What will playoff LeBron James look like in the bubble?

The last time the world saw LeBron James in the playoffs, he was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018. He may have had the best playoffs of his career that year, averaging 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 9.0 assists at the age of 33 years old. The season ended in disappointment, as LeBron’s Cavs lost to the Golden State Warriors in their final championship before Kevin Durant’s departure.

Although it has only been a little over two years since those playoffs, plenty has changed. LeBron moved to the West Coast to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, but more importantly, he has aged two more years to be precisely in his mid-30s. It would be unchartered territory for a player to post those types of numbers in the playoffs at the age of 35. Still, you can’t help but think that LeBron will be able to do it given the fact that he has explored uncharted waters time-after-time in his career.

However, LeBron didn’t do much in the Lakers’ eight seeding games in the bubble to give us confidence that we will be seeing “Playoff LeBron” again. In his seven games played he averaged 22 points (44% from the field), 6.8 assists, and 7.4 rebounds per game. Unlike most times, it was the offensive end of the floor that gave fans worry. LeBron understandably seemed like he was going through the motions in an effort to stay healthy for the playoffs, but even that didn’t excuse some of his shortcomings.

One area of concern in the bubble was LeBron’s lessened ability to finish around the rim. The King has always thrived on getting to the basket as one of the most efficient players at finishing in traffic. Below you can see LeBron’s different field-goal percentages from different time periods in regards to field-goals within five feet of the basket, comparing his last playoff season with this one. He led the league in this statistic for the 2017-18 regular season in regards to players who averaged six FGAs or more at the rim. 

All Statistics from NBA.com

LeBron’s FG% at the rim has declined since the 2017-18 season, although he continues to be elite in comparison to the rest of the league. He made 67.9% of those attempts in the 2019-20 regular season, with only Luka Doncic out-performing him in regards to ball-handlers (at least six FGAs per game from this distance). It has decreased by around 4% in these final eight games, with it actually declining even more in his final eight games in the 2017-18 season where the percentage decreased 6% compared to his average across the entire year. A return to his 2019-20 regular season percentage would be welcomed with open arms by the Lakers. 

Although the increased FG% at the rim helped LeBron immensely in those 2018 playoffs, what really took him to another level was his work in the mid-range. This was infamously highlighted in the Cavs’ four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors that year, where The King was lethal from the mid-range. In the 2018 playoffs, he averaged 3.1 field-goals attempted between 15-19 feet from the basket compared to only 1.7 attempts per game in the regular season. While nearly doubling his attempts, he increased his efficiency from 40.7% to 42.6%. In comparison, he has averaged 1.3 FGAs per game from that range in the 2019-20 season, only making 35.7% of the attempts.

Will LeBron make it more of a point to operate out of the post in the playoffs? Doing so would allow LeBron more of those mid-range jumpers that helped him in the 2018 playoffs. Even if the shot isn’t falling like two years ago, he has shown many times that he is possibly the best facilitator out of the post in the NBA. This comes from the other four players cutting and setting screens on the other side of the court in preparation for a LeBron skip pass to an open three-point shooter. It would make more sense to see these plays more often than LeBron mid-range jump shots, as he has made an emphasis on passing all year leading to his first-ever assists title in a regular season.

Operating out of the post could also lead to more natural opportunities for Anthony Davis, which would allow him to maximize his potential as we highlighted earlier last week here at Lakers Outsiders.

No matter what way you look at it, the Lakers will definitely need a better performance from LeBron James compared to his bubble games and possibly compared to his regular-season games. He has looked like the same King all season, if not better in some regards. It’s probably not too much from Lakers fans to expect him to take it to another level in the playoffs, an area he has always ramped up for. 

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