The eternal Eastern Conference Player of the Week is back.
This Cavaliers season has been as tumultuous as a 55+ win season can be. They've been in the driver's seat for the past 18 months and have only been nominally challenged for the #1 seed this season, but everything gets scrutinized at a level that only compares to Miami's James/Wade/Bosh teams. The scrutiny has covered tiny things like tweets to enormous things like firing the coach of a 1st place team because the players weren't having enough fun after wins.
One of the lingering issues this season has been whether or not we're seeing the beginning of the decline of LeBron James.
Last year was a comparatively down year for the King - his scoring was barely above 25 ppg, his rebounds dipped all the way to 6.0, and his shooting percentages were markedly down. He also took the now famous 2-week break in the middle of the season to recharge his basketball batteries. It worked, and the Cavs went on a tear in the 2nd half. LBJ was, of course, unbelievable in the Finals.
This year his scoring is about the same as last year, his assists are down a tad, his 3-point shooting has been atrocious, and he's taking a full free-throw less per game than last year. This season will be his 2nd lowest FT-attempt season in his career, trailing only his rookie season.
That's the bad news. The good news is that LeBron sure as hell seems to be back.
While the Cavs have hit a strange patch of games that saw them lose to a terrible Brooklyn team and blow several leads, the King has earned back his nickname. LeBron likes to talk about "playoff mode" and "changing his focus" so he's not doing things for the media (except for the fact that he is the media, now that he's on Twitter/Instagram). He likes to talk about "getting his mind right" for the playoff push. He likes to talk about everything that makes him sound like a basketball genius, basically. But none of that matters if he's throwing up duds in the box-score. Thankfully, he is not throwing up duds in the box score right now.
After the loss at Miami on March 19th, Coach Lue and David Griffin pulled LeBron aside because he didn't appear to care that the Cavs were getting smacked by the Heat. He instead wanted to chat with his buddies on the team. While this may or may not be an actual issue, they basically reminded Bron that he needs to focus up and not do anything to draw more negative attention to himself and the team.
He responded by putting up a 33/11/11 triple double in just over 30 minutes in the next game. Granted, Denver is not sporting a juggernaut roster, but LBJ led the Cavs to a fantastic performance and 33 point win. In his last seven games, James is putting up a ridiculous stat line: 28.6 points, 9.6 assists, and 8.9 rebounds. He's doing it in under 37 minutes per game. It might not be entirely sustainable, but then again, we're talking about LeBron James, so who knows?
Perhaps the strangest stat of-late is that LeBron, who averages 1.2 ORebs per game on his career (and 1.5 this year) has grabbed 2.6 per game since that Miami loss. This is the guy who is known for never following his shot or boxing out - typically his numbers come from long, uncontested rebounds, but suddenly he's crashing the glass and giving his guys 2nd chances.
While those stats are important, what's more important to me is that in those last seven, James is shooting 57% from the field (raising his season average to just over 51% in the process), and he's taking less threes. He's still averaging almost four triples a game, but over these past 7 - when he's been dominating dudes - LBJ is only taking 2.3 per game and he's making just under 1 of them. Most shockingly, in the revenge-win against Brooklyn and the Sunday win over Charlotte, he didn't even attempt a three, marking the only two times this season he has not taken a three pointer in a game.
Bron is shooting 37.5% from deep in this 7-game run, which is a godsend for him. He'll never be an elite 3-point shooter, but the fact that he's trending back toward mediocrity could make a huge difference for the Cavaliers in the playoffs. As everyone knows, the success of the Cavaliers' postseason run is squarely on his shoulders. When Love sits out a game, LBJ goes 33/11/11 against Denver. When Kyrie sits out a game, LBJ goes 31/12/8 on Charlotte. When LBJ sits out a game, Cleveland blows a 20 point lead to the Rockets.
With LeBron rounding into shape, the questions about the Cavs getting shocked in the East are about to get checked at the door.