LeBron James And Peculiar Questions Of Sustainability

Photo from Mavis via Flickr

So after two consecutive overtime losses, LeBron in the clutch is a story again. Woo-Frickidy-Hoo. I’m going to conveniently ignore it, for reasons that I hope are obvious (boredom, mostly), but just in case they aren’t, here’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss giving you the ideal explanation in less than 140 characters:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/SherwoodStrauss/statuses/157531261605388288″]

So instead of focusing on a narrative that very nearly decimated NBA fans’ ability to enjoy the internet last season and which isn’t going to be resolved for at least 5 months, let’s go to the LeBron story that is actually news, which is that he’s having the best season of his career.

LeBron has played just 10 games so far, so we probably need to temper our reactions,  but the much-maligned superstar is currently posting a PER of 33.2, which far exceeds every single season-long mark in history. While that’s clearly going down soon, even detractors of the stat should have their eyes open wide at this point. This despite a career high turnover ratio.

This, of course, is varying degrees of sustainable. En route to the insane PER mark, LeBron blowing away the best rebounding numbers of his career (a ridiculous 21.1% defensive rebounding rate, 2.1% higher than his career best 08-09), which history shows us will go down. He’s also posting a career high turnover ratio – but his Miami numbers were the worst since his rookie season as is, so this may require some monitoring. He’s playing 37.4 minutes a night, which is the least he’s played since… ever.

Around these new tweaks, LeBron, in his 9th year (gulp!), is pretty much the same player. The rebounds will revert to their norm, the turnovers will go down slightly, and the minutes will likely stay where they are. The numbers at this point should be taken at face value – for instance, LeBron was shooting a career high 79.3% from the line a recently as yesterday, before a horrendous 9-17 outing sent him back to his career 75%. At worst, the things we have so far should either fail to register or raise questions standing at varying degrees of interesting to be visited later.

The biggest of those questions, however, is also the source of LeBron’s biggest improvement, and it has been the way LeBron gets his points. As Brian Windhorst  detailed, LeBron’s offensive game has trended inwards, and the results are easy to see both on the court and in the numbers. LeBron virtually stopped shooting 3 pointers – he’s attempted only 5 so far, 10 games in, after shooting 3.5 long bombs a night just last year. In the mean time, LeBron is showing off the much publicized new post game has been the (9th in the league at exactly 1 point per play, after 41 plays in 10 games, according to mySynergySports.com).

All in all, LeBron’s true shooting percentage is ridiculous 62.6%. TS% takes into account 3 point shooting and free throws – and indeed, while LeBron has stopped taking 3s, he’s getting to the line at a career high rate of 0.56 free throws per field goal, and is shooting a fairly ridiculous 57% from the field. Everything described in this paragraph is easily a career high, which should raise quite a bit of red flags. There’s no doubt this won’t sustain, no doubt this can’t work – right?

Maybe. Let’s look at LeBron’s shooting numbers for the last two seasons at different distances from the rim, courtesy of Hoopdata.com:

Two things stand out from this chart:

  1. LeBron’s lost three point attempts have been replaced with shots at the rim and long 2 pointers. The first is good, the last is bad. That’s life.
  2. Interestingly enough, to go with the changes in shot distribution, LeBron’s shooting at the rim has taken a leap to a nearly impossible 80%, but the long 2s have dropped after a major leap in 2010-2011 (LeBron shot 40% in both 08-09 and 09-10).

We can probably assume the percentage at the rim goes down, seeing how LeBron has been between 71% and 73.3% for the past 5 years. In fact, let’s assume it does. If LeBron were to shoot 72% instead of 80% on the same, new 7.6 attempts per game, he would lose 0.6 makes. That would take down his total field goal percentage to 53.8% – still a career high – and his TS% to 60%, slightly under his career high of 60.4% in 2010.

Of course, if we’re correcting for shots at the rim, we should correct for everything. So, let’s take a look at a hypothetical season in which LeBron’s shot selection is identical to right now, and his percentages are the ones from last year. Given those parameters, LeBron would be posting:

  • 28.9 points a night, down from 29 right now.
  • 56.1% shooting from the field – not as crazy as he’s shooting right now, but still pretty crazy.
  • 62.3 TS% – again, just a slight tick down from his small-sample-size career high.

Does this mean LeBron is destined to have an insane shooting season just by cutting down his three point attempts? Not necessarily. Our little exercise just assumes LeBron’s outlier percentage from 16 to 23 feet last season sustains, which may or may not be the case. But even if we take out long 2s from our little exercise in regression, LeBron is slightly above his career high TS% with a very stellar 60.6%.

This could all mean very little. Percentages usually go deeper than 5 separate ranges, and LeBron’s newfound reluctance to shoot 3s could eventually help defenses shut that rim down. It’s possible that this is a 10 game window into the future, but it’s also nearly as easily believable that everything regresses back to everything else.

Or LeBron might have actually matured as a player. It’s hard to tell at this point – and it really is moot until the playoffs, at which point either everything horrible breaks loose or a narrative is re-written – but it’s a start.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.