One fifth of the way through the NBA season, the reigning, defending, undisputed MVP of the last two seasons, LeBron James, is at it again. Building on last year’s incredible jump in scoring efficiency, James is currently hitting shots at unprecedented percentages. No 25 point per game scorer has ever eclipsed his effective field goal percentage mark of 63.2 or his true shooting percentage of 68. His “regular” shooting percentages are also amazing. He’s on the cusp of having a 60-40-80 season (60 FG% – 40 3P% – 80 FT%) and hitting career best levels in all three categories.
By a per minute or per possession measure, LeBron is having a year for the ages. However, by a per game box score stat measure, he’s having his worst season since his rookie year. His points, assists, and rebounds averages are all at or near the lowest since his first season, and his turnovers are the second highest of his career. The reason for the dip in overall production is obvious. He’s playing the fewest minutes he ever has, and his team’s pace, while not historically low compared to other teams James has been on, is below league average. A more obscure reason for the drop in point production is that LeBron’s usage rate is at its lowest since his second year. So the reason for the dip in points, rebounds, and assists from his career averages is that James is getting fewer opportunities and being more selective in the opportunities he chooses to take.
What’s really fascinating to me is that no one anywhere is giving LeBron grief about his per game statistics dropping. It helps of course that they are still fantastic stats. He’s third in points per game behind the last two scoring champions, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. He’s also still maintaining that elite wing player production of 25 pts with 5 rebounds and 5 assists (only Durant can match that feat this season). Still at first blush to a casual observer it does look like he’s gotten worse at literally everything. But no one seems to see that. Every commentary I’ve seen is focused on his off the charts efficiency. I think this demonstrates a sophistication in the NBA consumer. Reporters and columnists write to their audiences, and everyone seems to feel that the average NBA fan understands that efficiency is an important measure in player value. That wasn’t always the case.
The one criticism that comes up a little is that LeBron might not be taking enough total shots for the good of his team. The notion from an advanced stats perspective is that total team usage is always going to be 100%, and the lower a super efficient star’s usage is, the more of an onus that puts on the other players to make up the difference. Simply put, the less shots LeBron takes, the more shots the rest of the Heat players have to take, and since they aren’t as good at making shots as he is, that’s potentially bad for the team, but James and Spo have to determine exactly what the balance between aggressiveness and efficiency should be.
An obvious example of this sort of value in high usage was the potent combination of Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman. Rodman had virtually no scoring skills. He could make layups, but other than that his shots were usually tossed up at the rim on a whim with luck as their guide. BUT Dennis was the best per-possession rebounder the game has ever seen. A perfectly even breakdown of usage would be 20% from each player on the court (5 man units), but Rodman only gave 10%. So the rest of the team had to absorb the unused 10% of possessions he left on the table. Since Jordan used over 30% of all possessions (with very low turnovers), that meant that the remaining 3 players on the team didn’t have to go outside their own comfort levels to help account for Dennis’s lack of usage. Jordan covered the gap himself (and then some). With Pippen’s usage hovering around 25%, that left just 35% for the other big minute players to account for, and Kukoc, Harper, Kerr, and Longley could easily handle that in any combination.
What the Heat’s usage breakdown should be is a little different, and really the question is less one of usage and more one of shot distribution. Usage rate is inclusive of field goals, factored free throws, factored assists, and turnovers set against league and team pace numbers and then minutes adjusted. LeBron’s usage remains fairly high (nearly 30%), but his FGAs and assists are both down. So the question becomes, who is taking shots and making plays instead of LeBron? LeBron’s Heat are equipped with a good number of players capable of creating shots and making plays. Wade (the team is 2 – 3 with Wade sidelined so far this season) has the goods to be a great first option. Bosh can be a great option. Ray Allen off screens still works. Both Chalmers and Cole can penetrate a defense. Beasley can get his own shot. So maybe it’s worth it to the Heat for LeBron to dial it back on the shooting attempts and ratchet up the efficiency since his teammates can pick up the slack.
Aside from finding the right internal balance of LeBron efficiency vs. LeBron production for the Heat, I have to ask, how do we, as fans and armchair analysts, evaluate players when production is trumped by efficiency? I have received many complaints in the comments on my posts wherein I attempt to equalize stats between different eras through pace adjustment. Time and again passionate readers remind me that an increase in available possessions doesn’t necessarily mean that players on faster teams had more opportunities to use those possessions. However, as sort of an inverse of that point, does having and using fewer possessions make it easier to be more efficient?
Ordinarily, I’d say not necessarily. For instance, Kobe lost touches and shot opportunities to Shaq for several years, and that didn’t always put him in position to take easier shots. O’Neal occupied the paint and turned Kobe into a jump shooter, which by and large is the least efficient of his scoring methods. LeBron has the opposite working in his favor. Coach Spoelstra has emptied the paint for him. So LeBron is conserving energy by playing fewer minutes and has direct driving lanes to the rim when he catches the ball in the post (it’s a credit to James’s passing skills that team defenses honor the Heat’s offensive spacing). Good old Dean Oliver showed a relationship between usage and efficiency (his ORtg numbers decreased as usage increased), but I don’t know if there are any concrete studies on total possession used vs. scoring efficiency. Are we now in an era so different from what has come before, even a decade ago, that we need to find a way to calculate the relative values of efficiency vs. production?
However we gauge the value of LeBron’s amazing shooting, what makes the scoring efficiency even scarier is that while his overall FGAs have dropped his 3PAs and FTAs have remained steady, and that’s despite the drop in minutes. He’s less taxed and still focused on getting high value opportunities. James is creating (or possibly rediscovering) a new model for how to be a superstar on a great team. Play smarter instead of harder. Do less to achieve more. How does that stack up to our older view of high production equating to good play? Based on his PER and WS/48, pretty damn well. How do we compare this direction basketball seems to be headed with the places we’ve been before? With great care and attention to detail.