🏀 LeBron James keeps going and going
My Week In Sport(s): LeBron's longevity, more on goalies and Josh Allen
Welcome to My Week In Sport(s) — a new regular newsletter from Plot the Ball.
In this edition:
🏀 LeBron James’ longevity in the NBA
⚽️ Mary Earps’ performances for club and country
🏈 Josh Allen’s tolerance for risk
🏀 LeBron James keeps going and going
Assessing athletes through the various stages of their careers, we tend to go on a journey with them: from valuing the mere presence of meaningful contributions1, to prizing efficiency of per-minute production above all else — and back again.
In the mid 2000s, LeBron James quickly developed from one of the most promising prospects in the history of basketball to one of the sport’s most productive players ever.
And now — at age 39 — he’s reached the point where we could simply be talking about the fact that he’s still doing this.
When he entered the league in 2003, James was seen as the best player in what was a stacked draft class.
It’s unsurprising that he has peaked higher than anyone else selected by an NBA team that year — but, incredibly, he is also the only one still going 21 years later.
12 players from that draft have played at least 20,000 regular-season minutes over the course of their NBA careers. James is more than 10,000 total minutes ahead of any of the other 112 — and is continuing to extend his lead in 2024, averaging 34 minutes a night for the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s not just LeBron’s longevity that’s impressive, though; the impact that he has on his team’s on-court success has also remained remarkably high.
This metric takes all of a player’s box-score statistics — recorded actions like shots, assists and rebounds — and combines them with knowledge of the position they play on the court and their team’s results “to estimate the player’s contribution in points above league average per 100 possessions played”.
According to this metric, James’ best single season was for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008-09 — but he actually led the league in BPM in seven seasons out of eight between 2005 and 2013.
His performances have gradually declined since the mid 2010s — but, according to Basketball Reference’s calculation of his impact, he is still playing at an exceptional level today.
According to BPM, so far in 2023-24 he has been playing at roughly 50% of the level he hit during his 2008-09 peak — and is having considerably more impact than he did as a rookie.
LeBron is still, by this measure, a top-10 player in the NBA.
Part of the story has been James’ ability to evolve his style of play as the league has changed around him; the proportion of his shot attempts which are three-pointers has more than doubled between 2003-04 and 2023-24.
He’s also improved his shooting from that range over time: he’s been successful on just over 35% of his attempts from distance over the last three seasons, compared to a rate of just below 33% during his first three years in the league.
On the other side of the ball, LeBron’s willingness to continue learning about his opponents’ tendencies and schemes3 comes through clearly on a close watching of his defensive possessions — as Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball demonstrated recently in this video — and has allowed him to continue to impact the game even as his athleticism has declined.
I’m generally loath to speculate4 on what’s going on inside athletes’ heads.
What I am willing to state, though, is that being immensely successful at the top level of your chosen sport requires turning up and doing the thing over and over and over again — whatever it is that motivates you to do so.
And whatever it is that motivates LeBron James is clearly still in there. The greatest men’s basketball player of the 21st century continues to prove that he’s an outlier among outliers.
⚽️ Run the Numbers
Following last week’s edition of the newsletter covering goalies in men’s football, I thought it might be good to follow up with a brief note on Manchester United and England’s Mary Earps — who has just been announced as the winner of ‘The Best FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper’ award for a second straight year.
While Earps has put in some remarkable performances for England in recent major international tournaments, she is another good example of why we should be less certain about the ability of goalkeepers than players at other positions.
She simply hasn’t come close to matching that level in the club competitions for which we have advanced data, though. Earps has actually conceded 1.1 goals more than expected for every 100 shots on target she’s faced in the Women’s Super League since 2019-206.
The point of this, to be clear, isn’t to say: ‘actually, Mary Earps isn’t very good’.
To get to a reasonable estimate of Earps’ skill, it’s probably sensible to aggregate her performance over a very small number of observations in recent international play with her returns over a much larger number of games in club football8 — rather than taking either set as evidence of her ‘true’ level, and casting the other aside.
🏈 Watch the Games
It also makes the Buffalo Bills star one of the sport’s most valuable players.
His aggressive decision-making can lead to mistakes in high-leverage moments — but Allen’s positive plays are so numerous that they more than offset the interceptions he throws deep downfield and the fumbles he loses trying to beat defenders.
In the third quarter of the Bills’ win over the Miami Dolphins a couple of weeks ago, Allen turned the ball over while trying to sidestep an oncoming defender behind the line of scrimmage.
That recent fumble clearly wasn’t playing on his mind on Monday, though.
It’s the first half of their opening-round playoff game, and Allen — having managed to evade pressure in the pocket — is running towards the first-down marker. With several defenders still in front of him, he slows down at the 42-yard line and has an opportunity to bank the considerable gain he’s already made by going to ground.
But Allen always wants more. He powers through the tackle of one Pittsburgh Steelers defender, streaks away from three others and — just six seconds after that brief pause — puts six points on the board for his team.
You can watch a clip of this sequence here.
I had a lot of fun talking to Al Chen about my work on the Dear Analyst podcast recently. You can listen here:
The next edition of My Week In Sport(s) will be published in two weeks, on Saturday February 3rd.
From ’s recent ESPN piece on analysing potential USMNT players of the future: “We care about players who have played a lot of minutes, then we care about players who have played a lot of minutes at a younger age, then we care about what level of competition those players have played those minutes in, then we care about how they've performed within those minutes and only then do we really care about things like traits or tools or whatever other scouting terms you prefer.”
This gives a rate of 20.5 goals saved above expected per 100 shots on target faced. In the data used in last week’s piece, the highest rate recorded by any player over a single season was Jan Oblak’s +11 per 100 SOT in 2018-19.
She had a net-positive season by this metric in 2019-20, followed by two net-negative seasons and then a breakeven season in 2022-23. In 2023-24 so far, she’s had her best year on record for the club — saving 1.7 goals above expected on 44 shots on target faced.
One other issue to bear in mind in relation to the women’s game: it’s changing much faster than men’s football — as this recent piece by Hamzah Khalique-Loonat explores — and the quality of the associated data may also be decaying much faster. (A shot aimed at a certain part of the goal in a WSL match may be materially more or less likely to be saved in 2023-24 than it was in 2018-19, for example.)
This gives a rate of 1.4 goals saved above expected per 100 shots on target faced.