In his NBA tome The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons introduces “the four peaks” of Michael Jordan. He claims most players have one peak (their career year), an elite few have two (think Hakeem or Barkley), and an even smaller number of all-time greats have three (like Bird, Magic, and Kareem). Simmons says only Jordan had four peaks: 1) In 1989-90, when MJ made The Leap to super-duper-stardom and put up ridiculous numbers while falling short of a title. 2) The spring of 1993, when he won his third straight title by mastering the entire game and still maintaining his young athleticism. 3) The winter of 1996, when he returned from his baseball hiatus to lead that historic 72-win team. And, finally 4) The spring of 1998, when his intensity and experience willed his team to another three-peat, culminating in that famous last shot over Bryon Russell.
I promise this isn’t another MJ vs. LeBron article. We will continue to have that debate for a long, long time, but I’m not interested in it at the moment (flip over to FS1 right now if you want to see Skip and Shannon screaming about it). However, Simmons’ “peaks” theory did have me contemplating how many peaks LeBron has had in his legendary career, especially after just witnessing him heroically drag a subpar supporting cast back to his eighth consecutive Finals this year.
Over his 15-year career, many have pointed in amazement to LeBron’s impossible consistency. How does he keep doing this year after year? The list of players who have been even close to this good for 15 years is vanishingly small. And yet, LeBron has also had a few Mount Everest peaks throughout his career, when his dominance and mastery of the game was overwhelming. I believe the 2018 version of LeBron might just be his fourth peak. Let’s take a look at all four.
LeBron 1.0: The spring of 2007
22-year-old LeBron carried Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and Sasha Pavlovic (!!!) to the Finals ahead of schedule. Take a look at that entire roster if you want a good chuckle some time. The undisputed highlight was LeBron’s 48-point double-OT classic against the Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He toasted Detroit by pumping in 29 of the Cavaliers’ last 30 points, including the game-winning layup.
Armed with sensational athleticism and added muscle (so he could bear his teammates’ deadweight), LeBron 1.0 had started to figure out how to beat a team from inside and out. He wasn’t the efficient machine that he’d become later (he only shot 42% from the field in the ‘07 playoffs), but he averaged 25-8-8 over 20 postseason games and started to learn how to truly take over late in games. He just needed more reps.
Although he was swept by the Spurs’ dynasty in the Finals, LeBron James had given us a glimmer of what was to come.
LeBron 2.0: 2012-13
LeBron goes to South Beach and wins back-to-back MVPs and Finals MVPs. Not since Jordan had anyone so utterly dominated the NBA. Coming off his career nadir (the 2011 Finals), LeBron and the Heatles were still the league’s villains in 2012. When Miami went down 3-2 in the East Finals against Boston, the pressure was again all on LeBron in a Game 6 road elimination game. He wasn’t viewed as the clutch player he is now, so when he strutted out and silenced the Boston Garden with a cold-blooded 45-point, 15-rebound masterpiece, it was clear LeBron 2.0 had arrived.
After removing the monkey from his back with his first title, LeBron’s Heat would come back the next season with a 27-game win streak and another title through more adversity in a classic seven-game series vs. San Antonio.
LeBron 2.0 was the best all-around player he’s ever been. He had improved his outside shooting and post game, possessed mind-blowing athleticism, and morphed into an elite defender (making the All-Defense First Team from 2009-13). Most impressive was how uber-efficient he had become. With Wade and Bosh drawing some of the defense’s attention, LeBron was able to finish the 2012-13 season with an effective FG% over 60. Somehow he was not done updating his game.
LeBron 3.0: The spring of 2016
The crowning achievement of his career. There could hardly be a more dramatic way to end a city’s 52-year championship drought than storming back down 3-1 in the Finals against the best regular season team ever. The postseason numbers were staggering as always (he averaged a 26-10-8), but it was just as much about how LeBron was able to mesh with his team to accomplish something unthinkable.
In the 2015 Finals without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, LeBron did quite literally everything for his team. It was a high-volume, superhuman effort that fell short in six games. There’s an argument to be made that he deserved Finals MVP in a losing effort. The next season with a healthy Cleveland roster, LeBron and Kyrie were able to alternate taking over a game to devastating effect against Golden State. LeBron averaged 30-11-9 in the 2016 Finals, including three straight elimination game performances that still don’t seem possible. We also got the defining play of his career in Game 7 with The Block on Andre Iguodala. Don’t tell me Mike Breen’s “BLOCKED BY JAMES!” call doesn’t give you goosebumps.
This version of LeBron knew every trick in the book, like how to goad Draymond Green into the most costly nut-punch in NBA history. With his vision and preternatural ability to see the game in slow-motion, his basketball IQ was off the charts at this point. He could beat you in so many ways, it didn’t seem fair. It can’t be ignored that LeBron had an entire city counting on him to bring them a title against a 73-win Warriors team… and he did it.
LeBron 4.0: 2018
Finally, we arrive at LeBron’s fourth peak. There’s no denying the exceptional level he’s been playing at this season with a fairly weak group around him. With Kyrie forcing a trade and Love consistently injured, LeBron has had to throw the Cavs squarely on his back yet again. At age 33, he had the best regular season of his second stint with Cleveland. Despite the Cavs’ bumpy season, he will likely finish second in MVP voting behind James Harden.
Once the playoffs began, he skyrocketed to an even higher echelon. Through 18 games so far, he’s averaging 34-9-9, hit two spectacular buzzer-beaters, got the Coach of the Year fired after he thoroughly embarrassed Toronto, and won two more Game 7s to reach the Finals once again.
Considering what we’ve seen from him throughout his career it’s hard to believe LeBron 4.0 may be the best edition yet. He has a true mastery of the game on offense now, combining his above-average 3-point shot, bruising post up game, brilliant passing, and the brute strength to get to the rim whenever he damn well pleases. Sure, he’s not quite the same athlete or defender he was five years ago, but he can still pull off a monster block when he needs to (see his game-saving stuffs against Minnesota and Indiana this season).
Remarkably, he’s figured out how to preserve energy while playing so that there will be enough left in the tank at the end of games. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst laid out how LeBron walks more than almost any player in the league; he’s learned when to conserve and when to expend his valuable energy. It seems to be working, because the durability in Year 15 has been breathtaking. LeBron played all 82 games in the regular season and has already played 100 games counting playoffs. The Finals have not even started yet. And, oh yeah, he never touched the bench for all 48 minutes of Game 7 on Sunday.
Somehow, this historic durability isn’t even the most remarkable thing about watching LeBron right now. It’s his utmost comfort and confidence in any situation that has blown me away. The man has starred in so many monumental playoff games at this point that nothing fazes him. There’s no hesitation or apprehension like there was in 2011, just full knowledge of what he has to do to lead his team to victory.
He’s had a blinding spotlight fixed on him since he was 18. He’s appeared in 235 playoff games. He’s been the best player on nine Finals teams and at least three champions. His legacy as one of the best few to ever play the game is certain. Now the only uncertainty is how high LeBron’s fourth peak can reach.