muscles who was bigger than the big men and faster than the guards. He was a seemingly indestructible basketball cyborg who could play all 48 minutes without any visible sign of wear and tear. Like most young guys, he thought he was invincible. Miami’s collapse in the 2011 NBA Finals humbled him and made him a better player.
LeBron at 30 isn’t quite the athlete he once was. He can’t play as many minutes and he can’t go as hard on both ends as he used too. He can still turn on the athleticism when necessary, but he doesn’t do it as often. It’s like an older sports car - you can still take it into high gear, but you probably don’t want to wear out the engine revving it through downtown traffic. What he’s lost in athletic ability, though, he has more than made up for in his grasp of the game.
If LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland was Young LeBron, what he was doing by the end of his time in Miami was Peak LeBron. The offensive efficiency numbers speak for themselves. LeBron averaged 29 points per game on 50% shooting in his last season with the Cavs - he was at 27 points on 57% shooting in his last season with the Heat. He became comfortable scoring out of the post and he turned himself into one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.
Where you really saw that was in the playoffs, where he was able to score at will regardless of who he was playing against. Before last season, LeBron had never shot above 51% in the postseason. It makes sense - the game slows down and you are facing much better defenses with much bigger and more athletic defenders. In last year’s playoffs, he shot 56% from the field. Those are prime Shaq numbers and Shaq spent the whole game dunking on people.
That LeBron is able to score at that volume and efficiency while taking shots from all over the floor shows you how easy the game comes to him. In their first year with Miami, everything looked really difficult for the Heat. They had a hard time getting out of each other’s way on offense and they didn’t function all that well as a unit. LeBron at 30 is unlikely to have the same types of issues in Cleveland - he doesn’t make the game any harder on himself than it has to be.
When LeBron has the ball in his hands, he almost always makes the right decision. If the defense plays off him, he shoots. If they press up on him, he drives. If they send help, he finds the open man. He takes what the defense gives him and he doesn’t force the issue. If basketball is an equation, he has essentially solved it. As long as he can play in space, LeBron is one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA - the defense has to give up something.
The big difference for him in Cleveland is that he will have more support on the offensive side of the ball.
Kevin Love is a better three-point shooter than Chris Bosh and he gives them another dimension on the offensive glass, while Kyrie Irving won’t have to sit out games and have his minutes cut like Dwyane Wade. Part of the problem in Miami was that LeBron was using up so much energy trying to carry them on the offensive end of the floor, he had to take off possessions on defense.
By the end of the Spurs five-game rout of the Heat, LeBron just seemed worn out - Wade could no longer dominate on one knee, Bosh had been completely de-emphasized in the offense and none of the role players could do much of anything. Everyone needed LeBron to spoon feed them open shots. The Cavs, in contrast, have more guys on their roster - Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson - who know how to find their way into points.
If LeBron is able to ration his energy more effectively in the regular season, that could pay dividends in the playoffs. A couple of times in the 2014 NBA Finals, he reached into the tank and came out empty, most notably when he cramped up at the end of Game 1. That might not have happened were it not for an air conditioning malfunction in San Antonio, but it clearly had an effect on how he trained in the offseason, as he is at his lowest weight in years.
Dropping weight and playing with teammates who can carry the offense and allow him to take a step back are two of the biggest reasons for Tim Duncan’s amazing longevity in the NBA. The older a player gets, the harder it becomes for them to carry any extra pounds on their knees and the more susceptible they become to injuries. Injuries, not any significant decline in play, are what usually ends the careers of the greatest players, from Shaq to Kobe Bryant.
Great players don’t age like basketball mortals. As they get older, they can adjust their game and remain effective, compensating for any loss in physical ability with a corresponding gain in mental ability. That’s the biggest difference between LeBron at 26 and LeBron at 30 - he can think the game on a whole different level, seeing two and three moves down the road. Everything he does is about setting himself up for two to three weeks in May and June.
LeBron’s game has changed a lot over the last four seasons and he will have to continue to reinvent himself to stay atop the NBA for the next four, if not longer. If his time in Miami was like Jordan’s first three-peat in Chicago, his second stint in Cleveland will have to be like the second. We are witnessing one of the greatest players of all-time at the peak of his powers. As the next stage of his career begins, everything is on the table, both for him and the Cavs.