10. June 2011 21:17
I did some more digging on LeBron James' numbers this year in the playoffs. I think we're definitely honing in on the reasons for his recent fourth quarter disappearances.
Given the buzz recently about fatigue setting in because James is playing so many minutes, let's start with that data...
LEBRON'S AVERAGE MINUTES BY SERIES
42.4 versus Philadelphia (peak 44)
44.6 versus Boston (peak 50)
45.2 versus Chicago (peak 49)
44.4 versus Dallas (peak 46)
There was an overtime game in both the Boston and Chicago series that pushed James past the 48-minute regulation mark as a peak. Note that, conveniently, LeBron has played exactly five games versus all four opponents right now, which will give us some very good comparisons as we run through various categories. (If you'd like to do your own digging, LeBron's game-by-game summaries are here)
Okay...that's a lot of minutes. The very high numbers versus Boston and Chicago point to the intensity LeBron and the team had versus those opponents. Remember how Miami celebrated after beating Boston? Much more than teams usually do against a second round opponent. Beating Chicago put them in the Finals. LeBron was almost always on the floor in those series.
Thought it would be interesting to go see how many minutes Michael Jordan played in the playoffs back in the day. If ANYONE is going to be on the court all the time...it's Jordan at the height of the Jordan era. Here are the playoff per-game averages in his championship years:
40.5, 41.8, 41.2, 40.7, 42.0, 41.5 (Jordan's career page at Basketball-Reference is here)
So...Jordan...when he was JORDAN...was generally in the 40-42 range. Miami's giving more minutes to LeBron than Chicago gave to Jordan by a significant degree. And, given the nature of fatigue...you have to think those extra few minutes are meaningful. The difference between playing 11 minutes and 14 minutes is neglible. The difference between 41 and 44 is much more likely to have "straw on a camel's back" potential because of wear and tear at such a high volume.
There are a few good measures of "energy" in my view. Maybe some of you have ones we can add. Let's start with usage rate.
LEBRON'S USAGE RATE BY SERIES
28.3 vs. Philadelphia
33.9 vs. Boston
30.5 vs. Chicago
24.7 vs. Dallas
LeBron was a big factor but not a ball hog vs. Philly. He was much more prominent vs. Boston and Chicago. He's obviously backed off vs. Dallas.
If you look at free throw attempts, the differences are much more striking. Remember how Derrick Rose of Chicago stopped going to the line against Indiana when he sprained his ankle? We know James didn't sprain an ankle. And, there's no sign of any injury to the naked eye right now as far as I can tell. He's getting to the line this series like he's playing on Rose's bad ankle!
LEBRON'S TOTAL FREE THROW ATTEMPTS
50 vs. Philadelphia
42 vs. Boston
44 vs. Chicago
16 vs. Dallas
It's been five games in every series...and LeBron is logging a zillion minutes. Extremely similar backdrops. I had already forgotten the degree to which James had marched to the free throw line in the earlier rounds. He's dropped from 10 free throws per game vs. Philadelphia to 3.2 vs. Dallas. Stunning.
So, the "energy" stats are certainly suggesting fatigue. Now, they could also be suggesting very smart defense by Dallas. Their approach with LeBron has been to deny drives at the basket in the set offense, and encourage jumpers. That cuts down on free throws. His jumpers haven't been falling, so he may have naturally cut back due to a lack of confidence. He isn't necessarily tired. But, he is DEFINITELY being less aggressive in this series for whatever reason.
We've talked often throughout the playoffs about how the Dallas defense tries to make you shoot from outside your comfort zone. They do a very good job of this. It's conceivable that there's no fatigue, and this is just LeBron doing a poor job of figuring out what to do against the Dallas defense. A combination of the two factors would make a lot of sense. He's tired AND facing a smart defense that's taken him out of his comfort zone.
A few analysts, notably Jon Barry on ESPN, have commented on how LeBron never developed any sort of post game to take advantage of mismatches in his years in the NBA. I think this is playing into the dynamics as well. His traditional weapons aren't working, and his bag of tricks isn't very deep.
Let's play this out...
*LeBron's offense has historically consisted of flying past people for dunks or layups, or hitting jumpers over them if they back off. He's done that since before high school. He was such a dominating force nobody could stop it. He never needed to develop other threats because that got him to where he needed to be.
*LeBron can get away with that during the regular season because few pro teams are capable of denying this force of nature.
*LeBron can even get away with that in the early rounds of playoffs. We all remember some very dynamic stretches in past years where he seemed unstoppable with the mix of flying past people or hitting his jumpers.
*Once you get to elite defenses though, it becomes harder to pull that off consistently. And, it's exhausting to keep up the effort several games in a row.
*Dallas, either with their zone, or the other defensive strategies they're using, has denied LeBron's preferred pathways to the basket. They're going to make him beat them with jumpers.
*The first sign that fatigue is setting in comes on jumpers. They start falling short or veering off to one side (presenting an alternative explanation to the elbow injury for last year's demise late in the Boston series...LeBron was horrible shooting the ball outside of two feet during the demise if you'll recall from past studies). Offline jumpers were obviously prominent Thursday night.
*Ergo...LeBron gradually starts to disappear in this year's championship series because he has no workable options. Tired legs have taken away the consistency of his jumpers and Dallas isn't letting him attack the basket. In the last three games of this series, LeBron is 1 of 3 from 10-15 feet, 1 of 8 from 16-23 feet, and 1 of 11 on treys...for a combined 3 of 22 in the areas Dallas wants him to shoot from.
That felt like a geometry proof from high school!
A mix of smart defense from Dallas, heavy-minute fatigue for James, and the realization from LeBron that he shouldn't be shooting jumpers given his low percentage has led to fourth quarter shrinkage. He doesn't want the ball in his hands because there's not much productive he can do right now with tired legs against a smart defense.
A possibility anyway. Two days off before Sunday's Game Six might help him freshen up. If that happens and Miami wins, he'd have to come back with only one day off for Game Seven on Tuesday. If this is all a result of Dallas defense and there's no fatigue...he'd better find a new trick pretty quick.
Back with you late Sunday with numbers and notes...