How is LeBron James still this good? Improved shooting, health among factors keeping Lakers star in elite company

There is no way that a 38-year-old should be top 15 in the NBA in points, assists, steals, field goal percentage and Player Efficiency Rating (PER), but there has never been a player like LeBron James. He’s played against multiple opponents whose fathers were in the league during his rookie season (that’s a nice way of saying he’s old), yet he is still the best player on the floor on most nights.

Through the first 14 games of the Lakers’ season, James has averaged 26.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists on a sterling 58.6 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from 3. Those are far from empty stats — he’s one of the most valuable players in the NBA. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers play 28.4 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor, ranking in the 99th percentile of the league.

How is James still this good at this age? Let’s take a look.

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How is LeBron James still this good? 

LeBron is having a career year both shooting and driving the ball 

Given that James was not a shooter entering the league, it’s remarkable how good at it he’s gotten. He’s raised his 3-point percentage from 29.0 percent as a rookie to 39.7 percent this season, which is the second-highest mark of his career. 

That excellent shooting isn’t simply limited to the 3-point line. James is also canning a career-high 68.0 percent of his 2s, which has come mostly as a result of his ridiculous finishing at the rim. Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s making 81.7 percent of his baskets within four feet, ranking in the 93rd percentile of forwards and about five percentage points better than during his peak MVP days.

If you’ve thought that James has been driving more this year, then you’re absolutely correct. Per NBA stats, he’s up to the highest number of drives since the 2019-20 bubble season. His field goal percentage off all of his drives is an absurd 67.1 percent. That is the best of any player who averages at least six drives per game.

When he gets into the middle of the floor, James is still basically unstoppable. 

LeBron’s understanding of the game is still unmatched

One thing that will never age is James’ preparation and vast knowledge of the league.

Norman Powell recently told a story on Paul George’s podcast about competing against James in the playoffs as a member of the Raptors. James knew their playbook so well that he filled one of Powell’s teammates in on the play that he was supposed to be running. 

James still shows that remarkable acumen during every game. On Sunday, he was pointing out to teammate D’Angelo Russell that the Rockets were trying to set up a duck-in before it happened, blocking that primary option off. 

James showed his smarts on the other side of the floor, too, clearing everyone out and bodying Dillon Brooks to draw the game-winning free throws.

LeBron is dominating as a small forward

In recent years, there has been a trend towards playing James up in positions. He had taken on more minutes at center, which was potentially more taxing on his body. This season, the Lakers have more size on their roster. As a result, James is playing more minutes at small forward than he has since the Lakers won the title back in 2020. 

Those James at small forward lineups, where he’s usually paired with Christian Wood and one of Anthony Davis or Jaxson Hayes, have been terrific. In 179 possessions, they are crushing opponents, outscoring them by 41.4 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass

A good example of how dominant James can be in those smaller matchups came against the Rockets on Sunday. Even against All-Defensive perimeter defenders like Brooks, he is simply too strong to have any chance of being stopped when going downhill.

James bodied Brooks, making him stumble backward on drives, shooting right over him, blowing by him or getting right to his spot and giving him the too small gesture after a make. 

James is still playing most of his minutes at power forward, but those small forward stints are giving him a nice breather and allowing him to beat up on smaller guys. 

LeBron looks healthier than ever

James has always taken his health extremely seriously, spending a reported $1.5 million annually to keep it in shape via cryotherapy, hyperbaric chambers and other expenditures. Despite those precautions, he has suffered from numerous nagging injuries as he has aged, limiting him to an average of 52 games over the previous three years. 

This season, he looks healthier than ever. He’s missed only one of the Lakers’ first 14 games, and his 34.4 minutes per game ranks 29th in the league. That health is helping him have more practice time to sharpen his game. 

“I have been able to be on the court a lot more during off days this year because of past injuries the last couple years with my foot or whatever the case may be,” James told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “So to be able to hone in on everything that I need to do instead of having to get off my foot, unless we’re playing games has allowed me to stay in rhythm.”

James is reducing strain on his body by being more judicious in the minutes that he does play. His usage, an estimate of how many possessions he uses, is at one of the lowest rates of his career. And per NBA stats, he’s been assisted on 54.3 percent of his shots this season, which is by far the highest rate of his career.

James is still capable of taking over games, but he picks and chooses his spots more wisely, letting teammates do the heavy lifting more often than they ever have before. 

James is still playing at a top-10 level. That is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM), one of the most well-respected impact statistics around the league, has him as the fifth-most impactful player in the league thus far. He is truly one-of-a-kind, and he’s still got a lot left in the tank. 

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