NBA Cornerstones: Small Forward

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I will have a couple of parameters for this selection though I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think it should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope that you guys agree.

The selection: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Honorable mentions: Tobias Harris, Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard

This decision was more of a consideration between youth and potential or experience and leadership. The only issue is, you really can’t argue with selecting the best player in the world. The selection came down between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, as it rightfully should. While James may be the older player at 30 as opposed to Durant at 26, James has an insane amount of big game experience. He has played 158 career playoff games to Durant’s 73. James also has two rings while Durant has still been unable to lead his team to a title. Both players are equally as durable missing minimal time and playing through injuries throughout their careers. The truth is that LeBron might be the best player in the world but right behind him is Durant. These two being at the same position makes this increasingly difficult.

For starters, both Durant and James are elite scoring threats. LeBron’s career average of 27.5 points per game is a shade higher than Durant’s 27.3. What makes James so scary though is the array of moves in his arsenal. He can take it to the bucket, he can hit the step-back jumper and he can back you down in the post. That makes him hard to defend because you are never quite sure what he is going to do next. It is hard to differentiate between the former MVP and the reigning one, but LeBron simply scores more effectively. James hits on about 50 percent of his shots, which is an absurd rate considering how many he takes per game (and it’s about 20). Durant converts 48 percent of his shots, but the extra push gives James the edge.

James also dominants in just about every aspect of the game. Over his eleven-year career, the four time MVP has averaged right around seven rebounds and seven assists per game. Looking at his full stat line, LeBron regularly puts up 27, 7 and 7. I don’t know if there is another player in the league right now who is capable of accomplishing that. Durant averages roughly seven rebounds a night but only dishes out between three and four assists. Those are still impeccable numbers but they do not add up to what James can accomplish.

Another thing that makes James so skilled is his cerebral play. I do not have any statistic to back this up but if you watch film of the Akron, Ohio native long enough, you notice his ability to get other players involved in the action. He makes sure guys get their points and promotes a team-first approach. He also has an incredible understanding of the game and acts as a coach on the court. Sometimes that can cause an issue as we have seen this season with David Blatt but in the past, under Mike Brown and later Erik Spoelstra, James has flourished and found a good mix between being the student and the teacher.
On the defensive side of the ball, LeBron has been an above average player. He consistently comes up with just short of one block and 1.7 steals per night. His defense has definitely started to slip a little over the past two seasons and it shows in his demeanor. James will certainly begin to decline in about two or three years but those few years are well worth the investment.

With all that James is capable of, he is not perfect. He is an average free throw shooter, only hitting about 75 percent of his attempts. He is also a middling 3-point shooter, with roughly 35 percent of his shot going in this season from beyond the arc. He has shot over 40 percent though in a season before, so there is reason to believe that James, who is known for adding elements to his game during the offseason, could improve his long ball still, even in the later stages of his career.

He also has managed to do a fairly good job with ball security considering his high usage rate. He has averaged 3.3 turnovers per game in his career, only slightly worse than Durant’s average of 3.2. He is not known for his ankle breaker dribbling either but he still knows how to make a couple of moves to get himself some space to shoot. His hesitation move is also one of the best in the NBA because of his explosiveness.

I get that this is a questionable decision because of his age and high number of minutes logged but sit back and think about building an NBA team. In James, you get a versatile player capable of adjusting his game play and style in a variety of ways. He is smart enough to be a coach on the court and he is athletic and strong enough to make some plays that others simply cannot. In a year or two, he will no longer be a worthy candidate for this title because he is definitely heading into his final years of contributing at a truly elite level. Until then, he will keep dominating opponents, always making his team a title contender.

For previous Cornerstones selections, click here.


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