More Notes on LeBron

by Jeff Fogle 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...

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Comments

6/10/2011 10:50:39 PM #

Crow

There is always more that can be dug out of the stats with time & attention. Using the split data here sportsillustrated.cnn.com/.../splits.html
I see that LeBron shot far better in the first half than the second half of games for the entire season. And in the 4th his 3 pt accuracy particularly plummets perhaps making it easier to cut off the drive. I also see that James shot his regular season worst... against Dallas.

Crow United States

6/10/2011 11:42:37 PM #

Jeff Fogle

Thanks crow, great additions to the conversation...

Jeff Fogle United States

6/11/2011 1:38:22 AM #

J

The turnover numbers against Boston and Chicago are off.  LeBron had 17 turnovers against the Celtics and 18 turnovers against the Bulls.  It appears that you counted his blocks instead in those instances.

With respect to your insinuation that the Mavs more than other opponents have denied drives and encouraged jumpers, I'm skeptical as to whether that's true.  LeBron's at-rim attempts in this series are identical to his playoff averages.  He has 26 in this series, and he had 26 against Chicago, 29 against Boston, and 23 against Philly.  He's drastically cut down on long 2s against Dallas, which generally aren't great shots, but his unwillingness to shoot them seems more indicative of a lack of confidence than a lack of aggressiveness.  From 16 to 23 feet, LeBron is just 2-11 against the Mavs, compared with 14-36 v CHI, 8-29 v BOS, and 13-25 v PHI.  

J United States

6/11/2011 1:45:50 AM #

crow

Thanks Jeff.

The minutes might be an issue especially at this point in the season, heightened by the intensity and significance of the games.

In the regular season his overall efficiency was fine in games where played over 40 minutes but his 3 point shooting dipped. Maybe some extra desperation 3s got added. Maybe he was looser.

James has actually had 3 overall weak seasons against Dallas in the last 4 seasons and in the 4th his shooting was also weak while other parts of his game were fine. Dallas scouting & coaching may be good against him. Some of it could be luck & random variation but I  think they have  good defense against him and it is not just Chandler related.  

James may be getting tired or tight. But Dallas also seems to know what to do on him.

crow United States

6/11/2011 1:46:05 AM #

Anonymous

Kobe Bryant played 44mpg in the 03-04 playoffs through 22 games.

His best game of the Finals was game #19, where he played 49 minutes.  lebron's worst game was game #19 of the playoffs.  Kobe was 25 to Lebron's 26.  Now, Kobe didn't have the best finals, we all know that, but fatigue was never a question.

And these days there are more timeouts and longer delays.  I'm not buying the fatigue factor at all unless he's out of shape, which no one is going to believe.  MJ played in a much for bruising/physical era as well, so I'm sure he'd be even more tired.  And we all remember MJ's flu game in game 5 of the NBA Finals.  If he could muster that under those conditions at the end, I'm not buying the extra 2mpg for a 26 year old in his prime is the issue.  Not buying that excuse.  He needs to man up, already.  

Anonymous United States

6/11/2011 10:33:31 AM #

tim

you're showing us the stats wihich are telling how many minutes he played and then you point that he has become worse every series. i may also tell you that he's playing worse and worse and then point that its the influence of his pussyness in crunch, not spending all those minutes on the floor

tim Poland

6/11/2011 12:32:25 PM #

Jeff Fogle

Appreciate the comments from everyone. Regarding the basics of "fatigue" versus "he needs to man up," it's very likely beyond the scope of data to pin down which specifically of those is at issue. Would agree that the evidence could lead believers of either influence to think they're right. The stats as they exist are consistent with both fatigue or shying away from pressure.

Thanks J, for catching that. The power of the collective! I've taken out the mini-sub section on turnovers because I had eyeballed the turnovers from two series, but then the blocked shots from the other two because they sit next to each other in the format here and the whole section wasn't fitting on my screen. I was mistaken in how I logged the numbers as I was getting them. I've taken that section out of the article now. LeBron's turnovers by series in order are 7, 17, 18, 18...meaning that he didn't have any TO troubles vs. Philly, but has had parallel troubles vs. the intense or creative defenses of Boston/Chicago/Dallas. That's not consistent with fatigue. So my mis-logging had created a misread on LeBron starting to fall apart turnover wise. He's become less aggressive, but turnovers have been stable the past three series.

Regarding the shots at the rim J, I think it's important to include free throws in that mix. A lot of the threat of flying at the rim is that you get fouled and go to the line. His free throws are way down this series. I don't have time now to go through and count up how many of his free throws through the playoffs came on drives in the play-by-play. To make the math easy, let's assume they ALL were in EVERY series for a moment, and just add up "shots at the rim" plus "one-half of FT attempts" (on the assumption that two FT attempts represent a drive where he was fouled). This won't be perfect...but it's reasonable to assume that the percentage is about the same in each series I'd think...so the differentials between series will be meaningful.

Shots at Rim Plus 1/2 FT Attempts:
48 vs. Philly
50 vs. Boston
48 vs. Chicago
34 vs. Dallas

So, his shots at the rim may be the same, but the "trips to the basket" may be less common given this way of looking at it, and therefore less fruitful.

I think your implication is right though that my saying "Dallas had denied LeBron's preferred pathways" was overstating it. They haven't denied them. "Deny" is too strong a word. I do think the lower number of free throws suggests they've done a better job of discouraging those than the other teams did. There are more possessions where LeBron doesn't have or doesn't see an opening. He knows he's not hitting his jumpers (for reasons of fatigue or wussiness). So, he's backed himself out of the fourth quarter mix to a degree that's surprising everyone.

Thanks again to all for sharing their thoughts, and to Crow for his additional post on the Dallas defense angle...

Jeff Fogle United States

6/11/2011 10:42:16 PM #

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6/13/2011 12:04:16 PM #

huevonkiller

Haha Anonymous what a joke, Kobe was TERRIBLE in those finals he never had an offensive rating above 103.

His next four best games were 100, 94, 71, 72. What a stupid point you tried to make, Kobe's not that bad he was clearly fatigued.

Kobe played 2400 minutes in the regular season, hardly the same situation and he still failed. Nice try but step up your game.

huevonkiller United States

6/13/2011 12:14:17 PM #

huevonkiller



Crow I'm sorry but all season you complained about the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls and how the Heat couldn't beat them. I'm not sure you understand how inaccurate your assessments were.

Against Dallas on December 20, LeBron was an excellent jumpshooter and had 7 FTs in 36 minutes. And he went 0-3 from inside 3 feet.

You clearly have no idea what you're talking about, this was not the LeBron that failed against Dallas. It was energy related, his free throw rates drastically fell even though he was able to attack the basket better at the rim.

Anyway I'm not sure I care either way, he deserves a couple of rings for carrying Cleveland like he did in the past.

huevonkiller United States

6/13/2011 5:03:17 PM #

Crow

I just saw this. Since we've already discussed the issues a bit further elsewhere I think I'll pass at saying anything more here.

Crow United States

6/20/2011 1:36:17 AM #

Dub Turbo

I had spent a excellent deal of my time looking for someone to explain this subject

clearly and you’re the only 1 that ever did that. Kudos to you! Keep it up

Dub Turbo United States

12/6/2011 4:58:01 PM #

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