Is this season a blip or the new normal for LeBron James?

ByBrian Windhorst via ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 27, 2019

THERE WERE EIGHT seconds left with the score tied. LeBron James already had 36 points, 14 of them in the fourth quarter.

He got the inbounds pass under his own basket and turned upcourt, picking up speed. His defender, the Toronto Raptors'OG Anunoby, stalked him and forced him left like the scouting report said.

James rose up, twisted in midair and took his left hand off the ball. His momentum was pulling him toward the baseline and he never got square. Anunoby reached his long arms into James' field of vision and forced him to float the ball one-handed. As the buzzer sounded, the ball glanced off the upper left corner of the backboard like a Tim Duncan special and fell through. Game 3, and essentially the Cleveland Cavaliers' series with the Raptors last May, was over.

It was one of the most majestic shots of James' career. It combined so many of his traits into one moment. The speed, the size, the vision, the will, the touch, the desire all working together.

This was less than 11 months ago. It was a pillar in maybe the best individual postseason of his career, the most points he'd averaged in nine years, his most assists ever, his highest playoff PER in nine years.

Simply, the run that James put on last spring -- following a brilliant regular season, during which he finished second in MVP voting -- just doesn't square with the player who is finishing the most disappointing season of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

It's hard to comprehend how someone who played in all 104 of his team's games last season and showed a mastery of endurance, recovery and body control could twice get hurt this season just slipping on the floor. The latest happened last week, when James went down on a drive against the Brooklyn Nets and violently banged his knee. The first was the slide on Christmas that popped his groin muscle.

The scenario has left this question for the 34-year-old: Is this season an outlier, or will it be the new normal?

Is this season health-related, age-related or interest-level related? Bits of all three? Is this just like James' relatively underwhelming first years in Miami and back in Cleveland, or hisMichael JordaninWashingtonyears?

These are questions sometimes being asked within the Lakers organization, within James' own support team and even by James himself.

There can be conjecture. But as for true answers, they aren't coming now. They will float for the next six months until next season.

James' statistics are strong: On a per-36-minute basis his scoring and rebounding are up from his last season in Cleveland. But the true litmus test for how James is playing, his efficiency, shows the real tale.

Those readouts have dipped considerably, and he's on the edge of his lowest PER season since 2004-05, the last time he previously missed the playoffs. In addition to his relentlessly efficient playoffs last year, he had his highest regular-season PER in five years. In other words, age 33 LeBron was every bit as dominating as prime LeBron from his MVP years in his mid-to-late 20s.

It must be said, sometimes players do suddenly show their age. I've seen up close it over the years covering dozens of veterans in their mid-30s who have annually come to or been collected by contending teams with James.

Some players in their mid-30s come back from an offseason and suddenly leap half an inch lower on their jumper and see shots start to hit the front rim rather than the net. I vividly recall Shaquille O'Neal, in his lone season with James in 2009-10 at age 37, having his shooting percentage plummet. The season before, he had led the league in shooting for the 10th time in his career and had been an All-Star for the 15th time. But something had happened that season in Cleveland. He'd lost that half-step.

"I'm missing shots I've always made," O'Neal told me repeatedly that season, himself mystified.

It doesn't seem fathomable that James, just removed from such a fine season, would be there yet.

It's fair to say James has been guilty of a few sins this season. After he returned to Cleveland as a conquering hero and took the Cavaliers from out of the playoffs to the Finals in 2014, he might have had some hubris about the impact his arrival would have on the Lakers this season.

James' leadership this season hasn't been his finest, whether it's his behavior on the bench or his effort level on defense. In recent seasons, his defensive intensity has lapsed, especially early in the season, but 2018-19 found a new low.

These aren't totally new phenomena, but typically James' postseason dominance has made them easily forgettable. When a team is celebrating a conference title or planning a championship parade thanks to James' playoff greatness, the memories of him not getting back on defense a few months earlier tend to fade. This season, he won't be getting that chance.

There's a case to be made that James' groin injury combined with all of the changes he faced -- not just of scenery but to a team without safety-valve shooters he was so used to; an up-tempo style that was a departure from his comfort zone; and the more rigorous competition of the Western Conference -- have created an aberration. That a long resting/healing period and some new teammates will change the narrative.

There's a case to be made that players don't often have bounce-back years in the season when they turn 35. And that the Lakers, even with a lottery pick and maximum cap space, might have trouble altering their roster enough to create the shooter-rich, multistar environment in which James has thrived over the past decade.

James has been one of the surest bets the league has ever seen. Perhaps that's the strangest feeling about it all, this unfamiliar uncertainty.

DAMIAN LILLARD IS probably going to be voted to the All-NBA team, making him eligible for a supermax contract extension this summer. But he has an interesting choice.

Lillard has two years and $60 million left on his deal. If the Blazers offer the extension -- and they are likely to -- he could add four years and $194 million to create a six-year, $250 million commitment.

He's in the same position as John Wall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, all of whom extended their contracts early when they became supermax eligible and locked in deals worth more than $200 million. This is how the owners hoped this would work when the supermax was installed, hugely reward franchise players and lock them down long before free agency.

Because Lillard also made All-NBA last season, he's on the verge of giving himself a window to sign a supermax this summer or next summer. That's an important option and not just because he could add $50 million and an extra year by waiting.

There's some uncertainty with the Blazers and their ownership situation. Though nothing firm has been announced, with Paul Allen's death there is a possibility the team could be sold, which could change everything. Just last season, Lillard had a meeting with Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, which was a little unsettling to the fan base.

That said, these days Lillard is feeling very settled. Whatever frustrations he talked to Allen about have calmed, sources report, and he's very comfortable with his commitment to the Blazers. There are no Lillard concerns about ownership uncertainty right now, I'm told.

The signs are pointing toward Lillard being interested in a Blazers extension offer this summer. Unlike other stars such asKawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis, who asked for trades instead of signing the supermax, Lillard has sent signals that he's interested in locking up a quarter of a billion in the days leading up to his 29th birthday in July.

In the wake of theJusuf Nurkicinjury, which reminded everyone how unpredictable the game can be, it makes a lot of sense.

THE MVP RACE between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Harden is fascinating. Not just because of the intensity of the competition but how different they are. It is said that styles make fights, and that is the case here.

Just consider this: Antetokounmpo has 109 unassisted dunks this season, per ESPN Stats & Information. That's more than twice as many as any other player and the most in a season in 20 years. Harden, meanwhile, has 284 unassisted 3-pointers this season, also more than twice as many as any other player and also the most in a season over the past 20 years.

This has the potential to be one of the closest MVP votes in recent history. The tightest this century was Steve Nash winning over O'Neal in 2005, which still stirs debate to this day.

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