LeBron James and the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Photo via Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

While no specific panels were directly related to him, you couldn’t possibly have come to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston and not thought about, heard about or talked about LeBron James. Nearly every basketball-related panel mentioned him in some form or another. Whether it was an extended discussion of his capabilities as a player or just an off-hand comment about whether or not he is “clutch,” you couldn’t help but notice that the specter of the league’s most talented player was hanging over the proceedings.

One particular research paper at Sloan detailing the effects of pressure on NBA players was especially pertinent. The paper described concentration tasks such as taking free throws as those that often result in players having increased self-focus, which can lead to underperformance on these tasks. And who did the researchers choose to exemplify this phenomenon?

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LeBron prefers to take guys off the dribble from the perimeter and try to get a layup or create contact and draw a foul in crunch time. Free throws should mean pretty easy points for LeBron, a career 75% free throw shooter. However, that number drops to 71% in crunch time this season according to NBA.com’s StatsCube. (For the record, his FT% in the clutch last year was exactly the same as it was for the rest of the game, 76%) More than just free throws though, fans often expect players of LeBron’s caliber to take and make game-winning shots.

Naturally, on the first night of the conference, LeBron gave his detractors a little more ammo with which to take aim by passing up a game-winner against the Utah Jazz in favor of a bounce pass to wide-open Udonis Haslem, who promptly bricked the shot. LeBron made the right basketball play by passing out of a double team to the open man (and boy was that pass a nice one), but many the media and plenty of fans on Twitter hammered him for not taking the game into his own hands and deciding the outcome. This game was just further proof that LeBron is unclutch, not a winner, and incapable of seizing the big moment and making it his own, they said. Others, however, disagreed. LeBron was really the only reason his team was in the game. He was 8-f0r-9 in the fourth quarter and had 17 points. And he made the right basketball play with the game on the line. Haslem was wide open. Even Jeff Van Gundy, MVP of Day 1 of Sloan, agreed during ABC’s telecast of the Heat-Lakers game on Sunday. He compared it to Jordan passing to Steve Kerr for the game-winner in the Finals, noting that people praise Jordan for his great, unselfish player in crunch time. The same likely would have happened for LeBron is Haslem had made the shot, but instead the narrative goes that LeBron shrinks in the clutch.

Being that the opportunity for LeBron was not a free throw but rather the choice between passing and shooting, I decided to look up the FG% for home and road players in the last 30 seconds of games where their team was trailing by 3 points or less so far this season. This is an extremely narrow definition of clutch time, but it most accurately describes the situation LeBron faced Friday night. Similarly to free throws, home players have shot a lower percentage than road players in these scenarios. Players on the road attempting shots within 30 seconds or less on the clock and trailing by 3 points or less had a 35.9 FG% through February 28, 2012, while home players had an FG% of just 31.4%. If a player is going to be shooting a shot that has only a 31.4% chance of going in, would your rather that player be shooting over a double team, likely off-balance, or wide open and stepping into the shot? Without knowing who the two players were, most people would almost undoubtedly choose the latter option, but when they hear that the two players are LeBron and Haslem, respectively, they change their minds.

The NBA players under pressure research paper was not the only panel that touched on LeBron. In the Coaching Analytics panel, Jeff Van Gundy addressed LeBron’s on-court value as a player.

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This is a sentiment I largely agree with and have argued in favor of before. The idea behind Van Gundy’s statement is that LeBron is the best and most impactful player in the league both over the course of a single game and the course of the season, and that to isolate specific plays from a period of time that represents less than 1 percent of his total minutes played for the season amounts to refusing to see the forest because you’re captivated by staring at a small cluster of trees.

In the Basketball analytics panel, Van Gundy espoused a similar sentiment.

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Rob Mahoney also had an interesting take on this subject a couple weeks ago at the New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog. LeBron is among the best players in the league at deciding games before crunch time, but lay fans generally don’t seem to care about that. They like the drama that comes with the specific period of time known as ‘clutch time’, ignoring that most games don’t come down to the final shot and that players who help you win the other, larger portion of your games are just as, if not more important than those that help you win the close ones. They also mostly limit ‘clutchness’ to the making of game-winning shots, and discount assists, rebounding and defense in these evaluations.

Even the more advanced analytical panels had their own spins on LeBron. The “Court Vision: New Visual and Spacial Analytics for the NBA” panel had a somewhat surprising tidbit related to LeBron’s shooting range.

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Court Vision attempted to quantify and evaluate how many of 1,284 shooting “cells” on the floor a player was effective from, and called that a player’s Range%.

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Range%, coupled with the other metric created by researcher Kirk Goldsberry, Spread%, a measure of how many of the 1,284 shooting cells a player had attempted at least one field goal from, attempted to give us a better idea of who the best shooters in the NBA actually are. (His conclusion, unsurprisingly, was that the best shooter was either Steve Nash or Ray Allen. This also happened to be my favorite panel/research paper of the weekend, and I’m telling you that regardless of whether or not you care.)

During a live B.S. Report will Bill Simmons, Marc Cuban let slip that the Mavericks used some sort of spatial analysis in their defensive strategy against LeBron and the Heat in last year’s NBA Finals.

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Spatial analysis is just beginning. As I detailed here, researchers are already analyzing rebounding and shooting, and it won’t be long before they eventually get around to defense and passing and then start delving into the intricacies of each.

Finally, in the Franchises in Transition panel, host and General Manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey addressed the value of superstars, and specifically LeBron.

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Superstars in the NBA have a huge impact on the game, more than any other sport according Morey later in that same panel. And the very best of those superstars, like LeBron, can often swing the fate of entire franchises, or the league itself.


Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.