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Is LeBron Playing the Best Basketball of His Career?

Ranking the five most exceptional 20-game stretches of 15 years of excellence

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James made just five of 21 shots on Sunday, marking his worst shooting night since 2014 and his worst shooting night with so many attempts since 2006, which was so long ago he hadn’t reached the playoffs yet. James still collected a triple-double on Sunday and helped Cleveland beat the Mavericks, but it represented a rare off night for James and ended a magnificent streak of games from the four-time MVP. For the previous six weeks, James had played consistently above even his typical level. Every night required a new exclamation point.

On February 7, he secured a win over the Timberwolves with a 37-10-15 triple-double and made 16 of 22 shots, including a game-tying 3 with 45 seconds left in regulation and a buzzer-beating winner in overtime. He then led a win over the Thunder with 37 more points; he torched the Nuggets for 39 points and the Bucks for 40; he shredded the Raptors with 35 points and 17 assists and shot 14-of-19 to score 37 in a win over Brooklyn.

Which raises the question: Where does this recent James run rank among the best multiweek stretches of his career? To attempt to answer that question, I examined every contiguous 20-game stretch he’s played—including both regular-season and postseason action, and using 20 because that was his game count between the All-Star break and Sunday’s game—and sorted them by cumulative game score, a statistic invented by John Hollinger that combines all the box score stats into one all-inclusive number. Game score isn’t perfect, but it’s a viable rendering of a player’s contributions, and this year’s overall game score leaders are James Harden, Anthony Davis, James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook, so at the very least, it works to identify elite performance.

Elite performance has been James’s forte for 15 seasons now. In reverse order, here are the five best 20-game segments of his career, with overlapping stretches removed (for instance, games 53-72 and games 54-73 this year both rate well but have 19 of 20 games in common, so only one of them appears on this list).

5. February 7–March 23, 2018

30.3 points per game, 10.2 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 2.1 steals + blocks, 56-40-67 percent shooting (field/3-point/free throw), 27.41 cumulative game score

Slightly edging out James’s cumulative game score in the first 20 games after the All-Star break is his 20-game score starting with that February win against Minnesota. Marvel at the fact James averaged a triple-double over a six-week span for the first time in his career and enjoy the 40 percent 3-point shooting he tossed in for good measure. This stretch falls slightly beyond others in his career because he averaged only 30 points and registered a bit less disruptive defensive activity than in the past, but it’s hard to envision a more controlled and controlling version of James on offense alone than we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Within these 20 games, James tallied eight triple-doubles. In his career, Kevin Durant has 10.

4. January 14–February 26, 2013

29.7 points per game, 7.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 2.5 steals + blocks, 61-42-80 shooting, 27.70 game score

The first 12 games of James’s eventual 27-game winning streak with Miami appear in this span, whose final game saw him score 40 points and dish 16 assists in a double-overtime win against the Kings. Playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, James seldom amassed the overwhelming counting statistics to compete with those he’s collected in both stints in Cleveland; counting overlapping stretches, only five of James’s 100 best 20-game stretches came in Miami versus 95 in Cleveland, and all five of those runs with the Heat came during the 2013 winning streak.

Even in this stretch, James didn’t quite reach 30 points per game, which makes it unique among the rest of the top five. But if his statistical totals were lower with Miami, his efficiency was astounding. Look at those splits! He shot 61 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3, and 80 percent from the free throw line in these 20 games; he shot better than 90 percent from the field in as many games as he shot worse than 50 percent (one each).

Overall, James broke 40 percent from 3 in 2012-13, a mark he’s never again reached, and in 76 regular-season games, he shot below 50 percent from the field just 12 times; for comparison, in 74 games so far this season, Carmelo Anthony has shot below 50 percent a tied-for-league-high 57 times. Field goal percentage isn’t itself an indicator of success, but those numbers epitomize James’s offensive approach once he grew comfortable in Miami. He was able to choose his spots more carefully when he didn’t have to carry such an offensive burden as he has in Cleveland, and his team was all the better for it.

3. April 7–June 12, 2017

32.5 points per game, 9.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 3.1 steals + blocks, 57-41-70 shooting, 28.06 game score

This stretch spans the last two games of James’s 2017 regular season—which included a 32/16/10 triple-double against the Hawks—and his entire 2017 playoff run. James started last season’s playoffs averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game in a sweep of the Pacers and ended it with a 41-point explosion against the Warriors, which came in the Cavs’ final loss.

It’s a bit of a surprise that James’s 2017 playoff performance ranks in the top five while his 2016 doesn’t, but that latter stretch doesn’t come all that close to the top five of his career by game score. James struggled from both the 3-point and free throw lines in the 2016 postseason and scored just 26.3 points per game, so despite his frenzied finish to that season—41 points apiece in games 5 and 6 against the Warriors, then a triple-double in Cleveland’s Game 7 win—it doesn’t rate as well over multiple weeks. But that speaks more to James’s many years of dominance than anything negative about his title-winning run in 2016: At some point, it’s a matter of slicing tiny slivers of statistics and poking the smallest of holes. He scored only 26.3 points per game in those playoffs? How quaint—a year later he’d break 32.

2. April 2–May 28, 2009

33.9 points per game, 8.2 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.2 steals + blocks, 52-37-79 shooting, 28.62 game score

James has scored more points over a 20-game span than he did in this one, but not with anywhere near the efficiency or across-the-board contributions alongside his scoring. His 20-game points high is 34.7 per game, in spring 2006, but he shot just 49.1 percent over that span and averaged just 6.0 assists. In spring 2009, though, he combined a massive scoring load with proficiency in those other categories, and in this stretch, which comprised the end of the regular season and all but one game from Cleveland’s aborted playoff run, James either scored 30 points or dished five assists—or both—every game.

Each entry on this list represents a different iteration of James, as the sport’s best player for at least a decade has evolved over his career. James has always been both an athletic force and a savvy, polished player, but in varying ratios: Before he left Cleveland, the former took precedence, and he bull-rushed to the rim whenever he saw fit. The 2005-06 campaign marked his highest-scoring season and 2007-08 his only time leading the league in points per game, and for a few weeks in spring 2009, he optimized both his physical dominance and refined sense of court awareness to produce a dazzling all-around offensive display.

1. December 30, 2009—February 9, 2010

32.3 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 3.0 steals + blocks, 52-38-77 shooting, 28.63 game score

Despite similar shooting percentages and counting stats across the board, this stretch narrowly edges the 2009 playoffs run because, all else being relatively equal, an extra assist is better than an extra rebound, and James was more prolific sharing the ball in this five-week span. That progression fits nicely into the narrative taking shape across this ranking: James’s progression in the 2009 playoffs bloomed further the next season, when he was in his athletic prime at 25 and on the verge of his first free agency, and when he did whatever he wanted on the court for a full season.

Seriously, a full season: If it weren’t for the no-overlapping-stretches rule, a list of James’s 20 best 20-game stretches would include a whopping 15 from the 2009-10 season, including eight of the top 10. You could pick any one of his 20-game stretches between December 30, 2009, and March 26, 2010, at random, and it would rank higher than his amazing 2018 stretch.

In addition to scoring at will, he assisted 40 percent of his teammates’ field goals for the first time that year. Forty percent is a lofty benchmark for assist rate; this season, only seven qualifying players—Westbrook, J.J. Barea, Harden, James, John Wall, Rajon Rondo, and Chris Paul—have done better. In NBA history, here is every season in which a qualifying forward or center has managed that feat:

LeBron James, 2009-10
LeBron James, 2016-17
LeBron James, 2017-18

A popular social media debate last month was whether 2018 James could win the NCAA tournament with a 16-seed. His trip to the 2007 Finals suggests the right answer—yes, obviously—but the Cavs’ entire 2010 season is supporting evidence. Their second-leading scorer was Mo Williams; Anderson Varejão had the second-most win shares; 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal had the second-highest PER. Anthony Parker somehow made 81 starts. Yet Cleveland still won a league-best 61 games and had the second-best net rating, and the Cavs were 14.3 points per 100 possessions better with James on the court. For a few months as he carried that team, James was unstoppable, even by his own extraordinary standards. On a statistical basis, he’s never been better.