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September 22, 2011
What's in Store
Projecting LeBron James

by Kevin Pelton

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The upcoming NBA season could be meaningful when it comes to defining the careers of all types of players. With the help of Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system, we're taking a look at what to expect from some of the league's stars this season in order to see what potentially missing the season due to an NBA lockout might mean in the big picture.

We've started things off by projecting the 2011-12 season stats for LeBron James.

2011-12 projection: 27.8 ppg, 7.5 apg, 7.1 rpg

In terms of per-game averages, James' projection looks a lot like a carbon copy of his 2010-11 campaign, which saw him average 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists. Still, SCHOENE projects an important step forward for James from long distance. His projection calls for 35.9 percent three-point shooting, which would be a notable improvement over his previous career high of 34.4 percent, set in 2008-09. At the same age, players similar to James tended to hone their outside game.

Already, there is some evidence of this happening with James. He shot 35.3 percent on threes during last season's playoffs. He has also made steady progress in terms of his shooting just inside the arc. According to Hoopdata.com, James has improved his accuracy from 16-to-23 feet from 34.0 percent in 2006-07 all the way to 44.6 percent a season ago.

SCHOENE's projection of more playmaking and less rebounding from James is based largely on his performance in Cleveland, but it also makes sense in the context of how the Heat rotation will be different with a healthy Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. Erik Spoelstra will likely need fewer minutes from James as a small-ball power forward and could make more use of the giant lineup that puts the 6-8 James at the point to make room for Miller.

Career outlook

Barring catastrophic injury, the rest of James' career is a lock. Because he was so successful so young, James is on a historic pace in several categories. Per Basketball-Reference.com, James has scored over 2,500 more points than any other player through his age-26 season (defined by age as of Feb. 1). James already has 17,362 career points; by the same age, just three others--Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan--had topped 14,000.

When SCHOENE was used to project out the rest of James' career two summers ago, it suggested he could top 46,000 points in his career -- more than 20 percent better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's current NBA record. The move to Miami must temper those expectations. James' scoring average dropped by three points per game last season, and he's unlikely to ever threaten 30 points a night while playing with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

Playing with another superstar also means that we've likely already seen the best of James in terms of advanced statistics. Part of what makes go-to players so valuable is that their scoring efficiency is less sensitive to changes in their role as compared to peers who are dependent on their teammates. So James did not see a corresponding uptick in his shooting percentages to offset his lower usage rate last season. Instead, his True Shooting Percentage slipped slightly and he turned the ball over more frequently.

Of course, that didn't stop James from recording the league's top PER and posting a league-high 21.2 wins above replacement by Basketball Prospectus' WARP rating system. His lead over his peers when it comes to career WARP by this age (limited to the past three decades) is even more dramatic (see chart at right).

Player              Year     WARP
---------------------------------
LeBron James       10-11    167.6
Michael Jordan     89-90    126.2
Shaquille O'Neal   98-99    122.1
Tracy McGrady      05-06    121.7
Kevin Garnett      02-03    118.9
Magic Johnson      85-86    115.1

Naturally, this list is dominated by recent players who entered the league out of high school. None of them even comes close to matching James' success, however. The difference between his WARP through his age-26 season and Jordan's is as large as the gap between Jordan and Isiah Thomas, who ranks 14th on the list.

What's at stake

James has set such an incredible pace that wiping out a full season's worth of statistics might not have a huge impact on his chances of making history. For example, without scoring a single point next season, James would still have the most points of any NBA player through his age-27 season. The biggest impact of losing a season of James' prime on his career stats would be changing just how high he sets the bar for the next generation of stars.

There would be secondary impacts. For example, one of the surprising results of the previous SCHOENE projection was James finishing his career second or third in NBA history in assists. He's fourth through age 26, behind Magic Johnson, Thomas and Stephon Marbury, but the group is close enough that losing a year's worth of dimes would set James back considerably.

However, fairly or not, James' legacy has always gone far beyond the numbers. In that regard, not playing this season could prove quite damaging. Despite the fact that James is just reaching his peak, the age of his Miami Heat teammates could cut the team's window for winning championships short. Miami's projected WARP totals drop off noticeably after 2011-12.

The Heat also have more at stake in the next NBA collective bargaining agreement than almost any other team. At worst, a hard cap could force Miami to trade one of its star players. More realistically, a reduction in the number of salary-cap exceptions would make it difficult for the Heat to take advantage of their status as a desirable landing spot for free agents that could add to the team's depth.

For James to ensure his spot among basketball's all-time greats, another season of piling up impressive numbers won't be enough. He's got to win a championship, and every opportunity counts.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Premium Article Can He Bounce Back? (09/22)
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