Under the Radar, LeBron James is Having his Best Season

For the past few weeks, we’ve all been talking an awful lot about Jeremy Lin. So much so, in fact, that Deadspin notes in its fascinating weekly Bristolmetrics column that almost 45% of total NBA coverage on SportsCenter last week was devoted to the Knicks and that these 69 minutes of coverage were more than the 66 minutes devoted to all of college basketball.

You know who must be the happiest man in the NBA about all of the attention Jeremy Lin is getting? LeBron James, who is performing at a historically brilliant level while his team is tied for the best record in the NBA.

In his ‘Top 10 things to watch in second half column’ ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh notes LeBron’s record pace from the first half of the season (ESPN Insider subscription required):

3. LeBron James’ PER by month: December: 39.1, January: 31.2, February: 31.1.

 If it holds, James’ 32.4 PER will be the best we’ve ever seen in the NBA. Wilt Chamberlain topped out at 31.8 in two seasons and Michael Jordan peaked at 31.7 in a crazy productive 1987-88. But at the break, James currently has them both beat thanks to his unearthly line of 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.8 steals on 55 percent shooting. All that in a career-low 36.7 minutes per game.

Derived by ESPN’s basketball statistics guru John Hollinger, PER (player efficiency rate) is an advanced metric that measures players’ per-minute efficiency–league average is 15.00. If you’re into that sort of thing, Basketball Reference has the details of the formula. Further, his 8.4 win shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player) are significantly above 2nd-place Kevin Durant’s 6.6.

Meanwhile, LeBron’s Heat are 27-7 and tied with the Thunder for the best record in the NBA. But all most people are saying about LeBron is that he lacks courage for neglecting to force a contested 28-footer at the end of the All-Star game. Especially compared to last season, LeBron and the Heat are sliding under the radar while playing dominant basketball. As the Lin story dies down a little bit, casual fans are going to start noticing.

This isn’t exactly the boldest prediction–the Heat are +120 to win the NBA Championship and no other team has better odds than +500–but I’m going on the record as saying the Heat will win it all this year. (+120 means if you bet $100 on the Heat to win it all right now, you win $120.)

Their biggest challenge in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls, still haven’t shown that they can score when LeBron guards (and shuts down) Derrick Rose. The Bulls’ only chances lie in a blockbuster trade or a monster series from Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer,and a cast of role players. No one else in the Eastern Conference can beat the Heat in a seven-game series unless LeBron is injured. With a changing of the guard taking place in the Western Conference, it feels like the older teams like the Spurs and Mavericks won’t have the legs to compete with the Heat while the younger teams such as the Thunder and Clippers are still a year away from having the moxie.

For years, Peyton Manning couldn’t perform in the clutch. He couldn’t win a playoff game. Until he did. Then, he couldn’t win a Super Bowl. Until he did. LeBron might not match Jordan’s six championships or Kobe’s five but he won’t be shut out his whole career. There have been times that he’s come up short in the final minutes but it’s gambler’s fallacy to believe that this will happen for perpetuity because it’s happened before.

Interestingly (at least to me), LeBron recently demonstrated humility, admitting that he made a mistake with the way he handled ‘The Decision’ while forgiving Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for harsh comments made in its wake: “He said what he said out of anger,” James said. “He probably would want to take that back, but I made a mistake, too. There’s some things I want to take back as well. You learn from your mistakes and move on.” He opened the door for a possible return to Cleveland.

Sportswriters and fans have projected their dislike of LeBron’s personality and ego into a need to find flaws in his game. He’s heard all the criticism, internalized it, used it as motivation to improve his inside game and overall efficiency, and is playing with a chip on his shoulder. The most naturally gifted athlete in the history of the NBA–and perhaps professional sports–is playing with “Nobody Believes in Me” vigor.

The next few months may not change people’s opinions about LeBron’s personality but there’s a pretty good chance that their opinions of his basketball ability and legacy will have to be revised.

 

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