Points by Quarter: The Effect of LeBron James on Margin.

February 6th, 2010 by John Krolik

What a great time to be a Cavaliers fan. Aside from some All-Star weekend snubbing and injuries, only positives exist: The NBA’s best record at 40-11, a 10 game winning steak, and an eight game home winning streak with four straight home games around the bend. What more could we as fans ask for?

Well, a little statistical observation of how the Cavaliers perform from quarter to quarter would be nice. John emailed me earlier this week with a theory of his. He wondered how the Cavaliers performed when LeBron James came out scorching in the first quarter. He is under the impression that his teammates will stand around on offense and that the lack of activity carries over to the defensive end, where the team will let up a lot of points.

So I figured it’d make for an interesting study to chart both the points and assists of LeBron James vs. the team’s scoring margin by quarter. After all, LeBron James is one of only three players (Parker and Hickson being the others) to play in all 51 games this season and, with all due respect to Anthony and J.J., he has always been the driving force of the Cavs offense.

A few disclaimers.

First, just because I broke the numbers down by quarter, the quarter figures are not equivalent. In a typical game, LeBron James will play the entire first quarter and then go to the bench and not return until around the seven minute mark of the second quarter. This means that first quarter figures should theoretically be close to double the second quarter statistics since James is logging nearly twice as many minutes in the first quarter. The same could be said for third quarter stats vs. fourth quarter stats. Therefore, while it is important to compare quarters, understand that some statistics, like a second quarter margin, don’t hinge as heavily on the shoulders of LeBron James.

Another important disclaimer is the distinction between scorer and creator. Just because LeBron tallies 5 assists in one quarter and only 2 in the next, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he decided to focus more on scoring and not on creating for his teammates. There is no stat for passes that find open teammates, yet lead to a miss and no assist for the creator. This is why it’s important to also look at field goals and free throws attempted, as these figures provide a better measure of whether or not LeBron James is looking to score or if he is looking for his teammates.

Lastly, there have been three fourth quarters that LeBron James has not played in this season due to a blowout. Therefore, for both the chart and graphs, I have included statistics from only the 48 fourth quarters that James saw action in.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at LeBron’s numbers by quarter.

LeBron James’ stats by quarter.

Q Pts Asts FG/FGA 3P FG/FGA FT/FTA Cavs margin (TOT)
1st 8.7 3.1 165-291 (56.7%) 23-63 (36.5%) 89-114 (78.1%) +3.2 (+162)
2nd 6.5 1.5 102-187 (54.5%) 15-41 (36.6%) 110-143 (76.9%) +1.9 (+97)
3rd 7.4 2.3 135-298 (45.3%) 30-87 (34.5%) 76-103 (73.8%) +1.2 (+60)
4th* 7.1 1.4 99-219 (45.2%) 22-61 (36.1%) 123-154 (79.9%) +1.0 (+47)
OT 5.5 1.0 4-9 (44.4%) 1-3 (33.3%) 2-2 (100%) +5.5 (+11)

*contains only 48 quarters of play.

One of the first things that sticks out to me is how overpowering LeBron James is in the first quarter. As I mentioned he does typically play the entire first quarter, but to average 8.7 points and 3.1 assists per game on 56.7% shooting in the first frame is very special. For those of you who remember, when I took a look at LeBron’s assists last month, he had 323 assists with 110 of them leading to three-pointers. This means that the average assist from James leads to 2.34 points. Using this number to estimate how many points LeBron’s 3.1 first quarter assists lead to, James accounts for roughly 16.0 first quarter points either by direct scoring or assisting them. In the end, this could explain why the Cavaliers are second in the NBA in points per first quarter with 28.2 points per game in the first (LeBron James boasting a ridiculous 56.7% hands on points ratio in this quarter).

But what about LeBron’s role of scorer vs. his other role of creator? The first quarter marks the largest margin of victory for the Cavaliers, but it also holds the most amount of LeBron’s points and assists. This means it’s impossible to tell whether or not the large margin is more so a product of LeBron’s ability to score or create for others.

A large margin for the Cavaliers is obviously a combination of the two forces, but is there a stronger connection with one and not the other? What would a plot of LeBron’s assists vs. the Cavs margin look like and how would that compare to his points vs. team margin? Well, look no further.

LeBron’s points and assists vs. Cavaliers +/- margin.

The first thing I noticed was a positive, linear relationship between the two variables for both graphs. Now, the correlation isn’t overwhelmingly strong and there are some outliers, but overall it appears that there is a correlation between LeBron’s performance in the quarter and Cleveland’s margin of victory in that quarter (what a shock!).

The interesting thing to note is how the line of best fit appears to be stronger (more steep) regarding LeBron’s assists rather than his points. Whenever LeBron tallies a certain number of assists, the first chart illustrates how the margin very rarely dips into the negative portion of the graph. On the other hand, there are instances of LeBron James scoring 20 points and the Cavaliers losing the quarter by 6 points.

LeBron’s points and assists vs. Cavaliers +/- margin with stipulations.

For a better understanding of this phenomenon, here is a zoomed in version of the graphs, focusing on a minimum number for each stat. So far this season LeBron has had at least 4 assists in 30 different quarters. Similarly, James has scored 12 or more points in 33 separate quarters. Therefore, here are the same graphs from above, but with only quarters featuring 4 or more assists or 12 or more points.

With these graphs you’ll notice a stronger correlation between margin and both variables with a slope that is nearly equal for each graph. But look at how much higher the line of best fit is in the first graph that charts assists vs. margin. Out of the 30 quarters that saw LeBron James dish out at least 4 assists, 24 of them led to a positive margin for the Cavaliers (80%). On the other hand, with the 33 quarters that LeBron scored at least 12 points in, only 21 times did it lead to a positive margin for the quarter (63.6%).

There have been only two instances of LeBron James scoring at least 12 points with at least 4 assists in a quarter and the Cavaliers won both quarters by an average 10.5 points. I would hope this would be the case since 12 points and 4 assists would account for 21.4 points on average from LeBron’s distribution alone.

How the Cavs fare later on when LeBron comes out scoring in the first.

But while this information is very useful, it doesn’t really touch on what John was referring to. How do the Cavaliers fare in the later quarters when LeBron comes out shooting and scoring in the first?

Q Pts Asts FG/FGA 3P FG/FGA FT/FTA Cavs margin (TOT)
1st 15.6 2.1 57-77 (74.0%) 10-16 (62.5%) 32-27 (86.5%) +7.1 (+71)
2nd 6.1 1.7 15-43 (34.9%) 3-7 (42.9%) 28-32 (87.5%) +5.2 (+52)
3rd 5.6 1.9 19-43 (44.2%) 2-10 (20.0%) 16-21 (76.2%) -2.8 (-28)
4th 7.4 1.6 23-48 (47.9%) 4-5 (80.0%) 22-25 (88.0%) +2.1 (+21)
OT* 2.0 2.0 1-4 (25.0%) 0-1 (0%) 0-0 (0%) +13 (+13)

*contains only 1 overtime game.

As one would expect, when LeBron scores at least 12 points in the first quarter the Cavaliers win that frame by a significant margin (+7.1 points). Furthermore, James shoots the ball very well in these first quarters, converting 62.5% of his three-pointers and 86.5% of his free-throws.

But what’s really interesting is the tone this sets for the rest of the game. First, LeBron isn’t nearly as hot in the second quarter, averaging 6.1 points on 34.9% shooting, yet the team remains strong, winning the second quarter by an average of 5.2 points. However, this leads to a third quarter lull where neither James nor his teammates appear prepared. James shoots worse from three (20.0%) and the free throw line (76.2%) in the third than in any other quarter. Perhaps as a result, the Cavaliers are actually -2.8 points in the third quarter of games in which LeBron scores 12 or more points in the first quarter. This is pretty crazy when you consider the Cavs are +2.1 points per third quarter in the 41 games that see James score under 12 points in the first quarter.

Regardless, the Cavaliers typically bounce back in the fourth quarter, winning that quarter by a larger margin than usual. It’s also interesting to study LeBron’s fourth quarter numbers in these games where he goes off in the first. His shooting numbers are greater than usual as he averages more points and assists in these fourth quarters than usual. Perhaps he’s saving some of that first quarter magic for the end of the game, explaining the porous play in the third quarter.

The most important number, however, is the fact that when LeBron James scores at least 12 points in the first quarter the Cavaliers are 10-0, winning by an average 12.9 points per game. Typically eager to destroy the New York Knicks early and often, like when he scored 19 points in the first quarter earlier this season in New York, we as fans can only hope he comes out firing tonight, leading the Cavaliers to an easy victory.

The ideal first quarter.

After looking at so many individual trends (LeBron scoring 12+, dishing out 4+ assists, etc.), I figured it was time to look at LeBron’s numbers when the team is playing well in the first quarter. So far this season the Cleveland Cavaliers have won a first quarter by at least 10 points on eight occasions. Here are LeBron’s averages from those big first quarters.

– LeBron’s points (8 games): 10.0 points.

– LeBron’s assists (8 games): 5.4 assists.

– LeBron’s shooting (Fg/Fga): 33-45 (73.3%)

(3p/3pa): 8-12 (66.7%)

(Ft/Fta): 6-9 (66.7%)

Perhaps the most interesting factor for this ideal first quarter is the establishment of the three-point jumper. With these numbers coming from eight double-digit first quarter victories, the average fan would assume it came from LeBron being aggressive and getting to the free throw line. However, he only averaged 1.1 free throw attempts over this span, shooting fewer free throws than three-pointers and connecting on them at the same rate (66.7%). Maybe the key is for LeBron to come out, hit a three or two to keep the defense honest, and then attack the lanes the rest of the quarter, freeing himself up for layups and his teammates for wide open three-point shots.

Whatever it is, I’d like to see it tonight.

Final shots.

  • The Cleveland Cavaliers have had 25 quarters with at least a 10 point margin of victory so far this season. Nine of these times LeBron had at least 4 assists, nine of the times he had at least 12 points, and the two patterns intersected twice as well. In Cleveland’s 15 quarters with double-digit deficits, LeBron has had at least 4 assists once and at least 12 points twice, with the two events never occurring simultaneously.
  • It’s nice to see that LeBron’s highest free throw percentage comes in the fourth quarter (79.9%). Shooting only 73.8% from the stripe in the third quarter, it’s good to have an 80.0% shooter on the line in the clutch.
  • If you looked at the percentages in the first chart, you’ll notice that LeBron’s field goal percentage steadily declines from quarter to quarter. I attribute this to two factors, fatigue and defensive adjustments. And since LeBron’s field goal percentage drops from 54.5% to 45.3% from the second quarter to the third quarter, I’d say the latter has more to do with the decline than the former. Since one would expect players to be fresh coming out of their halftime break, it’s more likely that teams are game planning to get the ball out of LeBron’s hands or cool him off in the second half.
  • LeBron’s three-point percentages are fairly stable, hovering above 36% with the exception of the third quarter. Once considered the “kryptonite quarter” by Cavs fans because it seemed like no lead was safe once the third quarter began, it looks like it still remains the worst quarter for James, at least in regard to efficiency. Luckily the Cavaliers are +60 (+1.2 per game) in the third quarter this season, so it hasn’t been that big of a deal.
  • Lastly, in regard to third quarter woes, it appears that some complacency sets in for James. LeBron is averaging 1.7 three-pointers per third quarter, more than he averages in any other quarter (1st – 1.2 threes, 2nd – 0.8 threes, 4th – 1.3 threes). The fact that he’s shooting worse from three in that frame would suggest he would lay off the three-point attempts, but it appears the opposite is occurring. Over the past 15 games, James is only 5-27 (18.5%) from three in the third quarter, averaging 1.8 three-pointers per third quarter.

Make sure to join the discussion at Numbers Don’t and Real Cavs Fans!