The evolution of LeBron James

Featured Image via ESPN

LeBron James will be playing in the NBA Finals for a sixth consecutive season, the first non-Boston Celtic player to do so. This Cleveland team has nearly the same players as last season, but is vastly more healthy.

All of the adulation and backlash surrounding James’ career made me think of his evolution as a player and person. I ultimately concluded that there are five different versions of LeBron James in the NBA, which I’ll get to shortly. First, though, I wanted to give some numbers that illustrate how consistently superb LeBron’s career has been. In case you forgot.

  • Lebron is 26-4 in playoff series against the Eastern conference, 28-8 total
  • James’ MVP finishes from 2005-16: 6th, 2nd, 5th, 4th, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd
  • LeBron’s finishes in points per game from 2005-16: 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 3rd, 5th
  • His PER (player efficiency rating) from 2005-16: 6th, 2nd, 6th, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 8th, tied for 4th

Without further ado, the evolution of LeBron James.

The different versions of LeBron:

1. First two seasons (2004 & ’05) for Cleveland Cavaliers

After going first overall in the 2003 draft, LeBron was the Chosen One, The King, Cleveland’s Savior, etc. etc. He clearly had near-unlimited potential and was probably the most NBA-ready an 18-year-old will ever be. James was so good so young that he finished ninth in MVP voting in 2004 and sixth in 2005 before having his first legal drink.

His NBA debut was a precursor of things to come. An insane amount of hype and pressure, but an 18-year-old LeBron was the best player on the floor, nearly leading Cleveland to a comeback victory. There are already glimpses of greatness, notably his preternatural passing ability. It was clear from day one: LeBron James is the real deal.

James followed up his Rookie of the Year season with a sensational sophomore campaign. He dropped a then-career high 56 points against Toronto in March, but the Cavaliers finished ninth in the East for the second straight year, barring LeBron from postseason play in his first two years. He was already phenomenal, but the Cavaliers were still mediocre.

2. First MVP, peak athletic years (2006-10) in Cleveland

My favorite version of LeBron: a young, high-flying, expert passer who could explode to the hoop nearly any time he wanted to. His combination of height, weight, speed, strength, quickness and body control may never be seen in the NBA again. LeBron in the open floor was unstoppable, and opponents rarely bothered challenging him at the rim, since it was like trying to stop the world’s most athletic rhinoceros from dunking right in their face.

The combination of Steph Curry’s ascension, Russell Westbrook’s maniacal brilliance, Kevin Durant’s sturdy excellence, the emergence of Kawhi Leonard as a two-way force, and LeBron’s gradual decline make it easy to forget how truly spectacular James was during these years. He was top five in MVP voting from 2006-08 before winning in 2009 and ’10, and it can be reasonably argued that by his age-21 season (2006), LeBron was the best player in the league.

Everyone remembers his 48-point special in game five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit, which propelled Cleveland to its first NBA Finals appearance. However, the best summation of LeBron’s first stint as a Cavalier was the 2009 Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic: LeBron was utterly dominant, averaging about 39 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists for the series, yet Cleveland still lost in six games.

The 0:36 to 0:59 stretch in the above video is LeBron at his absolute athletic apex. Over the course of three consecutive possessions, he dunks with his head above the rim, blocks a shot by in-his-prime Dwight Howard, and then drains an in-rhythm 3-pointer. Simply unreal. What’s also unreal is the absolute pile of garbage that was LeBron’s supporting cast in that series: Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West and Anderson Varejao were Cleveland’s crunch-time guys, while washed-up vets like Joe Smith, Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak were key bench players.

3. Hate-filled, disappointing first season in Miami (2011)

Due to the subpar supporting casts that surrounded James for his entire Cavalier career (remember in 2010 when Shaq and Antawn Jamison were Cleveland’s key acquisitions?), he bolted to Miami to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh under the close-knit organization overseen by Pat Riley.

It was a tumultuous season to say the least, as I’m sure you remember: nearly everyone hated LeBron after his Decision and his “not five, not six, not seven…” boasts at the welcome party; LeBron was mercilessly booed at every road game; Miami started out 9-8 and Erik Spoelstra’s job was supposedly on the line; the Heat righted the ship and steamrolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs, with LeBron playing fantastic in the closing minutes; then Miami ultimately faltered in the Finals to an inferior Dallas team, in no small part because LeBron played the worst series of his career.

Though James was still 3rd in MVP voting and made the Finals, he admits that season was harder than he possibly could have imagined. After losing the Finals, LeBron apparently holed up in his house, alternating between misery and soul-searching for about two weeks. Future glory awaited him, but 2011 was a personal low for LeBron James.

4. Dominant Miami years (2012-14)

This fourth version of LeBron was James at his all-around best: still the league’s best athlete, the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and a phenomenal floor general with an off-the-charts basketball IQ. LeBron won the MVP in 2012 and ’13, making it four out of five seasons, and was second in 2014. He was named Finals MVP in the championship seasons of 2012 and ’13 as well.

James’ performance down three games to two in game six at Boston (45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists) during the 2012 Conference Finals was one of the best ever, and I believe it was the game that finally vanquished his past demons and put him on the path to championships and all-time greatness. If Miami loses that game, the Big Three of Bosh, Wade and James is almost certainly split up, and maybe LeBron is still trying to get that first ring. Instead, he was locked in, and lead the Heat to the huge road victory.

The 2013 season was perhaps LeBron’s best: MVP, averaged 27-8-7 with 57-41-75 shooting splits in the regular season and propelled the Heat to a 66-16 record that included a remarkable 27-game winning streak. He was terrific in the playoffs as well, averaging 26-8-7 and turning in a superbly clutch performance in game seven of the Finals against San Antonio.

An aging Miami team lost the 2014 Finals to the Spurs despite LeBron’s brilliance, which lead to his Cleveland homecoming, and the final version of his career so far.

5. Older, wiser Cleveland years (2015-present)

LeBron has been on the decline since his return to The Land; his last truly stalwart season was 2014, but he is still The King, and finished third in the MVP race in 2015 and ’16. James is not quite the physical force of nature he was in his early Cleveland days, as he is more likely to attempt a contested layup near the hoop rather than dunk over everyone. However, his passing remains excellent, and he dragged an awful supporting cast to within two wins of the championship last season.

Golden State eventually overpowered Cleveland, but LeBron submitted an all-time Finals performance: 36-13-9 in a losing effort.

LeBron has probably been slightly better this season than in 2015, and his command of the floor during this season’s playoffs has been otherworldly. He is a chess master, moving his teammates to all the right places on the court and getting them open shots, while also efficiently picking his spots when he needs to score.

The Cavaliers face the mighty Warriors again, but are healthy and looking like an offensive juggernaut. Cleveland is the underdog yet again, largely because of the defensive play (or lack thereof) from the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. LeBron couldn’t get it done last season against Golden State, but if he is able to this year, he will cement his place in the conversation of greatest player ever.

The evolution of one of basketball’s all-time greats has been a joy and blessing to watch, as the 18-year-old kid is now a two-time champ, four-time MVP, 31-year-old husband and father of three, with a net worth that will eventually exceed $1 billion. Although it took until his fourth version for LeBron to reach the pinnacle of the sport, he has always had the rare combination of overwhelming physical talent, mental genius and extraordinary work ethic. Please don’t ever take LeBron James’ consistent greatness for granted.

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