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If there’s a reason to believe in the Lakers, it’s LeBron James’s unparalleled greatness

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Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies
Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Lakers’ best chance at winning a championship is dependent upon LeBron James’ ability to empty the tank as the team crosses the finish line.

You can’t really compare LeBron James to his peers. Not because it would be unfair to LeBron, but because he doesn’t have any.

In the 21st year of one of the greatest careers in the NBA’s history, LeBron is doing what no player has ever done. But if you’ve paid any attention to the Lakers this season, you already knew that. LeBron has continued to break records at such a breakneck pace that he’s made the impossible seem inevitable.

More than a season ago, LeBron became the all-time scoring leader including both the regular season and playoffs. Last year, he became the all-time regular season leading scorer. This year, he reached 40,000 career points and next year, he’ll likely score his 50,000th point between the regular season and playoffs combined.

No other NBA great has played this well, this deep into their career. Most legends were either washed or nearly retired when they reached two decades after they entered the league.

Since LeBron is in a class unto himself historically, the only players you can really compare him to are current-day superstars and his own past performances. Despite being the oldest player among the NBA’s elite by as many as 15 years, LeBron currently ranks eighth in Estimated Plus Minus (“EPM”), a catch-all impact metric from Dunks & Threes.

By the B-Ball Index’s similarly formulated LEBRON, LeBron is still 13th. If standard per-game scoring is more your jam, LeBron is 13th this season in that too. While undeniably among the NBA’s elite, LeBron has clearly fallen off as a regular season player compared to his own previous highs, even when looking at recent seasons.

 https://dunksandthrees.com/player/2544
LeBron’s year-over-year EPM via Dunks & Threes. His impact this season is as low as it’s been in 19 years.

Offensively, LeBron has offset a decline in volume with one of his most efficient scoring seasons ever. Despite his lowest usage rate in 20 years, LeBron is averaging the sixth-most assists per game of his career while recording his best True Shooting Percentage since playing in Miami. Overall, he’s posted the exact same Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus (“O-EPM”) as last year.

However, LeBron’s defensive impact has slid a bit from last season, contributing to the overall decline in impact. Still above average, the LeBron’s Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (“D-EPM”) ranks in the 80th percentile of the league, but is the second-worst mark of his six Lakers seasons.

Still, in moments, LeBron has proven capable of ramping up his two-way impact to the same heights he’s shown in the latter portion of his career — like his five-steal performance against the Suns in the In-Season Tournament or when he locked down Kawhi to fuel a fourth quarter comeback win versus the Clippers.

Discussing that second defensive effort during a recent episode of his podcast with JJ Redick, “Mind the Game,” LeBron explained his ability to take on the task of guarding Leonard, “Can I do it every night? I don’t wanna say I can do it for a whole game...I got to pick my spots. Definitely gotta pick my spots.”

While capable of transcendent defense in moments, LeBron is right that in year 21, his ability to do so is much more limited than it was even in his mid-thirties.

Statistically, the gap between LeBron’s low- and high-effort games has grown over time. This season, he’s played between 20 and 29 minutes in a single game 10 times, something he only did seven times over the past two seasons combined.

Still, LeBron has been in peak form about as often, posting a Game Score — Basketball Reference’s single-game box score rating — over 30 nine times this year, compared to nine last season and a dozen the year before that.

James’ ability to do it at all when necessary bodes well for the Lakers’ likelihood of improving as he ramps up into the playoffs. Despite the lesser load on both offense and defense, LeBron will need to do more on both ends for the Lakers to have a chance of toppling the best teams in the West.

Lately, the Lakers have been good enough to win without requiring LeBron’s best efforts, enabling a “strategic” load management schedule. Since February 1, the Lakers have the NBA’s eighth-best net rating and the fourth-best record, and the Lakers have won four of the five games in which he’s sat.

Further, playing without Gabe Vincent or Jarred Vanderbilt for virtually all of that period, the Lakers have a chance to improve their team in the coming days. That’s especially true given those two players’ defensive reputations and the Lakers’ own need to improve on that end.

Since February 1, the Lakers’ offense, ranked second in the NBA, has carried the team despite a defense ranked 19th over that stretch.

To tangle with the NBA’s best, the Lakers will need a defense that can smother teams nearly as well as their offense can currently score. The likelihood of that occurring is a real possibility if the Lakers’ health improves and LeBron increases his overall effort as the team enters the postseason.

Although LeBron continues to manage an ankle injury that has bothered him for the majority of the season, it seems far less serious than the foot tendon injury that caused James to sit out 13 games down the stretch. Anecdotally, LeBron seems to have access to considerably more athletic pop than he did when he returned from injury last year.

Still, with a reasonably solid foundation built over the past few months and increasingly stable health, the King’s ability to step on the gas in the postseason should give Laker fans hope for the team’s potential to make another deep run this spring.

You can follow Cooper on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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