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15,000 and counting: how does he do it?

LeBron is the youngest player to reach 15,000 career points. How long until he passes Kobe?

LeBron James is a freak of nature. That’s all there is to it. The reigning MVP is basically a shoo-in to secure another one this year, heads the league in PER, plays four (or, arguably, five) positions, is a great leader for a Cavaliers team that he has established as the favorite from the Eastern Conference, dominates any opponent on both sides of the ball, doubles as an international business mogul, and stays completely out of trouble off the court.

Oh, yeah. He leads the league in scoring this year, narrowly edging out the pesky Kevin Durant right now. The bottom line: the guy can put the ball through the hoop. James, at 25 years and 79 days old, became the youngest player in NBA history last night against Chicago to reach the 15,000-point scoring mark, outpacing the previous record holder, Kobe Bryant, by, oh, only two years.

In honor of the historic occasion, I’ll attempt to account for why LeBron is so successful — specifically on the scoring end — in a number of different areas.

Athletic ability

LeBron James is the prototype for an NBA body. At 6’8″, he has the height to match up with most power forwards in the NBA, and his natural position is only small forward. Furthermore, at 250 pounds, he adds the weight that allows him to post up any defender another team can throw at him and to finish despite contact in the paint. This ability affords James more open looks than most other players at his position and more effective shots even when getting fouled or hit without a call. Naturally, according to Hoopdata, James leads the league in and-one conversions per game at 1.08 with a large lead over the field. His closest competitor in that category? Chris Bosh at 0.91 per game.

James’s rare athletic talent does not stop at his massive frame, however. His speed for his size is just as amazing. While I can’t seem to find any data about his 4o-yard-dash time or how he compares to other players objectively, from watching his game his gift of quickness is evident. Owing to his exceptional speed, LeBron can beat any one defender off the dribble and requires a double team to slow down, and even that doesn’t stop him. He can run the floor unlike anyone else and thus gets plenty of fast-break layups, dunks, and alley-oops.

Durability

While it goes hand in hand with his being in peak physical condition, LeBron rarely misses games. Staying on the court allows him to put up all those points. You can’t score if you don’t play, right?

Shooting

One of the biggest quibbles with LeBron’s game (albeit a nitpicky one because of his pure domination elsewhere) is his shooting. According to Hoopdata, LeBron shoots 74.5 percent at the rim and 52 percent from within 10 feet. Beyond that, though, his percentages drop dramatically. From between 10 and 15 feet, he shoots only 32 percent, and between 16 and 23 feet he improves to 39 percent. From three-point range, he shoots 34 percent.

At first glance, this may seem to reflect negatively on his shooting ability. However, upon closer evaluation, it’s revealed that only 23 percent of those 10- to 15-foot attempts are assisted and only13 percent of his 16- to 23-foot shots are assisted. What does that mean? LeBron is taking the vast majority of those shots off the dribble, so naturally his percentages are going to be low. Furthermore, James only take 1.2 shots per game from between 10 and 15 feet, so the low efficiency does not have a very profound effect on the completeness of his game. And the 39 percent from long two-point range is respectable, anyway.

Despite LeBron’s sublime talent at the rim, 13.2 of his 19.9 shots per game come away from it. Accordingly, a large portion of his points come from out there. Because he takes so many of those shots, defenders are forced to play close to him, giving him a lane to the rim. So despite the reputation, shooting plays a key role in LeBron’s scoring array.

Rebounding and Defensive Intensity

LeBron is, too, a great rebounder. His defensive and total rebound rates rank among those of the league’s centers and power forwards, and, again LeBron plays the 3. When James comes down with an offensive rebound, he is so good converting at the rim (as previously mentioned) that once he has the ball down that close to the hoop, he’s very likely to score. Furthermore, coupling his defense rebounding with his speed and ball-handling skills, he doesn’t need to outlet the ball and can run the transition game himself. If he gets ahead of the field, he can create shots in one-on-one or even one-on-two scenarios. Getting the rebound allows LeBron to craft a one-man game that’s nearly unstoppable.

Quite similarly, LeBron is a tenacious on-ball defender and reads the passing lanes well. He’s very good at stripping or stealing the ball from the man he’s guarding and intercepting errant and ill-advised passes. These high-I.Q. defensive plays give him possession in front of all five defenders and a free look at the rim.

Creating Free Throws

LeBron leads the league in free-throw attempts per game. Sure, some would argue, and I agree, that he could improve his free-throw shooting. Nevertheless, he hits his free throws more often than he makes his attempts at the rim, so it’s his best shot at getting a point. Lebron also ranks highly in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt at .51, so he makes the most of his drives. If he’s not making them, he’s most likely getting fouled. Shaq was a fantastic free-throw creator; he just couldn’t hit them. If he had shot just 70 percent from the line, he would’ve added another 2000 points or so to his career total. LeBron is shooting almost 80 percent this year, so those free throws are really helping his cause.

Taking Over

The last thing I’d like to discuss is how James uses his clutch ability to take over a game whenever he wants and put up points in bunches. It comes from an intangible ability that few in the NBA have — and one that everybody and their mother see in John Wall. To analyze this statistically, I’ll turn to 82games.com’s quarter-by-quarter and clutch stats. Q-by-Q stats mentioned are from the 2008 – 2009 season.

LeBron typically serves as a distributor toward the beginning of each half, attempting to get his teammates involved and on the scoreboard. As the half progresses, however, he starts to shoot more himself to assure the Cavaliers come away with the win. Below are LeBron’s quarter-by-quarter scoring stats. All numbers have been manipulated from per quarter per game to per 12 minutes per quarter per game to account for differences in playing time.

First quarter: 8.45, Second Quarter: 10.14, Third Quarter: 8.04, Fourth Quarter: 10.67.

As you can see, he puts forth his greatest scoring effort in the fourth quarter. Unsurprisingly, he led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring last year. Next we’ll turn to how LeBron stacks up in terms of clutch performance (defined as five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five or fewer points). Per 48 minutes of clutch time this season, LeBron puts up 65 points, an astonishing 15 more than Kobe. Talk about dominating in close-game situations — that’s inhuman. Furthermore, only 16 percent of his clutch-time attempts are assisted, compared to Kobe’s 19 percent. LeBron loves the energy of the tough situations. It feeds him energy and makes him an even more electric scorer.

Conclusion

It’s truly amazing everything LeBron can do. Not surprising, however, is that LeBron can channel most of his various talents into scoring the ball when he needs to. The guy is unquestionably the best player in the game (sorry, Kobe lovers), and I can’t wait to see how the offseason frenzy surrounding him turns out. He’s the present and future of this league. Any team would be stupid not to do everything in its power to try and bring him on board.

Hardwood Paroxysm