It might not seem like it, but, as discussed on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike this morning, LeBron James’ current season is the best season a professional player has ever had. John Hollinger, also of ESPN, created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) metric for basketball players. In (his) general terms, “the PER sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” It’s an advanced metric, and really, it’s a doubly advanced metric because it’s derivative of other advanced metrics. If you want it, the nitty gritty is here, but what PER allows us to do is compare individual players with their contemporaries and with those from other eras on equal footing.
The following is a list of the top individual full-season performances, based on PER, in the history of the NBA and ABA:
The full list from Basketball-Reference is here.
James already has two of the ten best seasons, and he’s the only active player in that group. (His teammate, Dwayne Wade, is the next active player listed, at 13.) If the current season ended today, though, James would post a PER of 32.8, by far the highest mark ever recorded.
Perception is a valid and important check on the things statistics tell us. I feel like there are a million things one could write about James and perception, expectations, image, and legacy, all of which would get at the fact that the title of this post is something I’d guess most people reject as an initial, gut reaction but also something we all expected we would read, write, or say at some point. There are myriad potential lessons here. One is that these advanced metrics are a way of witnessing history in the moment, something that’s difficult to do based upon perception alone. Another is that, darn it, I hate LeBron and sabermetrics are for idiot-nerds. A third raises questions about the value we place on winning championships as a component of individual players’ legacies. A fourth is that Patrick Ewing, whose best season comes in at #117 on the big list, might not be the Dan Marino of the 1980s and 1990s NBA, and Kobe Bryant, whose best season so far comes in at #51, isn’t quite the heir to His Airness’ throne, or even Shaq’s big seat. And on and on.