Statistics And Dreamscapes: LeBron James Is Good At Basketball

February 7th, 2010 by John Krolik
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Mitch Hedberg – Blocking the Fire Exit
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“I hate Turkeys. If you go to the grocery store and stand in front of the lunch meat section for too long, youi start to get pissed off at turkeys. You see turkey ham, turkey pastrami, turkey bolognasomeone needs to tell the turkeys, ‘Man, just be yourself. I used to draw you.’

-Mitch Hedberg

Sometimes Mitch Hedberg would get mad at turkeys. Sometimes I get mad at the triple-double. It’s an arbitrary stat, and people make too much of a big deal over them. The stat doesn’t count when a player gets close to a triple-double, and assumes that a player’s scoring, passing, and rebounding were equally valuable. Often times, that isn’t the case. Triple-doubles are excellent, and very seldom does a player record a triple-double in a loss. But triple-doubles are a novelty stat that carry more weight than they deserve to.

My specific problem with triple-doubles is that the fascination with the triple-double has put too much emphasis on LeBron’s rebounding. Ever since LeBron’s rookie year, the preferred mode of contextualizing LeBron’s statistical dominance has been to take his triple-crown numbers and put his name next to Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson’s. It’s a good statistic, but it’s not the best way to show how LeBron impacts a game.

I don’t want to come off as a rebounding philistine here. Rebounding is very important. Part of what makes a team good is the ability to get as many possessions as possible, and rebounding is the best way to control that. Ever since Mike Brown took over, rebounding has been a major component of why the Cavs win, and they currently have the league’s best rebound rate.

LeBron is definitely a very good rebounder. Not only does LBJ pull down 7 rebounds a game, but his per-possession rebounding statistics are very good. He’s 11th in rebounding rate among small forwards, which is especially impressive when you consider how many other good rebounders LeBron plays with and how much he shoots the ball on offense. With his hands, hops, and instincts, LeBron has all the tools to be a great rebounder, and he knows how to use them.

That being said, I think it’s obvious that LeBron’s rebounding doesn’t make anywhere near the type of impact that LeBron makes in other areas. LeBron is capable of skying to grab impressive rebounds, but he rarely mixes it up inside to grab tough boards. Most of his rebounds come from LeBron swooping in from the perimeter to grab an easy carom. Often times, LeBron’s ability to cover ground makes him the first one to grab an uncontested board that a teammate would’ve easily had if LeBron didn’t grab it. The Cavs only rebound the ball 1% better when LeBron is on the floor. Compare this to the fact that the Cavs’ eFG% is 6.6% better when LeBron is on the floor, and 8% more of their baskets are assisted.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. The Cavs have plenty of great rebounders who do mix it up inside, LeBron has to guard people on the perimeter, and having LeBron wear himself out or get fouls trying to battle for boards in the circle would be a poor allocation of resources. And hey, I don’t have a problem with people pointing out that LeBron James is good. My issue is that focusing only on the triple-crown stats doesn’t paint the most accurate picture of LeBron, because his rebounds are the closest thing to “empty stats” that LeBron accumulates. More pressingly, there are stats that do describe Lebron’s dominance that aren’t points, rebounds, or assists.

In particular, LeBron’s scoring efficiency is far more impressive than his rebounding prowess, but it seems to rarely get mentioned. One reason for this could be that the best statistic to measure scoring efficiency, True Shooting, hasn’t acquired the power of language yet.

Like batting average in baseball, nearly everybody agrees that Field Goal percentage is an incomplete statistic. Like batting average, it fails to account for more valuable hits/shots (extra base hits/three-pointers) and plays that produce points but don’t count as official at-bats/shot attempts (walks/free throws.) True Shooting takes both of those factors into account, and is a much better measure of a player’s shooting efficiency.

LeBron’s field goal percentage is a very good 50.4%, but that number vastly underrates how good of a scorer LeBron is. For starters, LeBron likes to shoot threes. A lot. LeBron is scoring 29.7 points per game this season while averaging five three-point attempts per contest. If he keeps this up, it would be only the fifth time an NBA player has scored that many points per game while taking that many threes. (The others were Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, and Kobe Bryant twice.)

Free throws are another statistic that’s often overlooked, much like walks in baseball. There’s no good reason why made free throws aren’t given as much weight as made field goals. While there are situations in baseball where a hit provides benefits that a walk does not, free throws score points while also getting a team into the “bonus” and/or getting an opposing player in foul trouble. As you may be aware, LeBron shoots a lot of free throws. He’s currently tied with Dwight Howard for the league lead in total free throws, recording 523 attempts at the line in 52 games.

LeBron’s field goal percentage is good enough, but when his three-pointers and free throws get factored in, it becomes apparent just how good of a scoring season LeBron is having. LeBron’s True Shooting is currently at 61.2%, which is almost unheard of for a high-volume scorer like LeBron.

In fact, only three other NBA players have scored more points than LeBron has this season with a True Shooting percentage of 61% or better: Adrian Dantley, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan. This would be the seventh time somebody has scored more thanĀ  29.7 points with a True Shooting of 61% or better for a full season: Malone did it once, Jordan did it once, and Dantley did it four times.(Kiki Vandeweghe came extremely close, scoring 29.4 points per game on 61.8% True Shooting during the 1983-84 season.) Even when only LeBron’s scoring is considered, LeBron is having a historic season.

That’s impressive enough on its own, but watch what happens when LeBron’s passing gets brought in. LeBron is currently averaging 8.2 assists per game. The only other player to score 29 points per game, have a true shooting better than 60%, and average more than five assists per game is Michael Jordan, and he only did it once. The only other players to ever average more than 29 points and five assists per game on 60% True Shooting are Jordan, who did it four times, and Larry Bird, who accomplished the feat in the 1987-88 season.

Here’s the bottom line. Yes, LeBron’s triple-crown numbers are amazing. The only other players to average 29/7/8 over a full season are, you guessed it, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. However, LeBron’s scoring efficiency is a much better indicator of how LeBron is helping the Cavs win than his rebounding numbers. When you consider LeBron’s True Shooting in context with the rest of LeBron’s statistics, it becomes apparent that LeBron is truly having a season for the ages. Averaging a triple-double for a season would make LeBron the answer to a bar trivia question. LeBron scoring the ball efficiently is what could bring the Cavs their first NBA championship.

One last thing: Perhaps the lone flaw with TS% is that it normalizes the impact of “And-1″ shots by having free throws count as .44% of a shot attempt, as opposed to .50%. The reasoning for this is that and-1s weren’t tracked until recently. Hoopdata tracks them now, and the numbers show that LeBron is as good at getting and-1s as any perimeter player in the league. As scary as it is, True Shooting is actually underrating how well LeBron is currently scoring. LeBron James: Good at Basketball. Until tomorrow, everyone.