In the course of admiring the incredible 2017-18 season LeBron James is having for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the question of where it ranks among his long string of awesome campaigns arises.
This is a good question! It’s worth trying to objectively assess how LeBron is performing in this, his 15th NBA season, compared to his age-expected peak and the early years of his career. Perhaps we can discover something about the true arc of his career by laying it all out and casting judgment on when he peaked and where he is in relation to that time.
The problem you find when you attempt this, as we have in this piece, is that the dude’s career has been one long peak. LeBron climbed Everest in Year 3 and has been summit hopping the Himalayas ever since.
Nonetheless, we have looked at LeBron’s 15 regular seasons — including the current campaign, which is 28 percent complete — and ranked them. Individual and team performance matters here, albeit with considerations for the talent James had around him during any given season. The playoffs do not matter. Trust me: Some of the less spectacular regular seasons (like No. 13 on the list) were completely overshadowed by masterful playoff runs. We’re looking at regular seasons only here.
Let’s get to it. We’re ranking them from least spectacular to the very best.
15. 2003-04, aka The Rookie Season
20.9 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds, .488 true shooting, 35 wins, Rookie of the Year, ninth in MVP voting
LeBron had an excellent rookie season, quickly convincing much of the world he’d be worth the hype. Cleveland was not good, though, and the Cavaliers’ lack of success did hurt LeBron’s early reputation. There were even a couple of years there when reasonable people argued that perhaps Carmelo Anthony (who won an NCAA title and led the Nuggets to playoff trips in his first two seasons) and Dwyane Wade (a college Final Four, a playoff series win as a rookie, and a conference finals trip in Year 2) were winners, and perhaps LeBron was not. Oops.
Note that LeBron appeared on multiple MVP ballots. As a rookie.
14. 2004-05, aka The Sophomore
27.2 points, 7.2 assists, 7.4 rebounds, .554 true shooting, 42 wins, All-Star, 2 Player of the Month awards, 2nd Team All-NBA, 6th in MVP voting
LeBron’s sophomore year leaped off the page as he learned his strengths and was given the reins fully in Cleveland. He became an All-Star and All-NBA player for the first time — he’s appeared on each team every season since — and became a relatively efficient scorer as he focused on attacking the paint. Cleveland still missed the playoffs but finished over .500.
13. 2006-07, aka The Prelude
27.3 points, 6 assists, 6.7 rebounds, .552 true shooting, 50 wins, All-Star, 1 Player of the Month award, 2nd Team All-NBA, 5th in MVP voting
Let’s skip ahead now to 2006-07, the last time LeBron missed on the first team All-NBA. Statistically and in terms of team performance, this very much looks like it could be a Hall of Fame player’s best season. Instead, it’s LeBron’s third-worst individual season. Just unbelievable. This regular season is completely overshadowed by LeBron’s rampage through the Eastern Conference playoffs, which included ending the Pistons as we knew them.
12. 2014-15 aka The Return to Cleveland
25.3 points, 7.4 assists, 6 rebounds, .577 true shooting, 53 wins, All-Star, 2 Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, third in MVP voting
LeBron’s first season back in Cleveland after The Decision II was an odd one as he tried to bring Kyrie Irving along, get Kevin Love in the flow, and deal with David Blatt. An epic playoff run helps us forget that while LeBron was awesome in the regular season (per usual), he had fallen off a bit from where he’d been in Miami.
11. 2015-16, aka The Vengeance Tour II
25.3 points, 6.8 assists, 7.4 rebounds, .588 true shooting, 57 wins, All-Star, 3 Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, third in MVP voting
LeBron’s next season followed along those lines: The numbers are remarkably similar. You could flip 2015-16 and 2014-15 if you want to mark down LeBron for essentially getting Blatt fired despite being in first place. The fact that the Cavaliers won more games this season and won a title under Tyronn Lue leads me to credit LeBron here.
Still, note that by the end of the 2015-16 regular season, LeBron was no longer unanimously considered the best player in the world and he’d had at least two (or perhaps three, depending on your view on 2014-15 in Miami) less spectacular seasons in his 30s. It looked like his prime was coming to a close.
Then he went and beat the Warriors for a third championship. Unreal.
10. 2007-08, aka The Shadows
30 points, 7.2 assists, 7.9 rebounds, .568 true shooting, 45 wins, All-Star, Scoring Title, two Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, fourth in MVP voting
LeBron has one scoring title to his name, and it came in 2007-08, a season coming off his first finals appearance. James existed in the shadows this season as much as LeBron ever can. This was the year Kevin Garnett took Boston; the year Kobe Bryant got a superstar partner in Pau Gasol. Cleveland won just 45 games and this is rightly remembered as one of LeBron’s worst supporting casts. Just wild numbers, though! 30-8-7 in that pre-Warriors era was extraordinary.
9. 2016-17, aka Forget Me Not
26.4 points, 8.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, .619 true shooting, 51 wins, All-Star, two Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, fourth in MVP voting
This is last season — an epic I’m Not Done Yet campaign from LeBron. He played a grip of minutes out of necessity and made waves in a two-man MVP race. Coming off the 2016 championship in which James reminded us he is the best of his generation and perhaps still the best in the world, LeBron tried to prove it night in and night out. I daresay he succeeded. He did this at age 32.
8. 2013-14, aka The Miami Wave
27.1 points, 6.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds, .649 true shooting, 54 wins, All-Star, two Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-Defense, second in MVP voting
LeBron’s last season in Miami is remembered as a bit sleepy because of how the Spurs punked the Heat right out of the finals and how odd James’ exit that summer ended up. But this was LeBron’s most efficient scoring season to date, and he was the clear runner-up to Kevin Durant for MVP. It’s also the last season LeBron won All-Defense honors; that’s the one aspect of his game that appears to truly be over at this point.
Just to reiterate: a season in which LeBron averaged 27-7-6 on .649 true shooting and finished second in MVP voting for a 54-win team is his eighth-best season out of 15. This was a middle-of-the-road season. Unreal.
7. 2010-11, aka The Backlash
26.7 points, 7 assists, 7.5 rebounds, .594 true shooting, 58 wins, All-Star, three Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense, third in MVP voting
Reasonable people can disagree as to whether LeBron should have won MVP in 2010-11 — he’d won the previous two, he’d win the next two, and this season was just a tick below those levels — but he definitely should have finished no lower than No. 2. (Dwight Howard probably should have been the MVP; Derrick Rose shouldn’t have been higher than fourth.)
In LeBron’s first season in Miami, he figured out how to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over time to win 58 games and put up the numbers we’d come to expect. Importantly, he didn’t regress on defense in the company of big stars: he kept his nose to the grindstone.
6. 2005-06, aka Up to Something
31.4 points, 6.6 assists, 7 rebounds, .568 true shooting, 50 wins, All-Star, two Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, second in MVP voting
I still dream about this season. In LeBron’s third campaign, he proved that the hype was legit and, in my book, became the best player in the world over Kobe Bryant. This happened with a weak Cavaliers supporting cast and in Mike Brown’s first season. This LeBron season made Mike Brown’s career! (Brown is a good coach who gets a bad rap, in my book.)
LeBron was 21 and became arguably the best basketball player in the world. This, not 2010-11, is the MVP that was truly stolen from LeBron. Those numbers for a 50-win team with that roster — the five non-LeBron players who had 2,000 minutes were a 30-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 32-year-old Eric Snow, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones, and a 32-year-old Donyell Marshall — beats Steve Nash surviving Amare Stoudemire’s microfracture season.
5. 2011-12, aka The Vengeance Tour I
27.1 points, 6.2 assists, 7.9 rebounds, .605 true shooting, 46 wins (in 66 games), NBA MVP, All-Star, two Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense
LeBron’s second season in Miami brought the Heat into full villain mode. Instead of being confused and a bit hurt that so many people were angry about The Decision, and reacting to the embarrassing and weird finals loss to Dallas, LeBron and Co. leaned in and just started punking teams. That was an odd season due to the lockout, and it was capped with LeBron’s first title. It also made LeBron the MVP again, and rightfully so.
4. 2017-18, aka Still The Greatest aka The Vengeance Tour III aka G.O.A.T. Alert
Through 23 games: 28.3 points, 8.7 assists, 7.9 rebounds, .663 true shooting, one Player of the Month award
This is what we’re watching right now. What LeBron is doing right now is better than all those other incredible seasons — including an MVP season — we’ve discussed. He’s at or awful near career highs in all the counting stats and shooting more efficiently than ever. His defense is not what it once was — that is what drops him a bit — but if not for James Harden’s masterpiece, he’d be the current favorite for the MVP.
He turns 33 in a month.
We are witnessing greatness like we have rarely and possibly never seen in this sport. Right now. Three nights a week. Cherish it.
3. 2008-09, aka The First MVP
28.4 points, 7.2 assists, 7.6 rebounds, .591 true shooting, 66 wins, NBA MVP, All-Star, four Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense
My heavens, what a season this was. After a reborn Boston ejected him from the playoffs the prior spring, LeBron emphatically won the MVP and asserted that despite not having a top-line supporting cast, he would continue to be a massive problem. This was also the season LeBron reached elite scoring efficiency, especially for a high-volume scorer. LeBron also landed on the All-Defense team for the first time.
This almost grabbed the No. 2 spot on this list due to the 66 wins, the defensive growth, and the four Player of the Month awards (out of six months). But he was even better the next season.
2. 2009-10, aka Back to Back
29.7 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds, .604 true shooting, 61 wins, NBA MVP, All-Star, four Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense
When folks try to claim that LeBron didn’t become the best basketball player in the world until 2011 or 2012 because he trailed Kobe, I ask them to go check out the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. I mean, look at this: 30-8-7 with elite efficiency for a 61-win team with all-league defense. This is still one of the five greatest individual seasons I’ve ever watched. Dude made Anthony Parker, a 37-year-old Shaq, a 33-year-old Antawn Jamison, and freaking J.J. Hickson winning NBA players. And he did it with aplomb!
1. 2012-13, aka The One True King
26.8 points, 7.3 assists, 8 rebounds, .640 true shooting, 66 wins, NBA MVP, All-Star, five Player of the Month awards, 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense
The single greatest individual season I have seen since Jordan in 1995-96. This is when the Heatles truly became the Flying Death Machine; 27-8-7 on all-timer efficiency with all-league defense for a 66-win team. If 2008 through 2010 were LeBron taking a mediocre roster to crazy heights, this season was LeBron turning an excellent team into futuristic hellion.
LeBron was one Carmelo Anthony vote from being the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. (Steph Curry ended up with that honor a few years later.) Carmelo also won Eastern Conference Player of the Month in April, robbing LeBron of a clean six-month sweep of the award.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were on this team and put up numbers. And LeBron was still that damn dominant.
LeBron won’t reach these heights again because, frankly, it may be a decade or three before any player reaches these heights again.