The rise and fall of James

Basketball can be a cruel game sometimes.

James Harden burst towards the rim in trademark style as the clock wound down at the Toyota Centre. It was an innocuous play, a move that Harden pulls off so routinely that there was a hush of disbelief when the ball caromed off the rim without scratching the score-sheet. However, only seconds later the Houston faithful had all but forgotten the missed basket as Harden gingerly limped up the court.

When the dust settled, Harden was diagnosed with a Grade 2 left hamstring strain. With 57 ticks left on the clock, Harden had a firm grip on the league’s most coveted individual award. With 55 ticks, he had lost the ball, his footing and his foothold on that elusive MVP trophy.

Prior to the injury, Harden was the clear favourite for the 2018 MVP trophy. After crossing the line second in 2015 (lost to Stephen Curry) and 2017 (lost to Russell Westbrook), Harden has taken his game to the next level and was finally the frontrunner for the illustrious trophy.

He leads the league in scoring (32.2 points per game), while still dishing out just over nine assists per game (second in the league). Throw in five rebounds per contest, 1.8 steals, 45% shooting from the field with a 39% clip from three and you have a near undeniable case for MVP.

For Harden, it now comes down to his undeniable case against a harsh reality. The last ten winners of the MVP trophy have missed an average of just 2.5 games over the course of the season. The only player since 1978 to miss more than seven games and still hold the MVP trophy aloft was Allen Iverson in 2001, who played just 71 games.

Harden is slated to be re-evaluated two weeks from the injury (would likely be the 16th of January), with an immediate return seeing him miss seven games. However, many doctors believe this is an incredibly generous return schedule for a Grade 2 hamstring strain. If Harden took the more likely three weeks to recover, he would miss ten games. Suddenly the weight of history would be against him.

Enter part human, part cyborg, LeBron James.

The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are all piecing together phenomenal seasons. But if anyone was to wrestle the MVP away from Harden in 2018, LeBron would be the clear candidate.

At the age of 33, with 15 seasons, 1,316 games and over 51,000 career minutes under his belt, LeBron is arguably getting better.

Even superstars are supposed to regress at some point. You lose a step here or there, you can’t jump quite as high as you used to and you humbly hand over the baton when Father Time comes knocking on the door.

The season that LeBron is putting together quite simply beggar’s belief. Although he would want to hope that his performance yesterday (10 points on 4 of 8 shooting) against the Timberwolves was an aberration. Considering the last time he only managed 10 points in a game was in October 2007, I’d say he is fairly safe there.

TNT and NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony put it best when he said, “There’s never been a player in his 15th season who was unquestionably the best player in the league. It’s not just that [LeBron] is really good in his 15th year. He’s the best player.”

This season he is scoring at a higher rate than in his dominant Miami years, when he was supposed to be in his prime. His 27.2 points per contest is the third best in the league and his highest rate since the 2009/10 season.

He’s not only putting the ball in the basket more, but he’s doing it at a historic efficiency. As we creep towards the half-way point of the season, LeBron is having the second most efficient volume shooting season in league history. The only player to maintain a higher Effective Field Goal Percentage over an entire season, Steph Curry back in his blistering 2015/16 campaign.

LeBron is shooting 55.8% from the field, the third highest mark of his career. More impressively though, he is finishing through contact and tighter defenses with increased efficiency.

LeBron has always been able to absorb contact and finish at the rim, mainly because no-one has figured out how to stop a 250-pound freight-train with a crash course for the rim. This season, with defenders between 0 and 60 cm’s away (0-2 feet), LeBron is converting at 76% on 1.6 attempts. That’s a 3% increase from last season and a massive 15% increase from the season before.

After having his worst career free-throw shooting performance last season, LeBron has turned it around and is now having his second best career free-throw shooting campaign at 77.7%. LeBron credits much of this spike to his tweaked shooting form, which is just quietly turning his biggest weakness into another weapon in his endless scoring arsenal.

Over the off-season LeBron’s shooting elbow mysteriously swelled to the size of a tennis ball, despite X-rays finding nothing structurally amiss. LeBron was forced to tweak his shot form, which now has a noticeably higher release and to the terror of the league, a noticeably higher efficiency.

LeBron has never been a great three-point shooter. It has been one of the few knocks on his Hall of Fame career. Make LeBron a shooter and you have done the best you can was the cry in unison from coaches to their defensive troops.

This season, LeBron is shooting the three-ball at 39%, the second highest mark of his career. That’s 3% higher than the league average. He is shooting the three-ball at the same efficiency as Kevin Durant and James Harden. Kyrie Irving is shooting the long ball only 0.3% higher than him.

He is not only making more threes, but he is taking more threes. Just under 27% of his shots are coming from beyond the arc this season, the highest rate of his entire career. Beyond the numbers, LeBron’s three-ball is finally starting to pass the eye test. When LeBron casts up a three-ball now there is an expectation it’s going to rip the nylon, rather than the collective groan from years past.

LeBron has never really relied on a go-to, signature shot in the big moments. He is such a dynamic scorer he simply doesn’t need one. However, with the increase in his three-ball efficiency this is starting to change.

The step back three-pointer on the left wing. Earlier this season New York got a taste of the LeBron step back three as he sized up Kristaps Porzingis and delivered the dagger to the Knicks faithful. Seconds earlier Knicks commentator Clyde Frazier pleaded for his team to be wary of the three, “He’s going to shoot the three from there…He likes to shoot the three from this side.”

As Frazier eluded to, Porzingis was not the first victim of LeBron’s step back three.

Even the Warriors aren’t immune to LeBron’s step back.

Over the last two seasons, LeBron is shooting 13 of 25 on step-back three-pointers. That’s a clip of over 50%, much higher than his 38% efficiency from beyond the arc in entirety over the same stretch.

All this and LeBron is still averaging a career-high 9 assists per game (equal third in the league), grabbing 8.2 rebounds a contest (second best season) to go with 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.

It’s a compelling resume, especially in combination with carrying a somewhat spluttering Cavaliers to the third-best record in the East. Unlike Harden, LeBron is also yet to miss a game this season.

LeBron would have to break the age barrier to hoist his 5th MVP trophy. Just under 80% of all the league’s MVP winners have been between 24 and 30 years of age. But if anyone could deny the ticking hands of time, it would come as no surprise to be the ageless LeBron.

If he were to ascend the throne for a fifth time, he would join an elusive group of legendary greats. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the all-time record with six MVP awards, while LeBron would slot comfortably onto a pedestal with two others in second place.

One of them is the Celtics Bill Russell, and the other is slightly more likely to cause a few heated debates.

Don’t quote me, but I think he played for the Bulls.

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