Jason Miller

Nine games into the young 2014/2015 NBA season, many astute observers have noticed that LeBron James hasn’t quite played like the LeBron James NBA fans have grown accustomed to seeing. That is, he hasn’t been steamrolling down the lane and throwing down thunderous dunks with utter disregard for human life (at least not nearly as much as he used to).

As such, questions about his health, age and athleticism have been raised, and they haven’t fallen deaf upon James’ ears. Last week, he responded to a reporter’s question regarding the disappearance of his high-flying act so far this season:

“I apologize I haven’t been above the rim, but I’m in the lineup. Whatever it takes to help us win.”

The problem is, at 5-4 the Cavs haven’t been winning at the rate their fans would like them to, and there are those who point to James’ apparent diminished athleticism as a major reason why. It’s almost as if the King has begun to show mercy to the victims he so often posterized.

His response only seems to have opened the door to more questions:

Has father time finally begun to catch up to the runaway freight train that is LeBron James? Does he have developing/serious injuries? Why isn’t he dunking as much, let alone “throwing the hammer down” (as Austin Carr would say) over helpless NBA defenders that once feared to stand in his way?

These questions can only truly be answered by LeBron James himself, but are such questions even warranted? Fresh off a week of gaudy statistics (35 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.7 apg, 50% from three and nearly 60% from the field overall), LBJ earned his 46th career “Eastern Conference Player of the Week” of award. During that span, the Cavs were also able to rip off four straight wins before losing to a talented and hungry (albeit thus far disappointing) Denver Nuggets team at home.

If that’s LeBron James “losing a step,” it’s safe to assume any NBA team would be grateful to have him on their side.

{adinserter 2}It’s important not to lose sight of the forest staring at the trees— that is to say not losing sight of the long term goals in favor of short term return. That’s a lesson LeBron James learned during his tenure at Miami. A common saying is that a person learns who they truly are during their college years, and as LeBron experienced his 4 years in Miami as the basketball version of his own “college experience,” LeBron discovered who he is as a basketball player during his time with the Heat.

Since graduating from his 4 years in Miami, LeBron is a proven winner and a leader; but it wasn’t always that way. If you were a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2003-2010, you remember the explosively athletic and incredibly gifted basketball player that was LeBron James. He twice broke the 30 ppg plateau and his ceiling as a player only seemed to get higher with each passing year in the league. He threw down rim-rattling dunks with ease and highlight reel chase-down blocks from behind became commonplace as his game began to develop on the defensive end. He was Cleveland’s “chosen one,” destined to lead the Cavs to the promised land with his superhuman athleticism and basketball IQ.

Except what you don’t remember is LeBron hoisting the Larry O’ Brian trophy in a Cleveland Cavaliers Jersey. What you do remember is him hoisting it twice donning the apparel of the Miami Heat.

So what changed? Why was LeBron able to do it in Miami but not in Cleveland? Many will say it’s because his supremely talented supporting cast were far greater than any team he played on in Cleveland (Eric Snow and Ira Newble, anyone?), and they would be right. But that’s not the only difference.

LeBron evolved his game to achieve and sustain success on the highest level. If you look at his individual statistics during his time in Miami, his ppg averages were some of the worst in his career. While he still was throwing down monstrous dunks and insane alley oops, he was already beginning to show signs of “slowing down” from an athletic standpoint. Media members had already begun to note that LeBron seemed to have traded some of his speed for power; but it seems like LeBron got smarter in addition to getting stronger. In fact, the changes in athleticism and the higher risk of aggressively attacking the rim has turned into a new, more effective strategy for his team.

Knowing that in transition or in a situation where he’s driving to the basket, teams will inevitably put bodies in front of him. Seeing that every single game in his career, LeBron has found ways to make the best of the situation in two ways: free throws and assists. LeBron is the best non-PG passer in the league, and he knows it:

“I understand those are huge momentum plays… in the halfcourt the kind of put a lot of bodies in front of me. I’ve been able to find open guys.” – LeBron James in Transition

In addition, while LeBron’s athleticism is in question, his body control is next to flawless. He now actively draws fouls to avoid expending too much energy or taking too great of a risk putting his body in a position to make momentum plays or sufferer monumental injuries. Learning how to absorb contact and finding the strength after to finish is how LeBron has become not only athletically impossible to guard, but also strategically challenging. Both of James’ assist and free throw statistics are on pace to return to his personal best averages from his first tenure in Cleveland. When the Cavs play tough defense to get into transition, LeBron executes this strategy to perfection.

If you look at three of the players who have sustained massive amounts of success in the league, they share those offensive weapons that LeBron now deploys in his offensive arsenal. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki have each played at all-star like levels well beyond their athletic primes and have remained more than relevant on the hardwood.

They’ve been able to do so because over the course of their career, they’ve learned to optimize their skills in a way that promotes efficiency (well, maybe not so much for Kobe) and longevity. Each possesses an amazingly effective back-to-the-basket game, and each has a reliable jump shot that allows them to conserve their energy and put their bodies in less jeopardy. Even Tim Duncan’s midrange jumper has improved dramatically as he has aged.

Case in point, as their athletic skills began to wane they learned how to utilize their offensive talents in a way that promotes long-term success and health. All three of those guys have won NBA championships on their respective teams, and have done so at older ages.

Bringing this all back to LeBron, he is a well known avid student of the NBA game. He ruthlessly studies other player’s games and what they did in order to become successful. He is constantly evolving. He’s seen first-hand what Dirk and Duncan’s “low on flash, high on effectiveness” games have brought them, as they’ve each defeated a James-led team in the finals.

What he learned is that thunderous dunks, off-balanced fade away jumpers and highlight reel plays don’t necessarily equate to wins, but that longevity and efficiency from the field equate to wins more often than not. Each year he spent with Miami he set a new personal career high for field goal percentage, demonstrating his affinity for becoming more efficient and his maturity to rise beyond a man of high ppg.

LeBron is still one of the most explosive athletes in the world, let alone the NBA, and he’s shown flashes of that this season:

But one must also remember that he’s playing with a different body this season, and he’s still getting his conditioning up to par. He has come out and said that he feels 82 games might be too long for the regular season, and he says that because of how physically demanding each and every game is.

With that in mind, entering his 30’s, he knows father time has never lost a fight. He also knows there are methods and tendencies that allow one to fend him off longer than normal. James’ tenure with the Heat allowed him to gain that understanding and couple it with an understanding of how to achieve and maintain a winning culture.

And the version of LeBron we now see before our eyes intends to change the losing culture in Cleveland, and he’s going to do so through the methods he adopted in Miami. He knows who he is as a player, and he knows what it takes to win. He knows what it takes to remain effective throughout the season while mitigating injury-risk and reckless play that might not translate to success when it matters most: the playoffs. His surrounding cast is as talented as it’s ever been, so he doesn’t need to do everything like he did his first time around in Cleveland.

So while the questions regarding his athleticism will remain, LeBron will continue to do what he now knows how to do, and that is play winning basketball. In the now famous words of Aaron Rodgers, “RELAX.” The Cavaliers will take time to gel, and LeBron understands what he needs to do in order to maximize his time and talents as a basketball player and change the culture here in Cleveland to that of a championship caliber team.