This playoff series has brought up a number of questions for me about LeBron James, the Miami Heat, and the nature of efficient NBA offenses. Before I get into that, let me just say kudos to the Spurs for taking it to the Heat. This is the first game I can remember in these playoffs where James, Wade, and Bosh all played pretty well and with good activity in a loss. Usually if those three play even decent ball, the Heat win. By usually I mean almost always. So good on San Antonio for not succumbing to any the Heat runs and rebuilding every lead that they lost.
With the much-deserved Spurs praise out of the way I want to say that I’m not as sure as everyone else that this has been LeBron’s finest season. Is he the best he’s ever been? Sure. He’s expanded his post game, improved his effectiveness without the ball, and implemented better shot selection. HOWEVER, I’m not sure we should be quite so ga-ga over James’s improved shooting percentages. Here’s a handy chart detailing LeBron’s 2012 and 2013 regular season and playoff numbers:
|Season||Min/Gm||FGA / 36||eFG%||Pts / 36min|
We know the decrease in shots and increase in percentage is not an accident. James and Wade talked openly about their goals to maintain 50%+ field goal percentages for the season. They were actively making decisions to not take difficult shots in order to maintain those numbers. An oddly egocentric form of selflessness since it led to them passing the ball up instead of forcing shots up. But I don’t think that sort of selectivity breeds the best results in the playoffs.
I’m not surprised to see the shooting percentages dip in the playoffs. That’s normal, and those numbers are still strong. What’s unusual for a superstar first-option scorer is that his attempts per minute have actually decreased. This is bad for his team. Why, you ask? J, aren’t you always extolling the virtues of getting everyone else involved and sharing decision-making responsibilities, you ask? Fair points. The issue is, when an opposing team is playing solid defense in a playoff series, easy shots are hard to come by. You run your offense. The defense has it scouted. They blow up the first couple of options. The shot clock gets tight. The ball is in your best player’s hands. He does something with it. It’s just sort of what happens in the playoffs. It’s not ideal, but there you are.
Now what LeBron would have done in Cleveland is shot the ball or made the pass if a teammate was wide open. He knew his teammates couldn’t create shots for themselves, and the offense (which was “give it to LeBron and hope” or what coach Johnny Bach called the “Archangel offense” when the 1980s Bulls did the same thing with MJ) generally dictated that he make the play. The Miami Heat have been blessed with an abundance of talent and a scheme that allows LeBron the option to pass in basically any situation where he doesn’t like the shot that’s available to him, even if it’s not an assist pass or a so-called hockey assist pass (the pass that leads to the assist). Basically he’s willing to pass even when he hasn’t improved his team’s scoring chances by doing something productive with the ball.
The plan is to get the ball out fast and try your luck in transition or delayed transition. If nothing develops, get LeBron into the post. Test the defense. If a driving lane comes open take it to the hole. If James is close enough to get a good post-up move off, take the shot. Otherwise pitch it out to Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or Chris Bosh, and hope that they do something with it. Essentially that’s been the plan all year. Space the floor wide with all shooters, get up and down, and only take really high percentage shots – looks in the paint, the mid-post, or open threes. That’s a great idea, and with multiple players on the court capable of creating, it’s just smart team play. But there are limits.
Playoff defenses are making those high percentage looks more difficult to come by. Chicago, Indiana, and San Antonio are not your average defensive teams. And the offensive decisions that James and the Heat have been making all season have been geared to defeat more run-of-the-mill defenses. When a star passes up a mildly-contested shot for an uncontested shot, it’s good basketball. Old timers call that giving up a good shot to get a great shot. The problem is that these elite defenses don’t give very many great shots. So when you aren’t used to taking good shots, or mildly contested shots, and the great shots don’t avail themselves… You get the point. Now nobody is used to shooting the types of shots that are available. It’s wonderful to shoot 56% from the field taking lay-ups and open three pointers and score 27 points per game in just 38 minutes. It’s a long fall back to reality when there are not so many available lay-ups or open three pointers, and your field goal percentage drops to 49% from the field and you’re putting up 25 points per game in 41 minutes.
You can see how it happens for Miami and James. When they cause turnovers and get in transition, they score a lot, blow teams out, and LeBron is outrageously efficient. When teams control their offensive possessions and get back in transition, the Heat come back to the pack, and LeBron is only regular phenomenal, not gamma-irradiated otherworldly.
Connecting the dots here, I don’t think the efficiency we saw from Miami and LeBron in the regular season is a sustainable, championship style of play. Not because they aren’t good enough. Not because of some emotional flaw in James. But because their pace and space style is predicated on transition and giving up good shots to get great shots, and transition and seeking out open shots can be nullified by the right opponent.
Either the Heat will have to work out a more egalitarian system with the other players getting more decision making touches earlier in the clock (I love this idea because it frees the 6’ 9” 270 lb James up to make cuts behind the defense), or LeBron is going to have to accept that a 14 foot step back or 12 foot turnaround jumper is the best shot he’s going to get on a lot of possessions, and just take it with confidence. It’s not like he can’t make those, he just needs to break the habit of turning them down and hoping someone else can get something better. Sometimes good enough has to be good enough.
Tags: Advanced, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, field goal percentage, handy chart, Johnny bach, lebron james, Mario Chalmers, Miami Heat, Michael Jordan, Mike Miller, Norris Cole, Per Minute, playoff series, Points Per Minute, Ray Allen, San Antonio Spurs, Shane Battier, sports, statistics