Life Without Mo Williams: Expect LeBron’s Easy Baskets to Fall.

January 24th, 2010 by John Krolik

(Ed. Note: I decided to take down the post above this one. It was a YouTube video about how LeBron was allegedly part of the “Illuminati.” I thought it was a little funny, but ultimately I realized that posting it didn’t feel right. I want to feel good about everything I post here, and I didn’t feel good about that one. This post is much more indicative of what I’m trying to do with this website.)

It’s been roughly three full years since LeBron James and Larry Hughes publicly criticized the Cavaliers offensive scheme. “We don’t get easy baskets,” James expressed after a February loss against Detroit in which the Cavs put only 78 points on the board. He also went on to suggest that he had only caught two lob passes 48 games into the 2006-07 season, which he felt was a career low. A December quote from LeBron best summarized the feelings of the players and fans midway through that season: “Our offense is what’s killing us right now.”

The rest is history. The offense began to take on a new shape, the team averaged 89.7 points per game in a six-game conference finals against Detroit to go to their first finals in franchise history, and slowly Danny Ferry began to ship out players like Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden in an attempt to surround LeBron James with smarter, more efficient offensive threats like Mo Williams and Delonte West.

And there’s no denying that the Cavaliers offense has grown dramatically since then, particularly over these past two seasons. After averaging 96.8 points per game in the 2006-07 season and 96.4 points per game in the 2007-08 season, the Cavs have averaged at least 100 points per game since. The team scored 100.3 points per game last season and currently average 100.9 points per game 45 games into this season.

Thanks for the easy basket support, Ferry.

But how much of this should be attributed to a change in offensive mentality that started back in 2007 and how much to a change in personnel that followed shortly thereafter? Last season John Kuester was hailed as an offensive genius, helping the Cavaliers offense flourish after Mike Brown fell short. The success was so widely known that it propelled Kuester into the head coaching position in Detroit.

However, Kuester’s Pistons are averaging only 92.2 points per game this season, two points per game fewer than Michael Curry’s Detroit team last year. And the Cavs? Oh, they’re averaging 0.6 points per game more than they did last season. Nothing against John Kuester, he’s in a very tough position, but you would’ve thought he took Cleveland’s offense with him judging by fan reaction this offseason.

The personnel change I had in mind originally was Mo Williams. Quite often Mo’s success is swept under the rug thanks to the notion that he’s a mainly just a very good shooter that plays off of LeBron. Then, such as in the eastern conference finals, there are times when fans give Mo Williams seemingly no credit at all and write him off as a streaky jumpshooter, undeserving of the moniker of a legitimate second option.

Even when fans acknowledge his ability to create shots for others, many feel he creates only with the second unit and rarely probes the defense when LeBron is on the floor. However, the numbers suggest that Mo Williams may be the closest thing to a true point guard that LeBron James has ever experienced. Ultimately, if nothing else, he’s a steady hand capable of feeding James those easy baskets that he has craved since 2007.

So far this season LeBron James has compiled 70 dunks through 45 games. This is roughly 1.56 dunks per game, a number that is very similar to his 1.58 dunks per game last season when James threw the hammer down 128 times. And, just as it was the case with the Cavs offense, these figures have increased since the lack-of-easy-basket days. During the 2007-08 season LeBron James had 109 dunks in 75 games, equivalent to 1.45 dunks per game.

While a tenth of a dunk more per game may not seem significant, the manner in which LeBron is getting his dunks is important to note. So far this season 49 of LeBron’s 70 dunks have been assisted (70%, although 82 games suggest 72% of his dunks are assisted so assume 2% error). This percentage blows away any ratio of assisted dunks from seasons past, as James has never had more than 64% of his dunks assisted (08-09 – 59%, 07-08 – 52%, 06-07 – 58%, 05-06 – 64%, 04-05 – 62%, 03-04 – 62%).

Similarly, LeBron James has received a big helping hand on his layups this year, with 75 of his 167 layups being assisted (44.9%). While this number isn’t nearly as large, the likelihood of a dunk being assisted versus a layup being assisted are very unequal, especially for players like LeBron who will only use a layup when he doesn’t have a clear dunking lane.

So here’s the question everyone wants answered–who assists these easy baskets?

It’s fairly obvious from the pie charts that Mo Williams gets LeBron more easy buckets than any other Cavalier. He has assisted 53 of LeBron’s dunks and layups, accounting for 22.4% of LeBron’s 237 total easy baskets and 42.7% of the assisted easy baskets.

Furthermore, with these 53 assisted baskets, 24.2% of Mo Williams’ assists go to LeBron James for a dunk or layup. In the 43 games they’ve played together, Mo Williams has assisted LeBron James 74 times, accounting for 45.1% of LeBron’s assisted baskets (16.8% of his total 439 baskets through 43 games). That means that 33.8% of Mo Williams’ 219 assists so far this season have gone to LeBron James. Not bad for someone who supposedly only creates for the second unit.

Delonte West has also been important when it comes to feeding The King, combining with Mo Williams to account for 67 of James’ 124 assisted dunks and layups (54.0%). That’s what makes the Mo Williams loss doubly troublesome. With no Delonte West to replace him thanks to a broken finger suffered in Thursday night’s game, there is no guard left to set LeBron up with an easy dunk, outside of the slim production that Anthony Parker provides.

The lack of easy setup baskets has certainly showed, too. In the last two games without the aid of Mo Williams, LeBron James has not only failed to get an assisted dunk, but has zero dunks. He has managed to make seven layups over the past two games, with three of them being assisted, but there hasn’t been a single player to find him more than once for an easy basket over this span. Maybe the Cavaliers will be able to adapt to life without Williams for the time being and could possibly turn to a stable of players in an attempt to pick up the production. But one thing is for sure, it won’t be the same as when Mo Williams does it.

And we’ve all seen how Mo creates these easy buckets for LeBron. After three to five seconds of Steve Nash-like probing, Williams escapes the paint and peers over his shoulder at the scrambling defense. It’s at this moment that he sees a cutting James and a confused defender looking at a spot on the floor that only contains remnants, a blurry number twenty-three jersey courtesy of persistence of motion and the fresh scent of talcum powder, of a ready-to-dunk James. Then it’s either a one-handed bullet pass, a quick bounce pass, or a lob pass for an alley oop.

With 17 alley-oops on the season, three of them from Williams, it’s a play that LeBron is starting to grow fond of. And why not? It sure beats the two lobs he got from Larry Hughes and company three years ago.

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