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Old 04-17-2010, 06:42 AM   #1
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Default John Hollinger (ESPN): James May be Having the Greatest NBA Season EVER

No mention of Kobe, here, haters. This is for all-time great...

LeBron closing in on Jordan

By John Hollinger

Normally at this time of year, we would be writing breathless articles about the MVP race, rallying our support behind one candidate or another and sifting through torrents of angry e-mails supporting that player's rivals.

Not this year.

The MVP race has been over since about mid-January. LeBron James has run so far away from the pack that he could shoot 0-for 0 from the field over his final eight games and still win the award going away. (For fun, I fact-checked this: Even with 100 straight misses, no assists and no rebounds in his next 200 minutes, he'd still lead the league in PER.)

Only two items of interest remain. First, will some sycophant homer screw up what should be a unanimous decision with a completely indefensible vote for his local guy? And second, is this the best individual season a player has ever had?

As you might suspect, today's topic deals with the second of those questions. Some of this may sound familiar, as this time a year ago I mentioned that James was en route to one of the best statistical seasons in history.

Here's the thing: This season, he's been better.

Once again, a hallowed record (at least in my world) is in play for James as we enter the final eight games: He could surpass Michael Jordan's 1987-88 campaign for the greatest single-season PER in the modern era. I have to add the "modern" qualifier because the league didn't keep track of things like blocks and individual turnovers before 1973-74, rendering the PER exercise a guessing game for players from previous eras.

James' current PER of 31.81 is second best in "modern" history, and with eight games left (of which he'll probably play only five or six), he retains an outside shot at breaking Jordan's all-time mark of 31.89. At the very least, he's going to be within hailing distance.

Top All-time PER Seasons
Michael Jordan 1987-88 35.0 5.5 5.9 40.4 31.89
LeBron James 2009-10 29.8 7.2 8.6 39.0 31.81
Michael Jordan 1990-91 31.5 6.0 5.5 37.0 31.79
LeBron James 2008-09 28.4 7.6 7.2 38.6 31.76
Michael Jordan 1989-90 33.6 6.9 6.3 39.0 31.31
Michael Jordan 1988-89 32.5 8.0 8.0 40.2 31.29

Regardless, James will almost certainly set another record: The best two-year PER stretch of any player in history. James was no slouch last season, finishing at 31.76 for the third-best PER ever (well, until he bumped it down to fourth this season); combined, that gives him a two-year average of 31.78. The best Jordan mustered was 31.55.

Obviously, the larger James versus Jordan argument won't be much of a debate until LeBron picks up some hardware in the postseason. Nonetheless, I can't emphasize enough what an extraordinary accomplishment James' past two seasons represent. We've flinched at comparing current players to Jordan after several previous "next Jordans" were found wanting. But that has put up a mental barrier to a declaration that the numbers see as obvious: In terms of regular-season performance, we're watching the next Jordan.

I'd argue that we can extend that comparison further. When Jordan was at the same stage of his career as LeBron, the press treated him almost exactly the same. Like James, he was a wondrous regular-season performer who had never won anything important and thus couldn't be compared with the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Looking back, that whole notion seems laughable, if not downright quaint yet we're falling in the exact same trap. Jordan, remember, didn't win a title until his seventh season. As luck would have it, James is in his seventh season, and his odds of winning a crown have never looked better. With the Lakers faltering down the stretch and the Celtics succumbing to age, only James' nemesis from a year ago -- Orlando -- would rate as an even-money proposition to stop him from winning the trophy.

That part of the James-Jordan comparison won't be settled for another two months, his regular-season one in a little more than two weeks.

James leads the league in scoring, at least for the moment (Kevin Durant is only 0.2 behind, and if James rests the final couple of games, Durant will have a number to shoot for, David Robinson-style, in the season finale). But LeBron is not just scoring. He's getting his 29.8 points per game with incredibly high-percentage shots. James' true shooting percentage of 60.4 ranks in the league's top 25, and most of the players ahead of him are snipers with much smaller offensive roles.

Yet for me, his passing is the most amazing part. In fact, for a wing player, it's eye-popping: James has cracked the league's top 15 in pure point rating even though he plays small forward. (Except for James and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, every player in the top 40 plays the point).

Or try this one on for size: No forward in league history has ever averaged more than eight assists per game until this season; Larry Bird's 7.6 assists per game in 1986-87 came the closest. James is averaging 8.6, even though he's playing in one of the slow-paced eras in league annals and averages a relatively modest 39.0 minutes per game. Put him at Bird's pace in 1986-87, and he'd be averaging a whopping 9.3.

The same applies to most of James' numbers. On a per possession basis, his triple-crown stats of 29.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists crush Oscar Robertson's triple-double season in 1961-62 or Jordan's 32.5-8.0-8.0 season in 1988-89 or just about any statistical season in history.

All except one, that is. James' output still trails Jordan's peak campaign in 1987-88 by a whisker. He has a chance to glide past him in the final two weeks but, with Cleveland throttling down to coast into the postseason, probably won't.

Nonetheless, it's a season for the ages -- and his second of the like in a row. We've held off on comparing James to Jordan for some good reasons, especially since he hasn't won a title yet. But at this point, there's nobody else left to whom we can compare him. - LeBron closing in on Jordan
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