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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
LeBron James is doing it again.
Just when you think age might be entering the equation, and this 6’9″, 250-pound locomotive should start slowing down, he silences that talk with a miraculous moment of basketball wizardry. Or rather, an NBA season’s worth of those gems.
This is the 35-year-old’s 17th campaign in the Association, and he’s still showing new skills and zero signs of rust. He hasn’t ceded his throne to anyone, and he has the Los Angeles Lakers poised to contend for the ultimate crown.
There’s little value in comparing James to his peers, since other than maybe Michael Jordan, no one has ever had a career like his. At this rate, James is only comparable to his own shadow, which is what we’re out to do here. By examining everything from traditional and advanced analytics to achievements and the eye test, we’re running through all 17 of his campaigns to see where 2019-20 stacks up.
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TONY DEJAK/Associated Press
Everything needs a starting point, so we’ll use the same launching pad as James’ career.
His first NBA go-round would be a banner year for 90-plus percent of the players to pass through the Association. He averaged 20.9 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. The only other freshman to hit all of those marks was Allen Iverson.
This was James’ only season without an All-Star selection, but he still punctuated it with the Rookie of the Year award. That this would easily qualify as the worst campaign of his career just highlights the level of historic dominance we’ve witnessed over the past 17 years.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Statistically, James’ first tour of duty in Hollywood was business as usual. He debuted for the Lakers with 26 points and 12 rebounds, triple-doubled his fifth time out and, by year’s end, had averaged at least eight rebounds and assists per game for the third time in his career (tied for the second-most in NBA history).
But December added unusual hurdles to his marathon. For starters, he daydreamed about teaming with Anthony Davis. While it seemed an honest response to a reporter’s inquiry, it also got the gears going on the Purple and Gold’s public pursuit of the Brow, which created uneasiness in the locker room among James’ younger teammates.
More damaging, though, was the groin strain James suffered on Christmas Day that shelved him for weeks. He’d eventually hang it up early and wound up playing a career-low 55 games, while missing the postseason for the first time since his sophomore campaign in Cleveland.
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MARK DUNCAN/Associated Press
James has only missed the playoffs three times in his career, so those seem like a natural way to fill out the bottom of this list. Saying that, it’s near impossible to pin that lack of success on him.
In just his second NBA season, he transformed from a prospect with unlimited potential to a full-fledged star. He led the league in minutes (42.4!), swiped a career-high 2.2 steals and was the season’s only player to average 27 points on 47-plus percent shooting—and the only one to average 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game.
The Cavaliers fired coach Paul Silas with just 18 games left in the campaign and then skidded to an 8-10 finish, even though James averaged 30.3 points per game over that stretch.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
James’ return to Cleveland after his sojourn in South Beach wasn’t always a feel-great story.
He took an in-season trip to Miami while rehabbing nagging knee and back injuries. He clashed with first-year NBA coach David Blatt, whose hopes of installing the Princeton offense were scrapped as James moved himself onto the ball and began orchestrating some sets. He also let the media know he hadn’t consulted his coach on the changes.
“No, I can do it on my own,” James told reporters. “I’m past those days where I have to ask.”
This Cavaliers club rarely seemed comfortable, but James still steered the team to 53 wins and a 12-2 record during the Eastern Conference playoffs. He went on to push the Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals, despite losing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury. James, who averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the series, nearly became the second player ever to win Finals MVP while playing on the losing team (Jerry West, 1969).
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JEFF ROBERSON/Associated Press
While the 2004-05 campaign crowned King James as a star, the 2005-06 season proved all the hype was real. There was no longer any denying we had an all-time great on our hands.
James averaged a career-high 31.4 points per game, somehow finishing third in the scoring race behind Iverson and Kobe Bryant. James also made a loud argument for the MVP—he took the silver medal behind Steve Nash—by carrying Cleveland to its first playoff trip in nearly a decade and only in its fourth 50-win season ever. James’ highest-scoring teammates were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes and Ronald “Flip” Murray.
James made his postseason debut in 2006 and was predictably magical. He triple-doubled in his first career playoff game, topped 40 points in his third (and his fifth) and averaged 35.7 points per game on 51.0 percent shooting in his first series. For a follow-up, he lifted the Cavs to a 3-2 lead over the top-seeded Detroit Pistons in the second round before eventually falling in seven games.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
Statistically, James wasn’t quite himself during the 2006-07 regular season. But remember, it’s all relative to his ridiculous personal standard. No one else would consider 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game as a “down” year.
The playoffs proved his saving grace, though, and delivered the clearest view to date of outright basketball sorcery. During the conference finals—Cleveland’s first appearance there since 1992—he blitzed the top-seeded Pistons for 48 points in a critical double-overtime Game 5 win, scoring 29 of the Cavaliers’ final 30 points and each of their last 25.
“We threw everything we had at him,” then-Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups told reporters. “We just couldn’t stop him. … He put on an unbelievable display out there. It’s probably the best I have seen against us ever in the playoffs.”
James and the Cavs made their first NBA Finals appearance shortly thereafter, where the San Antonio Spurs promptly swept them.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
James has one scoring title on his resume, and he secured it in 2007-08 with an even 30.0 points per game. But the spotlight didn’t shine on Northeast Ohio too often. With the Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen) and Los Angeles Lakers (Pau Gasol) loading up for what felt like an inevitable Finals clash, the league’s two most storied franchises dominated the NBA news cycle.
Tack on perhaps the finest campaign of Chris Paul’s career, and James was left sitting fourth in the MVP voting—despite becoming just the third player ever to average 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game.
James also came as close as anyone could to spoiling that championship-round collision between Boston and L.A. The fourth-seeded Cavaliers pushed the top-seeded, 66-win Celtics to seven games in the second round, somehow losing Game 7 despite a 45-point performance from James on the road.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
It’s tough to rank this season without knowing how the story ends. If James can carry his third club to a championship—as a 35-year-old, no less—this campaign could jump into his top five.
For now, though, it nestles in at No. 10. Some statistical categories will say we’re overrating it. His 49.8 field-goal percentage is his lowest in five years, and his 26.0 player efficiency rating ranks sixth-lowest in his career.
But he’s predominantly playing point guard for the first time in his career (again, as a 17-year vet), and he’s speeding toward his first assists title with a personal-best 10.6 helpers per night (1.3 more than the second-place Trae Young). He has also helped turn a dramatically reshaped roster into a contender on the fly, deftly shared the spotlight with Davis and found the legs to post his best defensive box plus/minus in four seasons.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
James’ first season with the Heat started with a rough patch (nine wins, eight losses and one bump heard ’round the world) and ended with a fizzle (4-2 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals). But in between, it was basketball savant-like behavior, as was expected from a roster so stacked the typically buttoned-up Heat had a pep rally when James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
This was the only season in a five-year stretch that he didn’t win MVP, but he made a compelling case for it. He virtually monopolized the advanced analytics, pacing all players in PER (27.3), win shares (15.6), box plus/minus (8.1) and value over replacement player (7.8). He also averaged 26.7 points on 51.0 percent shooting and 7.0 assists per game, even while he and Wade tried sharing joint control of the offense.
The Heat went 58-24 and won all three rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs by a 4-1 margin. They built a 2-1 advantage on the Dallas Mavericks in the championship round but then collapsed amid one of the worst three-game stretches of James’ career (15.3 points on 44.4/16.7/40.0 shooting).
“I left that Finals like, ‘Yo Bron, what the f–k was you on, man?” James recalled on HBO’s “The Shop” (h/t Ben Golliver of the Washington Post). “… After that Finals, I was like, ‘That’s never happening again. I may lose again, I may not win everything, but I’ll never fail again.’ … That was my greatest achievement to overcome that.”
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
It’s hard to say exactly when James began his transformation into a basketball cyborg, but it was clearly complete by this, his age-32 season.
For only the second time in his career, he led the league in minutes per game. This was his 14th NBA season. That combination shouldn’t be possible, but normal rules don’t apply to the King. Oh, there’s also this: He averaged eight rebounds and eight assists per game in the same campaign for the first time in his career. Even after a decade-plus of once-in-a-generation dominance, he still found ways to raise the bar.
Fresh off his third title, he seemed determined to send nightly reminders he still ruled over the basketball world. The Kevin Durant-enhanced superteam Warriors eventually took down the Cavs, but they couldn’t contain James. He became the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists) and shot 56.4 percent (38.7 from three) for the series.
“I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” James said, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “So for me personally, I have no reason to put my head down. … I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five game in this Finals, and you come up short.”
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
By year four of the Heatles, they were running out of steam. They were older, achier and problematically thin.
The only thing that hadn’t changed was James’ basketball brilliance. He shot a career-best 56.7 percent from the field that season, the seventh-highest mark ever by a 27-point-scoring non-center. This is also the campaign in which he toyed with the then-Charlotte Bobcats to the tune of a personal best (and franchise record) 61 points. And this was James’ last season with All-Defensive honors.
When people think of this campaign now, they probably first think of the Heat’s 4-1 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. But it’s probably forgotten how absurdly efficient James was in that series. He averaged 28.2 points per game—over 10 points more than anyone else in the series—while shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from three.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
The 2017-18 Cavaliers had swapped out an All-Star Kyrie Irving for an injury-riddled Isaiah Thomas. James did everything in his power to hide the fact that his club was undermanned, eventually carrying his team to his eighth consecutive NBA Finals.
He ranked second in assists (9.1, then a career high), third in points (27.5, on 54.2 percent shooting) and 15th in rebounds (8.6, tied for a career high). He played all 82 games for the first time and led everyone in minutes (36.9). By the way, this was his age-33 season, so…yeah.
Somehow, this lands just outside his top five seasons, even though he found an additional gear in the playoffs. He scored at least 42 points in eight postseason games and triple-doubled in four. He scored a playoff career-high 51 points in Game 1 of the Finals, only to be undone by an all-time blunder by JR Smith. The Cavs were swept by the Warriors in spite of getting 34.0 points, 10.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds per night from James.
“They have a guy who’s playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anyone’s ever seen before when you consider everything he’s doing,” Warriors coach—and former Jordan teammate—Steve Kerr said after Game 1, per NBC Sports Chicago’s Mark Strotman.
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Mark Duncan/Associated Press
If you were made NBA GM for a year and needed to deliver 60-plus wins, which players would you choose? There are a million ways to answer that question, but these probably aren’t among them: 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal, 33-year-old Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Delonte West and JJ Hickson.
Yet, all five players ranked among the minutes leaders for the 2009-10 Cavaliers, who went 61-21 and had the NBA’s second-best net rating (plus-6.8). That was almost entirely due to the dominance of James, who grabbed his second consecutive MVP behind per-game contributions of 29.7 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds. He also shot better than 50 percent for the first time and earned All-Defensive first-team honors.
But his lack of support put too much on his shoulders, and he looked gassed when the Cavs collided with the Celtics in the second round. After the Cavs built a 2-1 lead, they lost the next three in succession with James averaging just 21.3 points on 34.0 percent shooting (15.4 from three) in those contests.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
This season is a major reason this conversation can’t be dictated solely by the stat sheet.
Numerically speaking, this wasn’t James at his best. For him, averaging 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game is a little ho-hum, even if the scoring was supported by 52.0 percent shooting. But those aren’t the numbers responsible for this ranking.
Instead, it’s all about 52, three and one. As in, the franchise snapping a 52-year city title drought while becoming the first team ever to erase a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. And in those final three season-saving, championship-securing contests, James’ numbers were ludicrous even by his standards: 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3.0 steals, 3.0 blocks and a 50.6/42.1/73.1 shooting slash.
“I came back for a reason,” James said, per ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. … I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about.”
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Mark Duncan/Associated Press
James’ highest-ranking season that didn’t include a title was his first punctuated by an MVP award. Depending on your metric of choice, this was also arguably his best statistical season.
He had campaigns with more points (28.4), rebounds (7.6) and assists (7.2), but none with a higher PER (31.7, tied for second-best in NBA history). This season also served as his high mark in win shares (20.3), BPM (13.2) and VORP (11.8), all of which were league-leading marks.
“The conventional wisdom is that James is having a a great season,” John Hollinger wrote for ESPN that March, “but the reality is much deeper—he’s having what is arguably the greatest individual season in history.”
But the Cavs were too reliant on James, who paced them in points, rebounds, assists and steals. They dropped the Eastern Conference Finals in six games to the Orlando Magic, a series in which he averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
The prose surrounding peak King James should ring of hyperbole, unless you were there to witness it. Then, you know nothing can be said that exaggerates the truth.
When Lee Jenkins penned James’ profile as Sports Illustrated‘s 2012 Sportsman of the Year, some of the gathered quotes included: “He has entered a state of mastery; there’s nothing he can’t do,” from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski; “It gets no better for a basketball player,” from Wade; “His position is to do whatever he wants. … You just give him the ball and you win the game,” from an anonymous NBA scout.
It sounds like they’re discussing some mythological hero, and maybe they were. Once Wade ceded control of the Heat to James, the King rampaged in ways the league had never seen. Each part of his accomplishments stood out on its own—27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals per game on 53.1 percent shooting—but taken in totality, it was like he played out the campaign with all cheat codes enabled.
He snagged his third of four MVP awards, landed first-team nods on the All-NBA and All-Defensive squads and somehow saved his best for the playoffs. The Heat had to sweat through the Eastern Conference side of the bracket, which freed James to deliver one of the most dominant performances of all time in Game 6 against the Celtics (45 points on 19-of-26 shooting, 15 rebounds, five assists in a road elimination game).
Miami survived Boston and then made quick work of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals, with James punctuating his first championship run with 26 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, two blocks and a steal in Game 5.
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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Every artist has a masterpiece, and for James, the 2012-13 season is his “Mona Lisa.”
He tipped off the campaign by scoring 26 points on 16 shots, grabbing 10 rebounds and not committing a single turnover in 29 near-flawless minutes against the Celtics. He only pushed the pedal down further from there.
He wasn’t just ahead of his peers—he was lapping the field several times over. By year’s end, he was holding per-game averages of 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists, while owning a pristine 56.5/40.6/75.3 shooting slash and defending at an All-Defensive first-team level. The Heat won a franchise-record 66 games, including the second-longest winning streak in NBA history (27).
He muted what could’ve been a spirited MVP debate, despite Durant’s going for 28.1 points per night on 51.0/41.6/90.5 shooting. James collected all but one first-place MVP vote, with Carmelo Anthony spoiling his opportunity to be the first ever unanimous winner. (Anthony also kept James from sweeping the Player of the Month awards by claiming the Eastern Conference’s honor in April.)
The Heat blitzed their first two playoff opponents and then needed seven games to dispatch the Indiana Pacers. But James opened that series with a buzzer-beater and closed it with a 32-point, eight-rebound performance. While the lasting image of the 2013 Finals might be Ray Allen’s miracle make to send Game 6 to overtime, James was Finals MVP (after collecting his fourth regular-season MVP), averaging 31.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists over the final four contests.
“LeBron was unbelievable,” Tim Duncan told reporters after the series. “We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
That season, the best of James’ career, there was no stopping him.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.