There was a quaint period in the not-so-distant past when we’d imagine the fading days of LeBron James’s NBA career and give it a familiar shape based on predictive deduction. Perhaps he would enter the post full time, operating as a sort of Karl Malone–esque agrarian in the post until he finally felt it was time to hang up his shoes. It’s an observational, anecdotal stance that is almost hard-coded in data: According to Basketball-Reference’s “Similarity Score” metric, which “attempts to find players whose careers were similar [to the subject] in terms of quality and shape,” the similarity between James’s career and Malone’s grades out to a score of 88.9 (out of 100) across their first 15 seasons. (LeBron’s next closest similarity score is Dirk Nowitzki’s 81.3; that drop-off from a B-plus to B-minus grade is just one window into James’s anomalous career.) As time wears away at the athleticism that granted LeBron the ability to play all five positions, it seemed sensible to assume that James would find himself in a similar role as an aging Mailman, one of the NBA’s paragons of longevity, and one of the few players in the history of the league who could claim a comparable physique.
It was a vision of the future that relied on the past, one that could not account for everything that’s changed in the past half-decade of the NBA. It used to be that jump-shooting teams could not be counted on to win titles; now, teams can’t even hope to make the conference finals without being elite at 3-point shooting. Defense still wins championships, but with more opportunities within the game to score than at any point in the past 30 years, classic metrics of defensive impact seem to be speaking a completely different language. And the biggest threat to LeBron, now less than a week away from his 34th birthday, is not a historically great center or swingman, but a 6-foot-3 guard who has, paradoxically, made the NBA a much bigger place.
The league as a whole is shooting 3s from greater distances on average than it had for the past decade, according to ESPN Stats & Info—a trend that has escalated since the Warriors won their first championship in the Steph Curry era in 2014-15. In Curry’s two consecutive MVP seasons, he became the pull-up Prometheus, demonstrating the value of attempting shots from more than 27 feet out. As I wrote in 2016, the influx of deep-range shots meant that suddenly “the NBA had to learn how to prevent shots that, before, never had to be guarded in the first place.”
If you’ve been watching LeBron this season (and of course you have), you’ve certainly noticed something different about his game, and on the eve of James’s first visit to Oakland since the 2018 NBA Finals, his transformation will be put in its right perspective. LeBron is, technically, having his most efficient scoring season of his career, averaging 28.5 points per 36 minutes of play; it has everything to do with his new style of play. In the four seasons from 2013-14 to 2016-17, James attempted 172.5 pull-up 3-pointers per season. Should his frequency remain consistent, LeBron will eclipse those numbers in his next 15 games. Last week, The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen claimed that LeBron has become Steph: He’s pulling up more than ever, shooting from farther than ever, and converting those impossible-looking shots at a higher rate than ever.
Yet, in the grander scheme, I can’t help but think he’s still taking after Mike.
“You have to practice this shot so you can make your adjustments shooting the basketball moving away from the target, which is kind of opposite what you’re taught,” Michael Jordan once said. “Which is one of the reasons it’s not fundamentally the shot to shoot. But it’s a great shot, if you perfect it, to create space from the defense, and yet, a hard shot to play defense towards.”
Jordan, of course, was talking about his patented fadeaway jumper, but the language that he uses—could it not be invoked in 2030, when Steph will invariably be asked to film a similar instructional video on pull-up 3-pointers? Today, the midrange fadeaway and pull-up 3 seem to be antitheses of one another, but hearing MJ’s midrange manifesto, it’s evident that they are both fundamentally rooted in the same objective: using body control and individual mastery to weaponize what space can be created in spite of the defense. The biggest difference, then, is one that relates to attitudes of a certain era. Jordan’s concept of space was worlds different from what Curry conceives today. With hand-checking, the oft-cited Jordan Rules established by the Detroit Bad Boys, and the lack of a defensive three seconds to protect ball handlers, space was a precious ore that had to be tirelessly mined. In Curry’s NBA, preferential rule changes on the offensive end over the past decade-plus have turned space into an entity that exists and breathes on its own; it’s the 10 players on the court who either foster its inherent bounty, or pollute it with congestion.
LeBron has been acutely aware of these shifts throughout his career, and it’s always reflected in his play. This latest change feels like a newfound mode of self-preservation that he’d been tinkering with over the past few years before finally unveiling it to the public this season. It’s his turnaround fadeaway, a near-unguardable shot that works without athletic overexertion. When Jordan participated in the 1990 NBA 3-point contest, he did so knowing he’d made a statement (no matter how poorly it went): He was more than just an athlete. And so he took the fadeaway, a fundamentally unsound maneuver of immense difficulty, refined it year in and year out over the second half of his career, and turned it into a fundamental skill for every up-and-coming wing to come after him. In doing so, Jordan burnished his legacy: Yes, he was one of the most gifted athletes in the history of the game, but that wasn’t the only reason why he killed teams night in and night out.
LeBron’s success pulling up from 27-plus feet out with utmost confidence echoes that same statement. His pull-up is the biggest revelation in his game since 2012, when he made a legacy-altering positional shift to help secure his first championship. James is currently shooting 39 percent on the 3.8 pull-up 3s he attempts per game, a level of accuracy and volume unmatched by either Damian Lillard or Kemba Walker, two stars who have thrived as bearers of Curry’s Prometheus torch. There can be no bigger endorsement of James’s work ethic; in the shadows, he’s joined the elite company of Curry and James Harden as the masters of this era’s most defining shot.
That’s an amazing thing to consider when viewing LeBron’s career from a bird’s-eye view. James entered the league in 2003, only months after Jordan retired for the third and final time; he cut his teeth in the NBA playing within a gallery of Jordanesque pastiche, curated by one Kobe Bryant. He ushered in a new standard by 2010, then saw his influence overlap with Curry’s by 2015. He would find inner peace as a player the following year, but he’s been chasing down a new ideal ever since. He is the greatest chameleon the NBA has ever seen, and with his 34th birthday only days away, and having already set new standards for mileage in his 16-year career, he could wind up being the greatest survivalist the NBA has ever seen. LeBron’s evolution into a gunslinging Space Cadet is his latest metacommentary on the state of the league. For better or worse, Curry and the Warriors have helped define what could be the final era of LeBron’s playing days, and today, that influence has manifested in ways that might alter our expectations of the King forever. We’re no closer to knowing just what the future holds for LeBron, or what he looks like when he is no longer standing atop the league’s summit. But wherever he goes, it’ll assuredly be miles away from what we once thought probable.