Big names and strange rankings. I bet you want to know what the heck that title means. Wait for it. The list is coming.
As I watched the Celtics rebound from their blowout loss earlier this week, it became abundantly clear how dependent Cleveland is on LeBron James and his ability to produce big numbers. He played a game today that would have made the coaches, teammates, and fans of Grant Hill or Scottie Pippen in their respective All-NBA 1st Team prime years ecstatic. But for a LeBron coach, teammate, or fan, it was sub-par. James led the Cavs in points, rebounds, and assists. It wasn’t enough, and the Celtics won by 10.
When we look at this Cavaliers team that won the most games in the league for the second straight year and has been the favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals all season, there are a lot of good players. Shaq is still an effective weapon and paint deterrent, as he showed today. Antawn Jamison can still score in bunches. Mo Williams and Delonte West are both starting caliber guards. Varejao is a defensive nightmare, whom any team would be happy to start or bring off the pine, and Hickson is a great energy big. Anthony Parker and Booby Gibson stretch the floor. Big Z can make shots from all over, clog the paint, and carries 6 expendable fouls. It’s a team with a lot of strong parts, but none of it works without LeBron James.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory in that observation. Everyone knows how important LeBron is. He’s the back to back MVP! But it did make me want to find out exactly what kind of rare air he’s inhabiting when 22, 9, 8 is a substandard performance that leads to a double-digit loss.
I looked to two key efficiency Metrics to help distinguish LeBron from the competition. The first is Offensive Rating (ORtg). ORtg is a measure of how many points a player will produce over 100 possessions given his actual rate of scoring efficiency. It tends to rank players like Steve Kerr very highly because they score a lot of points per shot taken and don’t take a lot of shots. Because players who only take open shots tend to take few shots, it takes a long time for them to make a big impact. It may be 20 games before Kerr actually gets 100 shots off.
Therefore the second metric I examined was Usage, which measures the percentage of possessions a player uses to try to score a basket while he’s on the floor. So while Kerr’s best ORtg is the very highest ever – 141 points per 100 possessions used, his Usage was only 12% per game, and he averaged fewer than 24 minutes per game, so his net output was a supremely efficient 8.4 points per game. And while it could be argued that he should have shot more, when you understand his limitations as a pure catch and shoot scorer with no ability to create his own shot against a defense, you realize that additional opportunities would almost certainly lead to a decrease in efficiency.
In fact it has been proven by smarter minds than mine, that there is an inverse relationship between Usage and Offensive Rating. As a player’s usage increases, his offensive rating (generally / over a long enough span) decreases. So by this measure we can see that the ideal scorer is one who can score with great efficiency (high offensive rating) while being able to take a large chunk of the offensive responsibility (high usage).
Looking over season after season of data I set two subjective markers to gauge what players had the very best overall offensive seasons – wanting to see where in the list LeBron James fell. ORtg, I set at 120 or better, which contains the top 12 offensive ratings in 2010. Usage, I set at 30 or higher, which contains the top 5 usage percentages in 2010. When we look at the intercept points we get:
Now please note that while this looks like a top 10 list it is actually every single recorded season that meets the 120 ORtg & 30% Usage criteria. Just 10 seasons total and only 3 players.
Michael Jordan 1988-1992 & 1996, 1997
LeBron James 2009, 2010
Larry Bird 1988
Now I know you have questions. Are 120 and 30 arbitrary cutoff points? Yes. Where are Wilt, Kareem, and Oscar? Sadly Usage does not extend back before the NBA / ABA merger in 1977 due to the statistics necessary to calculate them not having been kept at that time. Do you really think these are the ten best offensive seasons since ’77 – I mean, didn’t you watch Shaq in 2000 or Magic 1987? Good question! I’d put those seasons up against anybody, but maybe there’s something to be said for what we’re showing here.
What I see from these seasons, is three highly efficient scorers who are capable of getting a shot whenever they want. This is an important point. A Steve Kerr is highly efficient because someone else is able to get him open, and he makes the open shot and almost never has to try to create his own shot or take a shot he isn’t good at making. A Magic Johnson type keeps his efficiency very high because he has a certain luxury of picking his spots – we call it making the right decision when a point guard only chooses to shoot high percentage shots and otherwise uses his skills to set up teammates, but it is also a way of passing the buck along with the ball. It means that Kareem and Worthy had better finish the play. A Shaquille O’Neal type is a highly efficient scorer because he only shoots inside a certain range when a perimeter player gets him the ball in good position.
The other side of the coin is the high usage but not so high efficiency scorers. These would include Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson, Dominique Wilkins, and many many others. Again, the 120 ORtg mark is arbitrary, but it is a decent cut off point to show a general top 10-12 offensive efficiency per season.
What our 120 ORtg + 30 Usage players show us is three extraordinary individual scorers (or 10 extraordinary seasons if you want) who had the ability to convert scoring attempts at an extremely high efficiency and to capitalize on that efficiency with great frequency.
And what this means to the Cavaliers is that they need LeBron to be involved and at his best. In their days nobody put more fear into the opposition than Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, and LeBron James is the same. As a Celtics fan, let me assure you that before every game I say a silent prayer that LeBron will not beat us all by himself. There’s no one else in the league that puts that kind of fear into me as a fan. When he’s at his best his combination of efficiency and mobility, the ability to get a good shot up at any time, makes him the perfect weapon. The results of this playoff series and maybe the next two rounds are going to be determined by how well coach Brown utilizes that weapon and of course, LeBron’s health.