NBA Finals 2016: A Fresh Lebron is the Best Lebron

By: Maksim Horowitz (@bklynmaks)

The NBA finals seemed as though it was coming to an end before Game 5 on Monday night. Luckily, for anyone who is not a Warrior’s fan, the basketball gods answered the prayers of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  With Monday night’s win, the Cavs made this series MUCH more interesting. According to FiveThiryEight, the Cavs have a 59% chance of winning Game 6, so there is a good chance for more basketball after tonight. I for one, am hoping the Cavs win today. As a despairing Brooklyn Nets fan, there is not much else I can do right now other than root for good basketball. There has been a lot of scrutiny about what the Cavs have to do to win, but my sole focus will be on how they should use their messiah, Lebron James.  After watching the first few games of the finals, where Cleveland struggled for the first time these playoffs (sorry Raptors), I couldn’t help but notice how sloppy Lebron was at certain points in the later parts of games. His reluctance to shoot jumpers was incredible, and he continued to try and force the ball inside. It almost seemed like he was…

Tired? People may think, “No way it’s Lebron! He doesn’t get tired!”. But alas, the numbers prove that he does, just like every other NBA player, and his performance declines accordingly. Using data compiled from the Basketball Reference and NBA.com I put together some visuals showing that Lebron plays much better with some in-game rest.

Using Basketball Reference, I downloaded playoff data on Lebron’s from the 2011 playoffs until the present. This range was chosen because the 2011 playoffs were his first with the Heat and since then Lebron has been surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Also, pre-2011 Lebron played with a slightly differently style than present day Lebron (he was less efficient), so I wanted to capture a period when he had a similar style of play as now. To begin, I looked at two statistics that are commonly examined when measuring a player’s performance: plus-minus and effective field goal percentage. The table below shows the correlation between these two variables and minutes played:

Variables Plus-Minus Effective FG %
Minutes Played -0.2814513 -0.3133432

According to these data, there is a negative correlation between the amount of minutes Lebron plays and his plus-minus score and effective field goal percentage.

Below you can clearly see this negative relationship between effective field goal percentage and minutes played. The smoothed-spline estimator shows a peak around 32 minutes played, but obviously, it is out of the question to rest your best player for 16 minutes in a game. Take a look at the graph.  Right after 45 minutes, Lebron’s play starts to drop off substantially until we reach games where he never rests.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 6.30.29 PM

Looking at this chart from the perspective of a basketball analyst, it looks like the most optimal and realistic amount of minutes for James is around 38. There are enough data points in that area to support the smoothed fit line, and he still maintains about a 55% effective field goal percentage. But this is the playoffs. Unless the Cavs are blowing out Steph Curry and Warriors by 30 points, Lebron will most likely log at least 40 minutes, which is acceptable as long as he does not exceed that 45-minute threshold.

Need more proof? Let’s take a look at his shot-charts and shoot percentages from different areas on the court.  

The graphic below allows us to visualize Lebron’s shot-charts against his minutes played. We are interested in his shot-charts where he plays at least 35 minutes in a game.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 6.32.18 PM.png
These graphs are courtesy of thedatagame.com.  Click the link and check out how to make basketball shot charts in R! (Note: The percentage labels are Lebron’s field goal percentages based on zone)

Here are my observations:

  • Lebron’s three-point percentage is highest when he plays 35-40 minutes (note that he is just 0-4 from the left corner in when he plays 35-40 minutes). In fact, you can see that he shoots a higher percentage in all zones when he plays 35-40 minutes compared to playing more than 40.
  • According to the data, Lebron is really lackluster from three when he plays 40-45 minutes and he is actually better when he plays more than 45 minutes. This is not a product of small sample sizes (each subset has hundreds of data points). An explanation could be that when Lebron is in a rhythm, and he is shooting well, he doesn’t get taken out of the game. Although just a hunch, it probably has some merit.
  • In the graphs below, you can see Lebron’s shot tendencies are almost identical whether he plays 40-45 or above 45 minutes
  • When Lebron plays 45+ minutes his midrange game suffers. As seen below, he takes 26% of his shots from midrange. He shoots almost 12% less from midrange when he plays more than 45 minutes compared to 40-45 which is a big difference. He also suffers from shots within the paint but not in the restricted area (yellow colored text in the above graph). Lebron takes these types of shots 16% of the time, so this is another area where we are seeing a drop in his performance.

plot_zoom_png-1.png

Last but not least, the Cavs win 67% of the time when Lebron plays 40-45 minutes and a whopping 76% of the time when he plays 35-40 minutes. Comparatively, they win just 60% of the time when he plays 45 or more minutes. There is much, much more to this relationship than I am examining and obviously, the outcome of a game depends on all 10 players, but Lebron’s impact on games is well documented.  It may just be that when he plays too much and gets tired, he hurts his team more than if he was rested.

Conclusions:

This analysis should have provided some basic insight into Lebron’s recent playoff performances.  As one of the best players in the present era of basketball, we hold Lebron to the highest of standards, but as fans, we sometimes forget that he is still human and he cannot sustain his hall of fame caliber of play without resting for a few minutes.  Hopefully, Tyrone Lue and the rest of the Cavs coaching staff realize this and put their team in the best position to fight another day by resting their star.  I suggest, that the dip in Lebron’s field goal percentages across the court can be resolved or thwarted by the Cavs staff by giving the King some well-timed rest.  

A fresh Lebron is the best Lebron. Let him lead the Cavs to an improbable comeback against the Golden State Warriors. Don’t do it just for Cavs fans, do it for all the league’s fans (except the Warriors of course). Waiting another four months for basketball is inevitable, but delaying it for one more game, especially with a storybook ending, would be a delight.

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