We get caught up in a lot of drama and narrative when following the NBA, and that’s a lot of what makes it fun. Sometimes, though, there’s something neat about going over the bedrock numbers.
Even as sports across the board become more analytic, there’s something refreshing about the constants of knowing that a 1,000-yard receiving season is a benchmark, or someone hitting 30 homers, or a 100-point hockey season.
Just about the only times the NBA scoring leader hasn’t been between 28 and 36 points per game, they were on the Philadelphia Warriors, either on the lower end or the Wilt Chamberlain end. There was Michael Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season in 1986-87 and Kevin Durant’s 27.7 in 2010-11, sure, but the vast majority are in that standard deviation around 30 points a game.
Basketball talk just isn’t built around the basic numbers, and in a lot of ways, that’s good, because it means that players aren’t given short shrift for not reaching arbitrary figures that were long ago decided upon as benchmarks, nor are players overrated to the same extent that as a baseball pitcher is for a 20-win season.
We don’t have to worry about LeBron James getting short shrift or being overrated. Whether or not you believe he’s the greatest of all time, he’s obviously an inner-circle Hall of Famer, and it’s nice to appreciate that while he’s still playing.
But what about those most familiar stats? Since we don’t talk much about them, it’s worth taking a gander at just how good James has been over his career as he enters yet another season as a defending NBA champion.
James is one of five players with career averages of at least 25 points, five assists, and five rebounds per game — entering this season, he’s at 27.1, 7.4, and 7.4. The other members of this exclusive club are Michael Jordan (30.1-5.3-6.2), Oscar Robertson (25.7-9.5-7.5), Jerry West (27.0-6.7-5.8), and James Harden (25.2-6.3-5.3), who could slip out of the group if and when he goes into decline.
Among the five, James is the leader with 1,265 games played, and counting, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s the group’s leader in total points and rebounds, and set to pass Robertson in assists this year. On a per-game basis, he’s behind only Jordan in scoring, and only Robertson in assists and rebounds. James also is the only member of this legendary quintet to shoot better than 50 percent in his career.
Not surprisingly, averaging better than 25-5-5 is going to result in a lot of triple-doubles, and James is six away from becoming the fifth player ever to reach 100 triple-doubles, following Robertson, Russell Westbrook, Magic Johnson, and Jason Kidd.
The Big 3
Currently, there are two players who rank in the top 50 all-time for points, assists, and rebounds: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett — and Garnett is sitting at 50th in career assists, set to be passed this season by James Harden and John Wall.
Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points, 4,146 ahead of James, with Karl Malone in between them. While LeBron does figure to someday catch Kareem on the scoring list, there’s a big gap between them in rebounds, where Abdul-Jabbar is currently fourth at 17,440, and James is outside of the top 50, in 54th at 9,405.
James’ career-low for rebounds in a season is 416, in 2014-15. That total this year would get him to 9,821, and 45th or 46th on the all-time list, depending on what DeAndre Jordan (currently at 9,451) does this year. James would pass Bob Lanier, Sam Lacey, Zelmo Beaty, Dave DeBusschere, Mel Daniels, Marcus Camby, A.C. Green, and Horace Grant on the boards list, just by putting up the worst rebounding season of his career.
As for assists, James is eighth all-time, 307 behind active leader Chris Paul. James led the NBA in assists last season with 684, and he’s currently 541 assets behind Robertson, so he’ll probably be seventh all-time by the end of the year, behind only John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson, Magic Johnson, and Paul.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar is 43rd on the all-time assist list at 5,560, only three ahead of Kyle Lowry, so he’ll very soon be 44th. It’s a ways off, but Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Ricky Rubio, Damian Lillard, Goran Dragic, and Kemba Walker all are on track for higher career assist totals, and even if they falter, there are young guards like Devin Booker and De’Aaron Fox who already look like good shots to knock Abdul-Jabbar further down the list.
In other words, in a few years’ time, James very well could be the only player in the top 50 all-time in all three categories.
Man of Steal
All of those major-category achievements are remarkable, but don’t forget that James is a five-time first-team All-Defensive player, second to Paul on the active steals list, and in two years figures to enter the top 10 on the all-time list, as he currently trails No. 10 Hakeem Olajuwon by 147 steals.
This is one spot where James won’t pass Michael Jordan, who’s third on the all-time steals list with 2,514. Given the way the game has changed since the 1990s, when all of the top four players on the steals list were in their prime, James getting to the top 10 would be an incredible feat. John Stockton’s career mark of 3,265 — 941 ahead of Jason Kidd’s No. 2 total — may be as untouchable a mark as there is in the NBA.
When It Counts
James already was one of just three players, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kawhi Leonard, to win Finals MVP honors for multiple teams. When he won the 2020 award, he became the first player to do it for three different teams, and broke a tie with Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan for the second-most times winning the award. James four Finals MVPs trail only Michael Jordan’s six now.
Remember that list of players with career averages of 25/5/5, and how James is one of only five players on it? Well, ditto for the playoffs, where he’s averaged 28.8 points, 7.2 assists, and 9.0 rebounds per game for his career. Jordan (33.4-5.7-6.4) and Jerry West (29.1-6.3-5.6) also carry over from the regular season group, with Oscar Robertson and James Harden replaced by Stephen Curry (26.5-6.3-5.4) and Luka Doncic (31.0-8.7-9.8).
Doncic has played six playoff games. James has played 260, the most in NBA history and 94 more than the next player on the active list, Andre Iguodala.
James won the last of his MVP awards in 2013, but he’s also been second four times, including two of the last three years. Michael Jordan won five MVPs, finishing second three times. Bill Russell also won five MVPs, while all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six.
The number of MVPs won is a tricky thing to judge by, because sometimes votes are close, and sometimes narrative wins out over performance. Do we really believe that James hasn’t been the most valuable player in the NBA at some point in the last seven seasons? What about over the full course of that time? He’s been getting plenty of votes, but other players have had superlative seasons, and James’ own excellence has worked against him because of the standard he has set.
Going by award shares, though, and measuring how much of the vote players have gotten throughout their careers… James just passed Jordan in 2020, with his .746 in second place enough to jump up to 8.813, passing His Airness’ previous record of 8.115. How is Kareem, with six MVPs, only at 6.105 award shares? Well, he had years like 1975-76, where he was the MVP with 52 first-place votes, but Dave Cowens had 48 and Bob McAdoo had 47.
Abdul-Jabbar’s award share in his 1975-76 win was 0.442. The lowest of James’ award shares in his MVP years was 0.888, and he’s been above 0.442 in all four of his second-place years, plus his 2015-16 third-place finish.
Like all the rest of James’ numbers, this one continues to rise and further his GOAT argument. Whether you buy into that argument or not, what he’s done in his career is unparalleled, and he just keeps on going.