Nichols and Dime: What to Expect From LeBron James, Quarter by Quarter

Now that I’ve explored shot types at the team level, it’s time to move on to a single player. What better player to look at than the league’s MVP, LeBron James? Using the play-by-play data at BasketballValue, I will explore how James changes his style of attack as the game progresses, and whether or not he optimizes his shot selection.

The graph below shows LeBron’s shot selection for each quarter during the 2008-09 season:

lebronjamesshotselectionbyquarter

Midrange shots (in terms of the way I define them) are the most common shot attempt in the game, so it’s no surprise that most of James’ shots come from this area. His preference for this type of shot stays consistent throughout the game. However, he’s no dummy, and he uses his size and athleticism to attack the rim early and often. Of course, when we compare these shots to three-point attempts, we notice a strange pattern. Despite being much more efficient on close attempts (more on this later), LeBron shies away from this type of shot as the game progresses and instead takes more threes. In the third quarter he actually takes slightly more three-pointers than close shots (remember, though, that shooting fouls are not included, so in actuality he probably still takes more close shots), before the numbers revert slightly back to normal in the fourth.

Why would James do this? There are a number of factors that come into play. Fatigue would be my best guess. It’s clear to everyone in the building that James is a superstar, so he not only must carry the offensive load but also deal with opposing defenses that are focused on stopping him. It wouldn’t be shocking to find out that he settles for more outside shots as the game wears on simply because he doesn’t have the energy to keep taking the ball inside. Another possible reason is opposing coaches growing tired of his easy buckets and stopping at nothing to prevent those later in the game.

Regardless of the reasons they occur, are LeBron’s in-game offensive adjustments beneficial for his team? Let’s take a look at the efficiency of each shot type for every quarter:

lebronjamesshotefficiencybyquarter

The answer to my last question seems to be “no.” Not only is he much more efficient at close shots than three-pointers throughout the game (something any basketball fan could tell you), but he actually gets progressively worse on threes as the game goes on. In the first quarter, he’s quite efficient from long range, but by the end of the game he’s below average. Meanwhile, his efficiency from close range remains about the same. Yet for some reason, LeBron favors the three-ball more and more as the game progresses.

Fatigue could be a factor again, and we also must consider the interaction between these shot types. James obviously must keep defenses honest, so abandoning the three completely despite it not being super-efficient would be a bad move.

Still, I think there’s a lot to learn from all this. James is not shooting as efficiently in the fourth quarter as he is in the first. The question is whether it’s because of poor decision-making, fatigue, or defensive adjustments. Whatever the reason, it’s clear the Cavaliers would be better offensively if James could maintain his first quarter efficiency at all times.

Seth Carstens