Jun 12, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) reacts during the third quarter of game four of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat: Is LeBron James in Decline?


After being summarily stomped by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat have been subject to intense national scrutiny, as questions about their uncertain future loom large. Though most Heat-related topics have been beaten to death, there is one issue that has gotten surprisingly little attention. Specifically, LeBron James, and his noticeable drop in production during the 2014 NBA season.

To be clear, LeBron was outstanding this past year, and arguably the best player in the league. To those who frequently follow the Heat however, it was apparent that James was a step slower than he was in previous seasons, and it showed on the stat-sheet.

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As depicted by the table above, LeBron has suffered a drop in every statistical category since 2013, outside of his slight increase in shooting efficiency.

When breaking down LeBron’s play with adjusted plus/minus derivatives, it appears that his game has suffered the most on the defensive side of the ball.

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James, once known for his dynamic and versatile brand of defense, fell off a cliff during the 2014 season. At best he was a mediocre defender, and when not factoring in box-score or prior-year data (D-RAPM), an argument can be made that he was significantly below average.

In a sense, such regression was to be expected. LeBron has played more total minutes then any other NBA player since joining the Miami Heat, and regardless of how indestructible he may seem, that workload takes a toll.

However, there is concern that LeBron’s (relatively) underwhelming 2014 season is a sign of things to come, as his majesty will be turning 30 this coming season, an age where players typically began to decline.

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LeBron James is still an elite player in the NBA, and will likely remain one for years to come. That being said, many refuse to acknowledge the natural decline of their favorite superstar (until he’s hobbling around the court with a ruptured Achilles), so its refreshing to look at LeBron like he’s human, and not the alien-cyborg he’s impersonated for years.

Similarly, recognizing LeBron’s inevitable decline could serve as an incentive for teams to surround him with reliable help, as he simply won’t be able to shoulder-the-load like he has in previous seasons.

Special thanks to Jeremias Engelmann for the RPM/RAPM and Age-Curve data, and Daniel Myers for the ASPM data.

Tags: Featured LeBron James Miami Heat NBA Popular

  • Kyle Sherman

    Sure, the decline is inevitable, but he still passes the eyeball test. He noticeably coasted through the reg season and proved his defensive worth in the playoffs. He is still at the top of his game, it just came down to a lack of help when it was all on the line. Save the moneyball stats for Billy Beane. This is hoops.

    • haggzzz

      but you’ve gotta realize that you’re comment has underlined why he will never be and should never be compared to Jordan. Jordan would’ve taken each on of those games against the spurs (win or lose) and said to himself I need to score 50-60+ and got it done, LeBron hasn’t and never will have that, he had the chance to make a statement and do that (especially in game 5) but again he didn’t. Don’t get me wrong he’s good, but to be demanding a max deal is beyond me cause he does need a surrounding cast and the more money he asks for the more birdman and haslems he’s gonna get and as I said earlier LeBron James can’t take a game 2,3,4 or 5 like a guy who wants to win a championship should and could, he’s not good enough.

      • Kyle Sherman

        He’s not Jordan. He’s soft. I get heat for saying it, but in the cramp game, Jordan would have gone back out there on his hands if he had to. Even if he couldn’t go, he should have kept going out there and being carried off. That’s just what it takes. Lebron does not have that and never will. I love Lebron, but his lack of toughness and killer instinct drives me insane. You are completely right

        • Michael Saenz

          What about when Jordan left a Finals game because of cramps? We gonna act like that never happened or nah?

          • Kyle Sherman

            Did he come back? At what point in any finals game did he spend the 4th quarter on the bench crying? The flu game? No. What about Isaiah on one leg in 88? This is what it takes. Cramps happen. The flu happens. Sprained ankles happen. The ability to put those things behind you and find a focus deep within that few will ever know is what separates the elite from the immortal. Few can do this. But even fewer are all in win at all costs cold blooded assassins. Lebron is all time elite. He is no assassin.

          • Michael Saenz

            Just don’t understand why we can’t let LeBron be LeBron and Jordan be Jordan. We need to learn how to appreciate his greatness before it’s gone. I’m not saying Bron is better, or going to be better, than Jordan, either.

            We constantly attack LeBron because we’re afraid of what he can do to all our childhood hero. He isn’t “soft,” he’s human.

            There are people that are growing up in this generation that will view LeBron as the GOAT, there’s no way around it.

          • Kyle Sherman

            You are completely right. I grew up in the magic/bird era and came of age as Jordan was entering his prime. I am spoiled. I expect too much, I know. I love Lebron, and want him to display the competitiveness that I grew up watching. This is a different time. Good or bad, Lebron is the perfect star for this time. He is an unparalleled talent. I know I should appreciate him for what he is. I just can’t. I saw what it took, and I want more. Call me greedy.

      • http://hoopdon.weebly.com HoopDon

        Its doubtful that even Jordan could have saved a broken-down Heat team from the Spurs juggernaut.

        I agree that demanding a max-deal, especially if Bosh/Wade are willing to take significant pay-cuts, is somewhat outlandish.

    • http://hoopdon.weebly.com HoopDon

      I loved Moneyball (the movie).

      • Kyle Sherman

        Me too lol

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    He is in physical decline. You can see it in the defensive plays he conserves energy on. You can see it in the plays where he (brilliantly) plays the glass instead of elevating and dunking.

    You don’t have the same motor at 30 that you do at 25. You just don’t.

    That doesn’t mean you are in decline as a player though. Improving your skill set and mental ability cancels out even moderate physical regression. James is probably on the backside of his peak right now, but he is still on the plateau where there isn’t any real change in how effective he is.

    Many of those numbers can be explained by how much more of the load he had to carry for Miami this year with the regression from Wade and the point guards.

    • http://hoopdon.weebly.com HoopDon

      I agree that LeBron’s improved skills/IQ have preserved his scoring ability, but he’s regressed in every other facet of the game.

      His defense was objectively bad this year (for whatever reason), and his rebounding and assist numbers also fell.

      Fatigue and a heavier burden certainly played a role in his “decline”, but neither of those factors will likely change in the coming years.

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        I don’t see the assist numbers as being a part of decline. I see that as Miami’s role players becoming slightly less effective. Miami was noticeably worse from three this year, and if memory serves he actually generated more assist opportunities this year than last: Miami just didn’t do as good of a job of converting on them (you could argue they weren’t as good of looks, i suppose).

        I wonder how much skipping his offseason conditioning routine for his honeymoon affected him too. It seems ridiculous to think that could affect him months later, but the season grinds players down, not build them up.

        Regardless I think the stats exaggerated things a bit. Defensively it is hard to defend (pun intended) the noticeable difference from 2013.

        Like you said though, he probably isn’t getting any better than he was this year. The decline should be readily apparently in 2 or 3 years. 34 is probably the last season we should realistically expect to be a part of his “prime.”