The LeBron Mystery, One Year Later

by Jeff Fogle 30. April 2011 23:48

LeBron James has a return engagement with the Boston Celtics Sunday afternoon. Exactly a year earlier to the day, LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers started a second round series with Celtics that would mark the beginning of the end of his career with the Cavs. Did LeBron quit on Cleveland? Was LeBron so anxious to "take his talents" elsewhere that he disappeared down the stretch? A forensic study of the stats from that series suggest a very clear answer...

Well, very clear to me at least. It's tough to convince a LeBron-hater that he was anything other than a man in a black hat in the final three games of the Boston series. Haters are expecting more woes when LeBron's Miami Heat take on the Celtics over the next two weeks. If you're on the outside looking in, it's tough to know for sure. You should at least be responsible in your commentary. Calling LeBron a quitter, given the statistical evidence, is about as irresponsible as it gets.

First, some background.

*LeBron James entered the Boston series last year nursing a bad elbow. There were concerns about it after Cleveland eliminated Chicago. It wasn't a secret. Everybody knew it was bothering him, and he was playing through the pain. He shot a free throw lefthanded in the final win of the Bulls series.

*In the media, LeBron kept emphasizing a theme of "no excuses" for himself and his team. He wasn't going to talk about the elbow. They had to win regardless of the hurdles in front of them. No whining to the press. No acknowledgment that it was an issue, period.

*Cleveland had three days off to prepare for Game One of the Boston series after eliminating Chicago on April 27, 2010. With the series starting on May 1, 2010, that's three off days to rest and get ready. LeBron had a great first game. 35 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. Concerns about the elbow disappeared.

*Concerns about the elbow resurfaced quickly! James was clearly favoring his elbow two days later in Game Two (as this game recap from ESPN's website shows). There was a statewide "Uh oh" in all of Ohio because it was obviously bothering him.

*A quirk in the schedule gave Cleveland and Boston three days off before Game Three in Beantown. They played May 1, May 3, and May 7. Again, with a lengthy recovery time between games (and whatever potential treatment may be involved over a layoff), LeBron was great! He had 38 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists.

And, THAT was the moment where everyone stopped talking about the elbow. From ESPN's website recap:

"I think he's healthy," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who has been dismissive of James' injury. "His elbow looked very good tonight. So enough with the elbow injury. I think we can go ahead and focus on basketball."

Instead of saying "Wait, Doc. He just had three days off before the game. That's not going to happen again in the series," the media went along with the storyline. LeBron was fine. The elbow injury had been overplayed. Rivers had been right to be dismissive. End of story.

And, even though the teams played every other day from that point forward, with only one day off between games rather than two or three...and, even though LeBron had HORRIBLE shooting stats in those games, particularly from distance...nobody was talking about the elbow injury any more. Cleveland was eliminated because LeBron disappeared. Because he was gutless. Because he was ready to leave town and play for somebody with a better chance to win a championship.

Wasn't it possible that LeBron's elbow was functional if he had three days of rest between games...but was A BIG PROBLEM when games were bunched together?! Isn't that more likely than him being the guy in the black hat?

I'm going to run through some numbers from the shot location breakdowns here at Hoopdata (which have been up for a year, by the way, so it's not like they were buried in somebody's backyard this whole time). Here's a link to Cleveland's team page from last year's playoffs. You can click on any individual game for shot location breakdowns and other data.

Remember that Games 1 and 3 came after three days of rest and preparation. Games 2, 4, 5, and 6 came with only one day off between games.

LEBRON AT THE RIM
Games 1 & 3: 12/19 (63%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 15/26 (58%)

A slight drop off. But, the closer you are to the basket, the less an elbow injury is likely to affect your shot.

LEBRON FROM 3-15 FEET
Games 1 & 3: 4/7 (58%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 4/10 (40%)

Quite a difference there. He's dropped off in both cases because he's further from the basket, but the spread is now 18 percentage points rather than just five.

LEBRON FROM 16-23 FEET
Games 1 & 3: 5/11 (45%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 4/16 (25%)

We're in the range where a bad elbow could definitely affect your jump shots. With three days between games, LeBron was at 45%. In the quicker turnarounds, that percentage plummeted to 25%. Note again that both percentages are going down (as expected) the further he gets from the basket. The spread between the two situations is now 20 percentage points.

LEBRON ON 3-POINT SHOTS
Games 1 & 3: 5/9 (56%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 2/17 (12%)

LeBron was hitting his open looks from distance in the games where the arm was well rested. In fact, he was more accurate from behind the arc than in the 16-23 foot range. But, in the quick turnarounds, he was a woeful 2 of 17 on treys (44 percentage points worse). Doesn't THAT suggest a potential injury issue all by itself? A guy's got a bad elbow, and he goes 2 of 17 on long shots in games with limited preparation and rest time. Why wasn't that a red flag to the national media.

Unbelievably, James was 10 of 43 from OUTSIDE OF TWO FEET in those four games. TWO FEET!

Did James take his ball and go home? Did he pout on the sideline? No, the evidence suggests he did what a star would do who could tell he was in trouble away from the rim.

*He picked up his assist totals late in the series, with 25 over the last three games. The elbow moves more side-to-side on passes, compared to straight up and down on jump shots.

*He picked up his rebounding totals late in the series, highlighted by a monster finale. Rebounding from the small forward position is often correlated to positioning and hustle. You can do that with a bad elbow.

*He became so reckless, because he was fighting hard to get close to the basket and either score or kick the ball out to a shooter, that his turnovers shot way up. He commited 7 turnovers in Game Four, and a whopping 9 turnovers in the Game Six finale.

He's been called a quitter because Cleveland didn't win the series. Here are the so-called quitter's stats in that series finale:

27 points (even though he was just 2 of 10 from outside two feet!!!!)
19 rebounds (huge total for a small forward)
10 assists (completing a triple double)
9 turnovers (trying to carry the team on his shoulders)

We have a superstar who refuses to make excuses. We have an opposing coach who convinced the media that there wasn't a meaningful injury. We have a series loss for a heavy favorite who was expected to win the East and battle the Lakers for the league championship (remember they already had those puppet commercials done for when LeBron met Kobe---instead we got to see the cast of "Grownups" sitting behind Phil Jackson before an onslaught of ads featuring purple swimming pool water). It dissapointingly added up to variations of "LeBron quit," "LeBron disappeared," "Something happened to LeBron but we don't know what," "Maybe LeBron had an argument with his mouthy owner behind the scenes and mailed in the last three games." All sorts of conspiracy theories.

The evidence is pretty compelling that a superstar athlete had an elbow injury that needed more than a day off between games within a physical series to recover.

If he goes 10 of his first 43 from outside TWO FEET in this year's series, then let's talk about all the gut check stuff.

An indisputable basketball superstar suddenly couldn't shoot from distance. Do you want to believe that he quit on the team, but creatively posted 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists in the series finale to cover his tracks? Or, is it much more reasonable that a proud man who won't make excuses did the best he could when dealing with a WELL-PUBLICIZED injury to the elbow on his shooting arm?

If you're a sportswriter who likes touting any of the conspiracy theories, could you at least mention this extremely reasonable possibility to balance things out?

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Comments

5/1/2011 4:05:41 AM #

tsunami

2 problems with this. He didn't start playing recklessly until game 6 after everyone started crying out that he quit in game 5.  You're demanding everyone  be honest but you didn't even re watch game 5.  You couldn't have, or else you would have seen his ridiculously uncharacteristic body language.  Strange dribbling for 20 seconds and then jump passing to teammates standing right next to him and hoping they shoot.  Staring off into space during timeouts and huddles.  Snapping back about spoiling people in the postgame.  Tearing off his jersey after game 6.  Leaving the cavs out to dry by not informing them of his plans and waiting until after all the other fas not named Kyle lowry were signed to make his decision.  Allowing his mind to be permanently fixated on his free agency and his recruitment.  Planning in advance with Riley and Wade.  All of that is  quitting on tour team.  All of that is quitting on your boss.  All of that is quitting on your fans.  And all of those things happened and have allready been documented.  Other than that your argument is awesome.  If the only proof that someone "quit" is a bunch of 0s in the box score then yes, there is no proof LeBron quit and we all just irrational haters.  Miami be warned, Lebron could give a rats you know what about you.  So stay apathetic so you don't one day become a "hater" too.

tsunami United States

5/1/2011 11:39:30 AM #

Jeff Fogle

Appreciate you sharing your thoughts tsunami. To me, the in-game elements you described would be consistent with frustration from a player who knew he couldn't deliver at 100%. Those sound like a frustrated player to me...with the frustration building as it became more and more clear that the series was slipping away because he couldn't play at a peak level in the short turnarounds...and that he was getting blamed even though he was doing the best he could with an injury. I think one could interpret those same actions as frustration rather than quitting (particularly when he started getting blamed even though everyone knew he had a bad elbow...and everyone knew he had a "no excuses" policy with the media). Now, the stuff about planning in advance with Wade and Bosh, not telling Cleveland about his plans until the nation heard about his plans, I can certainly see why there's intense resentment about those. He "abandoned" Cleveland when his contract was up. The statistical evidence isn't consistent with "quitting" on them while he was there in my view. It's consistent with an injured player trying very hard to find a way to win...

Jeff Fogle United States

5/2/2011 4:59:58 AM #

defghik

Wow, very interesting article. I'd honestly never even heard this as a possible explanation before - one thing that adds to the plausibility is his FT%. With just one day off, he shot 50 for 70 at the line in the playoffs (including the Bulls series) for 71.4%. In the other playoff games, he shot 39 for 50 at the line for 78%.

Reportedly, his elbow had been bothering him for the last couple weeks of the regular season, too, which is partly why he sat out the last several games of the regular season. That could explain why in April 2010, he went just 1-14 from downtown, made just 31% from 16-23 feet and shot 69% at the FT line. Lebron's shooting numbers on threes and at the line were noticeably lower than usual in late March as well, though he did shoot well from 16-23 feet.

defghik United States

5/4/2011 1:34:34 PM #

Lloyd Pearson IV

People are quite selective about the facts in which they want to include in their conclusions. I watched the game & it was quite clear that Lebron was not playing like himself. The thing I find the most interesting is that Lebron was the only player in the league where is his team lost, they would blame it on him quitting. Where were the other Cavaliers? I thought basketball was a team sport. These same Celtics went on to nearly sweep the Orlando Magic & took the Lakers to 7 games. Both teams had better supporting cast than the Celtics did. Kobe also struggled in The Finals, noone blamed him for quitting, the difference was he had players who could step up like Gasol, Artest, Odum & Bynum. This is why Lebron left. Lebron was forced to change his game when he came to the Cavs because they had noone else. He has always wanted be more of a magicJohnson type of player than a Michael Jordan type, but he didn't have that luxury with his supporting cast so he put his fate in his own hands & put himself in a position where he didnt have have to carry the weight of the entire franchise on his back. Until we see another example of another pro athlete having as much leverage as Lebron had during his free agency, there is no way we can compare it to anyone else.

People forget that the Lakers struggled & Kobe was demanding a trade until they made the trade toi get Gasol. Kobe has never won by himself & nor has wade. The 2006 Miami Heat team was very talented.  I am so tired of watching these sports writers, commentators & internet posters make all of these ridiculous & outrageous claims especially when we live in a world where everything is documented.

Lloyd Pearson IV United States

5/4/2011 4:44:45 PM #

Deldbrown

I always thought it was very interesting on how people chose to see only what thy want to see. Example in playoff series against Boston last year,
  Player 1: 26.8 pts (44.7%), 9.3 rbs, 7.2 asts, 1.3 blks, 2.2 stls, 4.5 TOs
  Player 2: 28.6 pts (40.5%), 8.0 rbs, 3.9 asts, 0.7 blks, 2.1 stls, 3.9 TOs

From the stats Player 1 was a more efficient shooter and contributed a lot more in rebounds, assists, and blocks. The only negative was that player 1 had 0.6 more turnovers a game. Yet player 1 (Lebron) is considered a quitter on the basketball court, while player 2 (Kobe) is considered clutch.

Don't misinterpret my point here. I'm not saying that Kobe is not a good player, I'm saying that it's makes no sense how people ascribe "quitness" to Lebron for his play on the basketball court last year.

Deldbrown United States

5/4/2011 5:25:54 PM #

Tsunami

Ok Jeff.  Your arguments fit your hypothesis, but given all the extraneous information that I brought up (that is most certainly true) doesn't the burden of proof shift away from simply aggregating some production stats?  And even if we are going to use production based stats, he didn't exactly pull a Shoeless Joe Jackson during games 5 and 6.

Since all the arguments are recycled versions of the same theme using some form of statistical evidence to prove the same point, how about these?

The last time the Cavaliers gave up 120 points on their home court (before G5) was April 1st, TWO THOUSAND AND FIVE.

If you sum up the point differential of all the Cavaliers' home losses from the start of the 08-09 season till the start of the Boston series you get: -34.  The Cavs lost game 5 by 32.

Catching a few rebounds and jacking up few shots in 42 minutes of a game in which over 200 points were scored doesn't seem to be PROOF of much of anything - not sure why box score stats have become the baseline for choosing a side in the "LeBron Quit/No He Didn't" argument.  The word "quitting" in and of itself implies an emotional state, box score stats regurgitated from over a year ago certainly don't qualify as enough evidence to confidently pass judgement on LeBron's emotional state do they?

Tsunami United States

5/4/2011 5:30:36 PM #

Tsunami

Also, isn't his "decision" the obvious and ultimate conclusion to the "quitting" that began long before (and come to a point) during game 5?  "I can't beat an aging team despite having enough talent to win over 120 games and have the best point differential in the NBA 2 seasons in a row?"  (remember stat lovers, Point differential is the ultimate determinant of predicting future (including playoff) success.  I can't do it - I'm going to quit and go somewhere else because this is too hard.

Isn't that, in essence, what it means to QUIT?  Don't confuse "quitting" with "throwing the game" or "betting against ur own team".

He quit.

Tsunami United States

5/4/2011 6:31:17 PM #

Deldbrown

What Jeff is pointing out in this article, is that the facts say something specifically yet people want to hold on to the conspiracy theories and completely ignore the fact that th elbow injury was a factor in Lebron's play last year.

IMO, the "look" that Lebron had on the sidelines in timeouts last year, was the same "look" that KG had when he was with the Wolves, that Kobe had before the Gasol trade, and that Dwight Howard  had in the last playoff series. It's when a player realizes that even though they consider themself "great", they're not good enough to win an NBA title without other All-Stars. (FYI - I always wondered what KG was saying in Lebron's ear after game 6.)

As for "quitting" the Cavs, Lebron was a free agent. If the Cavs knew he was a quitter, then they should have tried to get another FA, rather than wait on the "quitter's" decision.

As a FA, Lebron has the right to go to another team just as how a team has the right not to renew a player's contract.

Deldbrown United States

5/4/2011 7:05:11 PM #

Baller

"Also, isn't his "decision" the obvious and ultimate conclusion to the "quitting" that began long before (and come to a point) during game 5?  "I can't beat an aging team despite having enough talent to win over 120 games and have the best point differential in the NBA 2 seasons in a row?"  (remember stat lovers, Point differential is the ultimate determinant of predicting future (including playoff) success.  I can't do it - I'm going to quit and go somewhere else because this is too hard."

Point differential is the best predictor of success. It's also not a guarantee. Apparently, the rest of the Eastern Conference and the Lakers should all hang their heads in shame then for letting the "geezer" Celtics with their only 10th best point differential in the league to get within one game of winning the title.

The fact is, your team last season had one brilliant playoff player in LBJ who literally had to play well every game for the team to win the title since guys like Mo Williams (remember, this was the supposed to be the "Pippen" of the team) played like a deer in headlights. By the way, how's letting Mo take the reins for the Cavs working out for you? Not to mention that the only other player on the roster who was a factor in the Cavs success (Varejao) was injured. With no consistent offensive production from any other player outside of LBJ, it was pretty much one-on-five from the Cavs perspective. Paul Pierce was right when he said whenever their team played the Cavs, they ONLY had to gameplan for LBJ - keep down his output and your team gets the W, because the rest of his cast weren't consistent factors in playoff games.

The "quitting" talk is simply subjective drivel that can never be proven nor disproven. What we DO know (and can prove) is that LBJ's team was outmatched on both ends of the floor (and it's funny how the Cavs giving up those points is ALSO LBJ's fault now; what, he's supposed to guard their best offensive player Pierce AND KG AND Allen AND Rondo at the same time?). It doesn't matter how well your star plays; other players need to do their job for a team to win.

Baller United States

5/5/2011 1:37:29 AM #

kc

I had this exact same thought last year!  Here's a copy of an email I sent to an NBA blogger back on 5.16.2010:

From: Me (email address withheld)
To: Him (email address withheld)
Subject: Lebron 2010 playoff performance and days of rest
Date: Sun, 16 May 2010 11:13:25 -0700

(name withheld),

I would like very much to hear your thoughts on how days of rest in between playoff games seemed to affect Lebron's performance this year.

Bulls game 1: plenty of rest, avg game at best
Bulls game 2: 1 day of rest, great game
Bulls game 3: 2 days of rest, great game
Bulls game 4: 2 days of rest, great game
Bulls game 5: 1 day of rest, poor game

Celtics game 1: 3 days of rest, great game
Celtics game 2: 1 day of rest, poor game
Celtics game 3: 2 days of rest, great game
Celtics game 4: 1 day of rest, poor game
Celtics game 5: 1 day of rest, avg game

Of his 5 great games in the playoffs, 4 came on 2+ days of rest.
On 1 day of rest, he had 3 poor games, 1 avg game, and 1 great game.


kc United States

5/5/2011 2:02:56 AM #

Tsunami

The paradigm through which you are viewing the contributions of an NBA team is additive, when in fact it is not.  Quite often, players compliment each other and their skill sets resonate to create a multiplicative effect.  When you think of a sentence like "How's letting Mo take the reins for the Cavs working out for you?" what had to happen in your mind to think that? Go to bed, let the adults talk for a while. Mo Williams was never the Cavalier's second best player - Anderson Varejao was.  Mo Williams in a vaccuum most certainly isn't a fearsome NBA star.  But he's one of the best shooters in the NBA.  If he has to create his own shot against an NBA team's primary defender, he's going to struggle - if he can spot up for open shots off down screens and drive and kicks - there are few better at hitting from deep.  The Cavaliers were slowly and methodically built around LeBron's skillsets.  The more LeBron resisted playing off the ball and learning to post up, the more the Cavaliers acquired/doubled down on players that thrived in a drive and kick, LeBron centric offense.  And it worked, to the tune of the Cavs winning the best record in the NBA in 2008-2009 when the notional value of HCA was at it's highest (due to the Celtics HC success the previous year).

To scoff at the Cavs inherent lack of a second star is to ignore over 160 games of evidence that the Cavs could win without one.  No one is saying today, that the Dallas Mavericks aren't talented enough to beat the Los Angeles Lakers.  Quite the opposite, Charles barkley just said "they're the better team".  With Jason Terry as their second best player - Jason Terry.  Ironically, a player very similar to Mo Williams.  And when they beat the Lakers, everyone will say, "they're the better team."

If you are going to stand by the argument that: "The Cavs were offensively 1 on 5 for all of LeBron's career" then how do you explain: 1.) The Cavs being in the top 3 in the NBA in offensive efficiency in 2010 and 2.) The 2008-2010 Cavs having significantly better records than the 2011 Heat despite plenty of player turnover?

You're right, the quitting talk is subjective.  maybe that is what is bothering everyone.  But at the very least, put some more nuanced thought into your arguments other than "you can't emotionally check out of a game and post non-zero statistics in it" and "the cavs roster suxs!!!11"  It's not true, and that's subjective and dis-proven by back to back 60 win seasons.

Here's one esteemed NBA writer's thoughts on April 16, 2010: "I think Cleveland will win the 2010 title.

Best team, best player, best season. Of course, we could have said that last year. But Jamison and Shaq give the Cavs a flexibility last season's team just didn't have. They can go small, big, medium ... doesn't matter."

funny, i seem to remember Mo Williams playing for the Cavs on april 16, 2010. How could this idiot not have OBVIOUSLY known that the Cavs would lose because Mo Williams wouldn't play well.  especially after Mo's horrific 2009 playoff series against Orlando.  Someone fire Bill Simmons and give Baller his job please.

Tsunami United States

5/5/2011 11:02:01 AM #

Baller

"The paradigm through which you are viewing the contributions of an NBA team is additive, when in fact it is not.  Quite often, players compliment each other and their skill sets resonate to create a multiplicative effect.  When you think of a sentence like "How's letting Mo take the reins for the Cavs working out for you?" what had to happen in your mind to think that? Go to bed, let the adults talk for a while. Mo Williams was never the Cavalier's second best player - Anderson Varejao was.  Mo Williams in a vaccuum most certainly isn't a fearsome NBA star.  But he's one of the best shooters in the NBA.  If he has to create his own shot against an NBA team's primary defender, he's going to struggle - if he can spot up for open shots off down screens and drive and kicks - there are few better at hitting from deep.  The Cavaliers were slowly and methodically built around LeBron's skillsets.  The more LeBron resisted playing off the ball and learning to post up, the more the Cavaliers acquired/doubled down on players that thrived in a drive and kick, LeBron centric offense.  And it worked, to the tune of the Cavs winning the best record in the NBA in 2008-2009 when the notional value of HCA was at it's highest (due to the Celtics HC success the previous year)."

This isn't a rebuttal. This  is a long paragraph that pretty much reinforces the point I made earlier about LBJ pretty much having to play week all the time for the Cavs to win, along with playing great defense. By the way, Mo wasn't doing anything really different role-wise in the playoffs, he simply did not make those shots against better defenses that he did during the regular season.

You can continue to blame LBJ for this, but the fact is that he needs (as every team does) a second reliable go-to guy to do his job and get points. That was Mo's/Antwan's job, and they didn't oblige. But I know. Gotta always blame the star, right?

"With Jason Terry as their second best player - Jason Terry.  Ironically, a player very similar to Mo Williams."

Jason Terry >>> Mo Williams. And there's nothing similar about that at all, except for the fact they both wear headbands.

"If you are going to stand by the argument that: "The Cavs were offensively 1 on 5 for all of LeBron's career"..."

Except I DIDN'T say that. I was referring to the Boston series.

"2.) The 2008-2010 Cavs having significantly better records than the 2011 Heat despite plenty of player turnover?"

I would think that alot of it would have something to do with the fact that this is the first time in league history that three players of LBJ/Wade/Bosh's stature came together on the same team. Not exactly a light-switch transition to make.

Not that it matters anyway. LBJ didn't join Miami to win more games in the regular season.

Baller United States

5/5/2011 2:01:54 PM #

Marco Garcia-Ganem

"To scoff at the Cavs inherent lack of a second star is to ignore over 160 games of evidence that the Cavs could win without one."

Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal. 160 regular season games is only evidence that the Cavs were really really good in the regular season. In NBA circles, regular season success isnt considered postseason success. Ask the 06-07 Mavs about having the best regular season record and the reigning MVP. All that got them was a first round exit to the Warriors. All your stats and evidence about how the Cavs were this or that in the regular season has no bearing at all because were talking about what happened to Lebron in the postseason. Btw, you wanna see what quiting in playoffs looks like? See Kobe's playoffs performance against the Suns were he only scored 2 point the 2nd half. Thats called quiting.

Marco Garcia-Ganem United States

6/23/2011 7:10:54 AM #

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