Did LeBron Get Too Good Too Fast?
Shri Khalpada

Shri Khalpada

I came to be a serious fan of basketball in the mid 2000s. Some of my earliest memories as a fan include watching LeBron James outduel Gilbert Arenas and my hometown Wizards in his first playoffs, scoring 25 straight against the Pistons in his fourth year, and his late-aughts duels against the Celtics Big 3. Although no team gets to 66 wins or makes the Finals solely because of a single player, his first Cleveland run is the best example I know of a player elevating a team beyond their top-to-bottom talent level.

I had a thought about LeBron and those Cavs teams: is it possible that LeBron got too good too fast? Two years after drafting LeBron, Cleveland was above .500. Three years had them above 50 games, and five years had them above 60. Did going from a lottery team to the top of the Eastern Conference so quickly come at the cost of a few years of good draft picks that most rebuilding teams go through?

There are too many variables here to come up with a definitive answer, but I'll walk through an alternate scenario where LeBron improves to his realized peak more steadily instead of exploding into the league as he did in his early years.

The Impact of #1 Picks

As I was starting to think about this question, I wondered what Cleveland would have looked like if LeBron's trajectory towards his peak followed a regular #1 pick's. The stat I was interested in looking at was Wins Above Replacement (often called WAR in baseball). WAR comes directly from multiplying another stat called VORP by a constant, and is effectively a measure of how how many more wins a player adds than a theoretical minimum-salary player.

The metric is imperfect because it ultimately is just based on box score stats (check out our take on non-box-score stats), and because realistically there are diminishing returns on great players playing for average teams after a certain point, but for our purposes it should be good enough.

I grabbed WAR data from Basketball Reference for the eight #1 picks before him and after him, excluding players who missed significant time due to injury. Let's see what every player's first seven seasons (the length of LeBron's first Cleveland stint) look like:
Estimated WAR by Year
#1 Picks Drafted 1996 - 2012 (min 300 games played)
You can press shift and click on the legend to compare multiple players. Click anywhere on the chart to reset the selection. Hovering over a point will reveal more information about that player's season.

An Alternate Trajectory

LeBron took a huge leap in WAR his second year, hovered in that range for a few seasons, and then put up the second greatest WAR of all time in his sixth year (see if you can guess who was first).

As you can see in the above chart, there is a lot of variation in the trajectories for #1 players between injuries, major roster changes, just having an off year, etc. For this thought experiment, let's do the simplest thing possible and assume LeBron had a perfectly linear growth from his actual rookie campaign to his peak. This roughly follows the trajectory of some other #1 picks such as Dwight Howard and John Wall in their first seven years.
LeBron's Actual vs. Hypothetical WAR

The rest of this essay is going to be more theoretical and for fun. Let's go year-by-year over LeBron's first Cleveland stint, and compare what actually happened with what might have happened using LeBron's hypothetical progression. To keep this at a reasonable level of complexity, I'm going to ignore variables like injuries and trades, and focus on changes in the first round of the draft.

Year 1 (2003-04)

RecordFirst Round Pick
Actual35-47Luke Jackson (10)
Hypothetical35-47Luke Jackson (10)

This one is easy! Our hypothetical LeBron has the same rookie year and the Cavs make the same draft pick as they did in reality.

Year 2 (2004-05)

RecordFirst Round Pick

Our hypothetical Cavs record this year comes from taking the difference between LeBron's actual second year WAR and our hypothetical second year WAR, and subtracting it from the team's actual record that year.

Cleveland's first round pick this year belonged to Phoenix (and was then traded to Charlotte) from a trade in 1997. That doesn't change in our hypothetical scenario.

Not much has actually changed yet between reality and our scenario here, except that LeBron's ascent to the top of the NBA is slower.

Year 3 (2005-06)

RecordFirst Round Pick
Actual50-32Shannon Brown (25)
Hypothetical40-42Rajon Rondo (15)

The hypothetical record here is calculated exactly the same way as above, using the difference between LeBron's third year WAR with the hypothetical third year value.

This gives them a record of 40-42, which is the same as Milwaukee that year. To keep things simple, let's just assume the tiebreakers here worked out in a way that gave hypothetical Cleveland the same draft position as actual Milwaukee. Milwaukee had the 15th pick, which was traded earlier in the season to the Hornets. Let's assume Cleveland held onto their pick.

I'm going to apply hindsight bias here and assume ideal drafting. The two most interesting players that are available to Cleveland hypothetically at pick #15 are Rajon Rondo and Kyle Lowry. This was a couple years before a trade that brought Mo Williams to Cleveland, so the Cavs were thin at the PG position. They needed a replacement for Eric Snow in the twilight years of his career. Cole Burwell's 2004 scouting report of Rondo describes him as a "lightning quick point guard with the ability to penetrate seemingliy at will" as well as a willing passer. Hypothetical Cleveland takes some of the scoring and playmaking pressure off of LeBron and decides to go with Rondo!

Actual Cleveland lost in 7 to Detroit in the second round this year.

Year 4 (2006-07)

RecordFirst Round Pick

Here's where things get a little more tricky. So far, we've been calculating Cleveland's hypothetical record by taking the difference between LeBron's actual and hypothetical impact, and we've eliminated factors like injuries and trades to keep things simple. At this point in the thought experiment, however, the Cavs have drafted Rondo.

Let's assume that Rondo's rookie year production on hypothetical Cleveland is the same as his rookie year production on actual Boston. There are a number of possible reasons this wouldn't be true, but it seems like a reasonable assumption for this experiment. Rondo's rookie WAR was about 2, and given that he would be coming into a guard rotation on Cleveland that needed help, let's assume that he actually did add 2 wins. Shannon Brown didn't play much during his rookie year, so subtracting his overall impact (since he didn't go to Cleveland in this hypothetical) doesn't change things much.

Using those 2 wins and our usual calculation for LeBron gives us a record of 50-32, the same as their actual record! Put in other words, LeBron's linear trajectory here has almost caught up to his actual production at this point in his career, and the small difference is offset by hypothetical rookie Rondo's production.

Actual Cleveland did not have any draft picks this year. They traded their first round pick to Charlotte in 2004, and we'll assume that also happened in our scenario.

Actual Cleveland got swept in the NBA finals by the Spurs this year.

Year 5 (2007-08)

RecordFirst Round Pick
Actual45-37JJ Hickson (19)
Hypothetical49-33JJ Hickson (22)

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