Commonly Absurd

On Sunday night the Heat completed a four-game, first round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks. The outcome was never really in doubt for any of those games and LeBron was able to lead the Heat through with a series of solid, understated performances. Of course, by solid and understated I mean 24.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, shooting 62.5% from the field and playing elite defense. Of all the things LeBron has done this season, making the absurd seem common may be the most impressive.

Consistency is a challenge in the NBA, for any player of any skill level. Competition, situation, travel, health, luck; there are innumerable moving variables between a player and regular, repeatable success. Over the last 82 games LeBron stepped over each of those variables, multiple times. This was one of the most dominant regular seasons in recent memory, but by the time the playoffs rolled around that storyline was completely lost in the stew of Kobe’s achilles tendon, Derrick Rose’s knee, the grinding playoff race at the bottom of the Western Conference and the fact that LeBron made excellence so . . . expected.

I love graphs and I wanted to tackle a visual representation of LeBron’s transition from usually great to always great. I started with his statistics from every regular season game he’s played in his entire career. For each game I calculated the number of possessions he used and his scoring efficiency, measured by points per possession. Below is a Google Motion chart that shows all of those numbers. Press the play button and the graph will scroll through each game in his career marking exactly where it falls on each axis. Each dot is colored by the calendar year in which it fell. I would also recommend clicking to highlight the first circle before pressing play, so that all the marks show up cumulatively. Adjusting the play speed, which is right next to the play button, may also save your eyes from some undue strain.

(Note: If you can’t see the graph, refresh the page, occasionally the iframes are a pain. -Ed. Emeritus.)

Ideally, I would be able to separate these games by season instead of just year, but Google Motion is bound by the chronology of our calendar. What you should see though is the marks gradually begin to appear closer and closer together, clustering around the high efficiency end of the spectrum. The marks from 2013 are in red and represent the apex of LeBron’s dependable domination. What I’m attempting to illustrate in my own absurdly extravagant way is how consistent LeBron’s excellence has become this season.

Graphs can be fun, but we also have statistical tools to measure consistency, one of which is variance. Looking at an average incorporates all data points, smoothing out both the highs and lows, and rocketing across the middle ground. Variance (calculated by squaring the standard deviation) is a measure of how much a data set has bounced back and forth between those highs and lows. I took the same numbers from above, every regular season game LeBron has ever played, and split his average possessions per game and points per possession into two categories – this season, and everything else. I also calculated the variance for each, and the percentage change this season from his previous career.

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LeBron is using fewer possessions per game this season, 14% less to be exact. But that per game possession average has become about 40% more stable. He’s increased his offensive efficiency by 14% over his previous career average and that number has also stabilized considerably, showing 14% less variation. The leap in LeBron’s average efficiency has been absolutely incredible this season. But what these numbers tell us is that it has not just leapt but has been much more consistent at that higher level.

Those percentage changes might not seem huge but the story they tell undoubtedly is. A million and one words have been written about the way LeBron has transformed his game and pushed his production to absurd levels but the absurdity is not just in the level, it’s in the regularity. Stopping LeBron has always been a non-starter, but teams used to be able to count on an occasional off-night, a once-in-a-blue-moon bad performance. But those collected variables, the enemies of consistency, have been vanquished and it appears that the Heat’s opponents can no longer count on variance as an element of success.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com and LeBron’s unique blend of strength and speed