Stat of the Day (3/28): LeBron, Free Throws, and Crunch Time

Stat: LeBron James leads all players in free throw attempts per 48 minutes of crunch time, posting a number of 22.6.  Second place John Wall ranks nearly three whole points behind James at 19.7.

Take: Apparently, free throws are on the mind at StS.  Yesterday it was James Harden’s prowess at drawing fouls and how it could relate to the acquisition of Derrick Fisher, and today it’s LeBron getting to the line when it matters most and what it means when Miami needs points in crunch time.

Look, nobody’s a bigger defender of LeBron than me.  He’s been the subject of posts on this site bemoaning hero ball, pimping his could-be record setting PER, and much more.  James is clearly the NBA’s best overall player, and an argument that he’s the most effective offensive and defensive player in the league is an easy one to make – using the eye test, advanced statistics, whatever.  He should be the first to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year this season since Hakeem Olajuwon in the mid-90s.  His season – despite recent hiccups – has been that epic.

All that said, he’s hardly above criticism.  There are no favorites here.  And this is where today’s stat comes into play.

As the stats indicate, James is easily the game’s best at getting to the line in crunch time.  It’s not close.  So for all those who say “He’s not aggressive in those situations!” or “He doesn’t want it!” or “LeBron’s afraid to take the big shot!”, go ahead and stop now.  Just because the vast majority of time he prefers an open shot for a teammate compared to a guarded, fadeaway, 20-foot, prayer does not mean LeBron is scared or intentionally shies away from game-deciding moments.  It means he’s the rare superstar – like Chris Paul, orchestrator of the NBA’s best clutch offenses the last several seasons – that understands what truly gives his team the best chance to win.

The real problem with James in crunch time isn’t his lack of aggression.  Not at all.  It’s what happens when he actually shoots the ball.  This isn’t reflected so much in his raw field goal percentage in these situations – exceptional, noted “closers” like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony shoot worse than LeBron’s 40 percent from the floor – but it definitely is when he steps to the free throw line.

In terms of skill, LeBron doesn’t have much more developing to do in his NBA career.  Fixed jumper? Check.  Defensive effort? Check.  Post-game? Check.  But his lack of development in accuracy from the charity stripe is absolutely maddening.  By this point, one can assume he is what he is at the line – a guy who shoots in the mid-70s every year.  For such a great shot-maker, that’s just not good enough.

But worse and most concerning for the Heat is that LeBron’s season-long percentage of 76.5 dips all the way to 70.0 in crunch time.  For whatever reason, he just doesn’t convert at the free throw line with enough consistency when he really needs to.  In most every case, a team is thrilled when its best player draws a foul late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.  A wide-open, stand-still 15-footer should be an almost automatic two points for the elites of this game in the clutch.  But for LeBron it’s anything but.

Consider this: when James goes to the line at crunch time – which, as you know by now, is very, very often – he connects at the same rate as 7’2” Roy Hibbert.  So next time Miami needs points as the game is winding down, James draws a foul, and you think, “Way to go LeBron.  Good take,” think again.  It’s simply not close to as good an outcome as it seems.