The numbers powering LeBron James’ age-defying MVP campaign

Feb 12, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates in the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of the Los Angeles Lakers do not need long memories to cringe at the idea of a would-be title favorite beset by injuries relying on an aging superstar to keep them in contention. The last time that happened, Kobe Bryant’s 34-year-old body gave way to an achilles tear at the end of the 2012-13 season, and the best player in Lakers history would never be the same on the court afterwards.

As if the Lakers needed a stark reminder of Kobe’s injury, Anthony Davis is now nursing a degenerative achilles issue of his own, re-aggravated in the Lakers’ Valentine’s Day loss to the Denver Nuggets. While the initial timeline for Davis’s return is only 2-3 weeks per Adrian Wojnaworski, at least one sports injury expert has speculated the Lakers’ superstar big man could be shut down for months.

That puts even more pressure on the Lakers’ current best player. At age 36, two years older than Bryant was when his body gave out, LeBron James is mounting an MVP campaign that has the best shot of winning since the early 2010s. The Lakers’ hopes of repeating as NBA champions now rest on arguably the greatest player in basketball history (arguably is the understatement of the century, but I digress), but one who is in his late 30s and pushing his body to perform at a level of athleticism unheard of for NBA players his age.

James is averaging 34.6 minutes per game, exactly the same as his career low last season. However, he still has yet to miss a game this year, and despite the Lakers adding Dennis Schroder in the offseason to give them another ballhandler in their starting lineup, James’ usage rate of 31.4% is nearly identical to what it has been over his past several seasons in Los Angeles and Cleveland. In other words, James is no less the focal point for everything the Lakers do when he is on the court than he was last year or the year before that. Now, in the wake of Davis’s injury, those numbers will likely go up as LeBron has to shoulder an even bigger load.

I will be the first to say I never expected this. James may have frowned upon load management during the “normal” part of the 2019-20 season, but then COVID-19 delayed its conclusion until mid-October, with LeBron’s Lakers as the last team standing. The NBA then shortened its offseason to just over two months, giving James an incredibly short turnaround time. That shortened offseason seems to have negatively affected some of the Orlando bubble’s other stars such as Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler. It would be hard to criticize James too much (unless you already made a career out of that sort of thing) for taking it easy early in the season.

And yet here LeBron is at 36, still the engine through which the Lakers run everything, averaging 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game–pretty much the norm for him over his 18-year career. He still bullies his way into the paint, breaks away from his defender for highlight-worthy dunks, and leads fast breaks with regularity. If you’re like me, you’re still a little worried about what could happen to a 36-year-old who uses that much athleticism and is now heading into an extended stretch where he will be the Lakers’ only superstar on the court. However, dig a little deeper into James’ numbers this season and you will find a very encouraging insight into how he has altered his game to continue aging gracefully: LeBron is taking–and making–way more three-pointers than ever before.

Entering Tuesday night’s game, James is hitting 38.1% of his attempts from deep, the first time he has done so since he shot 40% from downtown in his 2013 MVP campaign with the Miami Heat. However, James only shot 3.3 threes per game that year. Now, he is averaging nearly seven attempted threes per game, by far the highest mark in his career. And some of those threes have been from deep–James is shooting 39% from beyond 25 feet and 1-4 from beyond 30 feet this season.

James is a legitimate constant scoring threat from three-point land, more so now than he ever has been in his career. His three-point percentage is nearly identical to James Harden’s and well above the marks of other players whose games traditionally rely more on their shooting ability, such as Buddy Hield, Fred VanVleet, Devin Booker, Danny Green and even Trae Young. Unlike all of those shooting guards, though, opponents still have to account for James’ ability to physically overpower them in the paint (though players like Booker and Young are well known for their ability to finish tough layups as well).

That creates myriad problems for opposing defenses–and gives James more options for resting his body. Pulling up from deep takes significantly less athleticism than driving to the basket every possession. Forcing defenders to cover James tightly at the three-point line also makes it easier for him to blow by them. It’s opened up whole new avenues for James to continue being one of the league’s premier scoring threats even at his advanced age, and it’s why Dwyane Wade says the current version of LeBron James is the best he has ever seen:

James also starts alongside four other players who have to at least be taken seriously from three-point land in Dennis Schroeder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (shooting over 43% from deep this season), Marc Gasol and either Davis or Kyle Kuzma. Double-team the King at your own risk.

Add it all together and you have a once-in-a-generation superstar who, despite his advanced age, has more ways to beat opponents–and save his body from needless wear and tear–than ever before. For the Lakers to keep pace with the Clippers and Jazz in the West, and for James to remain the frontrunner for his fifth MVP award, he will need every bit of his newfound shooting ability in the coming weeks and months.

Author: Austin Green

Austin is a native Angelino and 3rd-generation Lakers fan who has a passion for writing. He is pursuing his journalism degree at Biola University in Southern California and currently works as sports editor at The Chimes, Biola's student newspaper.

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