Wednesday, 17 June was the saddest day of 2015 for me—no more basketball until NCAA and NBA seasons start back in the fall. To get me out of my post-basketball doldrums I wanted to do a blog post on the 2015 NBA Finals.
There are probably professionals doing what I am here (and doing it better), but I still wanted to crunch the numbers on the Cleveland Cavaliers team and individual statistics. Specifically, I wanted to try to put what LeBron James did in context. His performance was, not being hyperbolic, transcendent. (FYI most of the numbers below, unless stated otherwise, are taken either directly from ESPN’s box scores or calculated by me using those box scores.)
Because his All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (not to mention Anderson Verajao) mostly did not play in the Finals series due to injuries (Irving played most of game 1 while below 100% healthy and left in overtime with a broken kneecap), James was forced to take on an incredibly high workload. He did his best to “carry” his team to a championship. Even though he lost, I think his play deserves a deeper look.
ESPN noted on its stats Twitter page (@ESPNStatsInfo) that James was the first player in NBA history to lead the Finals series in points, rebounds, and assists. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists—nearly a triple double average!
Moreover, James put up those numbers against arguably one of the best NBA teams of all time. The numbers gurus at Nate Silver’s 538 Sports have a rating system called Elo (borrowed from chess), and the 2015 Golden State Warriors (the opponent of James’ Cleveland Cavaliers) ended up with an 1822 Elo rating. That’s the second highest team Elo score in NBA history behind Michael Jordan’s record 72-win 1996 Chicago Bulls (team Elo of 1853).
And it is not like top-notch talent surrounded James either. 538 Sports ranked his supporting cast 59th out of the last 60 Finals teams (two teams a year for the last 30 years). Ouch.
How odious were LeBron James’ teammates in the Finals? While many have tried to dismiss James’ stat line for being inefficient, he was actually arguably more efficient shooting the ball than his teammates over the course of the series.
First off, the obvious answer. Did James shooting a low percentage hurt his team? We can turn to game-by-game +/- scores for that. +/- is a statistic borrowed from hockey that very simply measures whether a player’s team won or lost during his minutes on the court. Outscore your opponents 55-50 during your on-court time during a game? You get a +5 for the game.
In all but one game LeBron James had a better +/- than his teammates (higher numbers are better), and for the series the team was 18 points worse with James on the bench. Considering James played 275 out of 298 possible minutes (only resting an average of 3 minutes 50 seconds a game, evening including two overtime games), that statistic is meaningful.
James’ 275 minutes on the court? Outscored by 25 points (for the series going down a point every 11 minutes). James’ 23 minutes off the court? Outscored by 18 points (for the series going down a point every 1 minute 17 seconds).
With shooting splits of 40/31/69 James certainly could have shot the ball better. But his teammates combined for 38/29/71 shooting splits, just marginally worse but worse nonetheless.
Compared to his teammates, James’ Effective Field Goal Percentage (weights for three-point shots made) was virtually identical to his teammates: 43.1% vs. 43.2%. The same is true for his True Shooting Percentage (weights points scored vs. field goals and free throws attempted): 47.7% vs. 47.9%. (All of these numbers are somewhat poor.)
Let’s say we call all that a wash—LeBron James’ shooting efficiency was about the same as his teammates. If that is the case, how can we criticize James for being inefficient unless it is to criticize the whole team? James shooting the ball certainly was not any worse of an option than his teammates as a whole. (Considering the difficulty of shots he had to take it was probably better. More on that below.)
It would not be unfair to quibble about whether specific players should have gotten more shots in relation to James, of course. Center Timofey Mozgov shot 55% for the series and Power Forward Tristan Thompson shot 50% (the guard trio of Matthew Dellavadova, JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert put up the bulk of the team's poor shooting numbers with combined 29/28/69 shooting splits—truly miserable). But Mozgov and Thompson got a great many of their made field goals off of assists (neither can consistently create his own offense) and offensive rebound putbacks (frequently off of shots that James missed close and drew a second defender). Increasing their workload would have been difficult and likely would have lowered their shooting percentages (fewer easy shots as described above).
No, we need to recognize that Lebron James shooting the ball typically was the team’s best option because of two reasons:
1. James’ teammates could pick more optimal times to take shots, but James had to “carry the load” so to speak
2. James’ teammates got to play with him, and that makes a difference
First, it needs to be pointed out that LeBron James had an astronomically high usage percentage (Usg%) of 46.7% in the NBA Finals. That means that almost half of his team’s possessions when he was on the court ended up in him “using” the possession (attempting a field goal or free throws, or turning over the ball). For comparisons sake, for the playoffs overall, James’ Usg% was 37.6%, leading the NBA, and the next highest Usg% was 2015 MVP Stephen Curry’s at 31.0%. Anything over 30% is very, very high. Anything over 40% is almost unheard of. James 46.7% looks like a number only found in video games.
The Cavaliers’ team game plan depended heavily on James to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Why? Because his teammates simply could not do so with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench. Which brings us to the second point.
LeBron James’ teammates got the benefit of playing with him, while he did not. The Cavaliers totaled 95 assists as a team during the NBA Finals, but James had over half of those—53 assists over the six Finals games compared to 42 by his teammates. That means that James assisted on about 45% of all the shots his teammates made.
(The team rate was about 48%. But remember they were passing to James AND each other—LeBron James, as good as he is, cannot assist to himself. Also, James only turned the ball over 21 times over the course of the series compared to his teammates’ 52 times. And while his teammates got to pass to James and other teammates more open because of the defensive attention James received they still threw it to the defense more and came up with fewer assists, even with a usage rate 7% higher than James.)
James is arguably the best passer in the NBA today (I would argue he is among the best in NBA history), and that makes the game easier for everyone around him. In addition, since the Warriors knew James would be the focal point of the Cavaliers’ offensive game plan (again, a 46.7% Usg%), he typically drew much more defensive attention than his teammates—the Warriors’ best defenders, double teams, etc. Not only did James get his teammates more easy, assisted baskets than they got him and each other, but his presence on the court made the game much easier for them than it was for him.
All that to say, LeBron James just completed perhaps the greatest NBA Finals performance in history. Against one of the best teams of all time, playing with one of the worst supporting casts of the last 30 years, James did everything he could. He played an incredible number of minutes each game. And it was not just his minutes that soared—he shouldered the burden of shooting and creating for his teammates who, as mentioned, could not really do so themselves. And while some have criticized his efficiency, it was relatively better for James to shoot that much and at least as efficient as the rest of his teammates combined.
We should sit back and appreciate what just happened. While James’ team lost the series four games to two, numbers suggest that without him the Cavaliers would have gotten swept in blowout fashion. No other player in the NBA could do what LeBron James just did, and perhaps no player in NBA history ever has.
LeBron James and the Cavaliers may have lost the Finals, but by getting to watch that performance the fans won.