LeBron James: Robot? (15 Min Read)
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
LeBron James is definitively one of the greatest athletes to ever set foot on this earth. This is taking into consideration a multitude of factors: his athleticism, his health, and his overall management of public relations throughout his career. LeBron is 32 years old and playing the best basketball of his life. He is currently neck and neck with the beard in the race for the MVP. Technically, this is his 15th season in the NBA, but this is only partly right. Since LeBron is likely a robot, he has been to the post-season every year since the 2005-2006 season, and to the NBA finals for the last 8 seasons in a row. Playing in 217 additional postseason games (by the way, LeBron has never missed a postseason game) over the course of his career, on top of his current 1082 games (as of November 29), means that LeBron has played roughly 18 seasons worth of NBA basketball. Holy. Shit. Somehow, he’s only getting better. This season, he is averaging 28.2 points (his highest total since the 09’-10’ campaign), 8.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists with a 57.9% FG percentage, 42% FG percentage from 3 (his best ever), and a true shooting percentage* of 65.7%, the second highest in the league for any starting non-center behind Tony Snell. Seriously though, is he a robot?
*TS% = True Shoointg Percentage: An advanced metric that more accurately measures a players efficiency at shooting the ball by including FG%, 3FG%, and FT% individually into a formula.
One of the most astonishing things about LeBron is his reputation relative to his size. James is known for his strong finishes at the rim, his thunderous dunks, and his bully-ball tactics in mismatches off the pick and roll or in the high post. It’s simply common knowledge that James is big and strong.
Justifiably. Yet, James is only listed as 6’8, 250lbs. Don’t get me wrong, this is a respectable size in the NBA, but by no means is he even close to the biggest. LeBron is listed as a small forward, but realistically acts as the de facto point guard running the floor while often defending power forwards who are usually bigger than him. The average power forward in the NBA is 6’10 and 245 lbs. Simply regarding LeBron’s size as one of his success factors is a misconception. There are currently 61 active players with at least 1 game played this season who are listed as > 6’7 and > 250lbs. All bigger than LeBron with the potential to utilize their bodies in a similar way. But who wields the title of bully-ball king? None other than James himself. Don’t sleep on the fact that LeBron has found a way to completely utilize his size and speed in all aspects of his game as a two-way player. That’s why it’s rare for players to even challenge LeBron at the rack when he has a head full of steam and he’s headed for the rim.
LeBron’s unbridled ability to take control of a game when he wants to is one of the brightest spots on his already gleaming basketball resume. And in the rare occasion that he can’t score himself, he is consistently able to facilitate his teammates success. No lead is safe in the fourth quarter, and apparently neither is a fast break layup.
I mean, look at the way he lets Ian Clarke get this steal, just so he can chase-down block and embarrass the poor kid. During a Christmas match-up when the Warriors-Cavs rivalry was at its height nonetheless. What a sadistic freak. Just the fact that he has the confidence to do that is disgusting in and of itself. Somebody control this man.
At 32 (usually outside or on the tail end of an athletes prime), James has broken the Knowledge-Prime continuum (comparing age on the x-axis vs knowledge/skill level on the y-axis).
*Under the assumption of a player with a long, healthy career
A professional athlete will undergo an initial period during their first few seasons where they experience poorer statistical performances than they will average in their career, as expected. Totally obvious. Rookies are making the transition from college ball (or in James case high school), where undeveloped bodies are exploited and nobody plays D, to a league where fully-sized and able-bodied men are quicker, faster, and more experienced. It’s only natural for this transition period to exist. This is where players lack the knowledge and experience to perform at the highest level. Their physical growth combined with their mental development over years of practice and exposure to the league is what usually makes them better as players. In terms of the knowledge-prime continuum, the intersection between their physical apex and the knowledge they possess at the time is what will inevitably make their plateau. Whereas LeBron just skipped this phase. His basketball knowledge and experience have been continually ascending with his physical talent every year since he entered the NBA. As an 18-year-old, James averaged 20.9 pts, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists and had been touted by many as having the highest basketball IQ they had ever seen. The only other rookies drafted post 2000 with close numbers were Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant. This was LeBron's first game as a rookie. God damn.
Of all the things I’ve mentioned, easily the most miraculous feat is James durability and health. As I said before, in all likelihood he is a robot, so all of this conjecture may mean nothing. Among all active players in the NBA right now, no player has gone to the line more than LeBron James. He has taken over 10,000 free throws in his career. If you watch basketball often, you know that injuries often occur on fouls in the motion of shooting. That is a lot of damage to your body. Yet, he remains intact.
He is also currently averaging the most minutes per game in the NBA. As a 32-year-old. His odometer runs higher than any player ever, given the same time period of play. How is that even possible?! To put this into perspective, LeBron has played 18 seasons (per my opening statement above) worth of NBA basketball – a total of 1299 games as of Nov 29, 2017. During the regular season, LeBron averages a floor coverage of 2.36 miles/game and during the postseason those numbers are inflated to 2.61 miles/game. Using these two numbers with equal weighting to their respective games played, LeBron James has run roughly 3120 miles or 5021 km over the course of his career. That’s the equivalent of about 119 marathons! This has only been made possible by the fact that LeBron’s body has stayed in one piece. The most stress he has experienced throughout his whole career is soreness in his back and knee, and some ill-timed cramps.
It’s difficult to quantify games missed due to injury because teams don’t make distinctions between a player’s legitimate rest vs. a player’s rest from day-to-day injuries. But there are still some numbers that stand out. Here is a graph from ESPN.com’s Five Thirty-Eight on LeBron’s indestructible career relative to some legends. This graph looks at the participation rate (games played/82) over the career of these players. These are the players with the highest participation rates of all-time, with one commonality among all of them except James, a major injury.
Considering James has been to the line over 10,000 times in his career, the nature of his aggressive play on both ends of the floor, his usage rate, and the ease of injury that can come from one misstep (Gordon Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, Blake Griffin), it is a fucking miracle this guy has had an injury-free (knock on wood) career. Or is it?
James approaches his body in a similar manner to how a scientist approaches a research study. He understands that there is time, exploration, adaptation, and investment needed for sustainability and longevity. If you were like me and watched every single one of LeBron’s Instagram stories this summer, you know how much the methodology behind training has shifted over the years for athletes, both young and old (and how fun LeBron is).
As you grow older, the focus is lesser on weight training and running reps, but instead more on elements like eccentric and concentric focused contractions, lateral movement, flexibility to reduce likelihood of injury, stability activation, and body weight exercises.
That is why there is a revolution of players who are taking on yoga, cycling, and beach volleyball in the offseason. The new shift is centered on quicker recovery, as opposed to the higher level of inflammation that is paired with lifting weights. Each workout is tailored to each player’s needs, instead of standardized programs across an organization. There is an understanding that each players body type is different based on a number of factors including their height, weight, age, and history of injuries. They respond differently to various exercises.
James recognizes that his health is quite literally worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It directly impacts his legacy, something he cares about much more deeply than his money. And LeBron willingly makes that investment every year. And boy, it’s not cheap.
Bill Simmons from The Ringer spoke with Malcolm Gladwell (a fellow podcaster, definitely check out Revisionist History) in his podcast about a conversation he had with Maverick Carter (James business partner and childhood friend).
Simmons on his conversation with Carter: “I asked him, ‘What’s the biggest misconception about LeBron? What’s the one thing people don’t realize about LeBron?’ And he (Carter) said, ‘People don’t realize how hard he works on his body.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He (Carter) says ‘LeBron spends like a million and a half dollars a year on his body.’ And I say ‘What does that mean?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, he’s replicated the gym that whatever team — whether it was Miami or Cleveland — he’s replicated all the equipment they have in the team’s gym in his house. He has two trainers. Everywhere he goes, he has a trainer with him.’
Simmons to Gladwell: “He’s got chefs. He has all the science on how to sleep. All these different things. Masseuses. Everything he does in his life is constructed to have him play basketball and to stay on the court and to be as healthy as possible and to absorb punishment when he goes into the basket and he gets crushed by people. Now think about what an advantage that is compared to what the guys had 40 years ago when Dave Cowens just puts on his Converses, does a couple stretches, ducks some secondhand cigarette smoke … and then he rides coach. LeBron has just created this whole life to survive an NBA season and a playoff series. I don’t think he’s missed a playoff game. He’s played 13 years. He never missed a playoff game. He’s played like almost 200 playoff games.”
Hey, you’ve got to spend money to make money. And no investment has paid off more in dividends than this one for James. He was one of the first players to use and purchase his own cryotherapy chamber alongside fellow athletes Kobe Bryant and Floyd Mayweather— cryotherapy uses dry air vapors that reach subzero temperatures in order to decrease pain and inflammation and facilitate faster body recovery. He gets massages multiple times per week. He has been seen wearing therapy boots on the way to the arena, which increases blood circulation. The list goes on and on.
Most recently, a video went viral when James began a new pregame routine. He started by receiving and throwing passes while balancing on these yoga bubbles, otherwise called Waff pads to increase stability in his ankles.
Trainers describe them as a “proprioception tool that helps control and boost unconscious movement—something important to maneuver through a hyper-fluid NBA game that requires jumping, sliding and sprinting without conscious thought.” “It also serves as an assessment tool," Gautier, the French workout guru and Waff Founder, says. "If you put an athlete on two Waffs and you have an athlete just balance, you can see which chain he or she favors. LeBron is doing it to make sure all the proprioceptors of his tendons and ligaments are firing." Gautier points out that its pièce de rèsistance (see what I did there, he is French and… nvm) is how it acts as a lie detector test. Like a student just caught cheating by their teacher, there is nowhere to hide in this test. If your ankle is weak, you will be exposed.
Another signal of James greatness comes from his constant work in the gym on his weaknesses. Naturally, once statistics propelled the league into doubling their 3 point shots per game, the players followed suit and have been working on their three point shots in the off-season ever since. 3 and D players are now valued more than a traditional role player and 7 footers without jump shots are slowly losing their place in this league. LeBron has been a notoriously mediocre three-point shooter his whole career and was never commended for his jump shot either. But look at the evolution of his FG% from the floor and 3.
They continually get better. There is clearly a positive trend line in James shooting ability. LeBron doesn’t take his weaknesses for granted, he openly embraces them and turns them into his strengths. After watching him play for a few years, I never thought I would fear his shot consistently. But James has continued to surprise me for a long time.
He started doing this thing over the last couple of seasons when the shot clock is running down, where instead of running a play, James pulls the ball out to the hash marks way beyond the arc, gets his teammates to spread the floor around the perimeter, and he slowly walks his opponent to the three-point line, gaining a little bit of momentum, and giving the defender an ultimatum. Do I sag off and give him an uncontested jumper? Or do I play tight and probably get burned by the streaking James? Lately, he pulls up almost every time, even when his defender plays tight and has his hand in LeBron’s face. James is just that confident. His shot has gotten that much better. How do you defend that? Look at this play against the Knicks. He has Porzingis switch onto him, one of the longest guys in the game. He pulls the ball out, walks down, creates a little bit of space and drains the long three in a tied 97-97 game with 1:50 left at MSG, quieting the crowd. (The video will start at 4:39).
LeBron James makes his teammates better. He teaches them how to be successful and makes it possible for them to reach heights they didn't know they could reach. The tough part is that LeBron has never had a coach strong enough to build a system that thrives around him. He has practically done it himself. Realistically, LeBron is the coach of the Cavaliers. Often times he makes the play calls, and Ty Lue is left asking him what to do, carrying this confused look on his face.
The last piece I want to touch on in regards to LeBron James is what makes him one of the greatest overall athletes of all-time, not only looking at his freakish athleticism, but also the inner workings of his private and business life. There will always be athletes that have physically dominated more than LeBron James, but there has never been an athlete that has been under the highest level of scrutiny 24 hours a day, 365 days a year that has come out as unscathed. No athlete at this level has managed themselves this professionally while remaining grounded and likeable. Think of any major athlete that has been view under a microscope consitently and has comparable talent to LeBron. Now ask, how clean is their record? How well functioning is their family? Are they mentally healthy? How are their relationships with their loved ones? LeBron has seemingly managed to develop a healthy family life while somehow escaping any form of controversy, weaving through the intricacies of press and media conferences for years. The only blip on his record was ‘The Decision’ back in 2009 where he aired a 90 minute kick in the balls to Cleveland fans on national TV when he decided to take his talents to South Beach.
Navigating the turbulent waters of media is a difficult thing to do, considering we are now at a point where LeBron is asked about ANYTHING happening in the league or in our world in general on a daily basis. The margin of error is so small and context is as flimsy these days as the rims Shaq once dunked on. He has built his brand so highly, that reporters flock to him with random questions that everyone accepts as quo because it’s simply LeBron. What he says matters. People listen intently and dissect every word he says to the media. They care what he has to say and he knows it.
It’s not as if he took the easy road either. He has used his platform to infamously speak about Trayvon Martins murder, police brutality, racism, and most recently called Trump a ‘bum’ after the President tweeted about Steph Curry refusing to visit the White House. He comments on issues he cares about, knowing it can damage his brand and image, which could potentially cost him millions. What often comes off as casual remarks are actually calculated moves that LeBron and his team likely discuss every day. LeBron’s tactics may seem in the moment, but don’t think for a second he isn’t playing the long game. James has the foresight and the ambition to do it all.
He’s said he wants to own an NBA team when his career is all said and done. With James inking a lifetime contract with Nike that is said to be valued north of a billion dollars, I would expect to see him in the owner’s box within the next twenty-five years. In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see James continue his Brady-esque streak. He will consistently outperform people ten years younger than him and rack up titles until he’s 40. Because well, he’s LeBron James.
And if whoever designed his robot programming decides to turns James from a basketball god into a soldier, Elon Musk will have been right, because we would all be doomed.
P.s. LeBron is going to the Lakers next year.