LeBron James Has Developed into the Ultimate Clutch Weapon for Cleveland Cavaliers
When future generations of basketball fans look back upon the NBA offseason of 2017, they will see a frenzy of player movement and shifting dynamics in a league attempting to find a solution to their Golden State Warriors problem. However, diving down another layer will reveal a war the likes of which has never been seen— war of the eye test test vs. analytical player analysis.
A heavy point of contention in this debate is the definition of “clutch,” and what players fall into the category.
No such player is more controversial than LeBron James.
Still widely considered the best player in the NBA, the Cavaliers’ prodigal son is knocked by plenty of people because he doesn’t possess the “mamba mentality,” or the desire to isolate for every shot in big moments. And many of these misanthropes do have somewhat of a point. Analyzing Inpredictable’s clutch-shooting data, LeBron was 34th in Clutch2 field-goal attempts, defined as “shots crucial to game outcome (e.g. buzzer beaters and potential buzzer beaters),” behind surprises such as Marcus Morris, Harrison Barnes and Marc Gasol.
Lebron’s apparent passiveness is in large part due to playing alongside former teammate and ISO-king Kyrie Irving, who averaged 1.12 points per possession (PPP) on isolation possessions (95th percentile) last season. However, the reality is just that James is an altruistic star. He understands much (if not all) of the defensive attention will be on him late in games, so he attempts to create high-percentage looks for his teammates instead of forcing up contested shots. And the strategy worked, as the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the third-best effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 53.4 percent in the last two minutes of close games (five-point differential or less).
Since the majority of players take very few shots late in games, small sample sizes can lead to high variance in their Clutch2 shooting percentages. How a player performs in other key moments of the game is more indicative of their impact, which leads us to the Clutch shooting metric. Inpredictable defines it as “shots taken that have an elevated impact on win probability,” and this is where the Cleveland native shines:
Of the 50 players who attempted the most “clutch” shot attempts in 2016-17, James had by far the highest effective field-goal percentage (69.5 percent) and a 9.1 percent improvement over his “normal” eFG% (defined as “shots in which win probability impact is typical”). The graphic excludes notable players such as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, likely because the Warriors were leading games so frequently that a higher percentage (69.6 percent) of their shots were deemed “normal” than every other team.
LeBron is not the best shooter in the league—not even close, really. We aren’t even two years removed from John Schuhmann’s famed tweet about James’ incredibly poor shooting outside the paint:
The worst high-volume shooters from outside the paint, a list topped by LeBron James & Kobe Bryant. pic.twitter.com/Sn4CW6C9O7
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) December 29, 2015
Since then, he has markedly improved his percentages from other spots on the floor:
Leading directly into his shooting improvement outside eight feet is his unabashed dominance around the rim; it’s near impossible for all but a few NBA opponents to defend him in both situations.
James shot 72.1 percent around the rim (15.1 percentage points above the league average), which placed him the top five among the entire Association. That forced defenders to sag off of him, and he was able make them pay from distance as well. The four-time MVP shot 40.3 percent on “open” (closest defender is four-to-six feet away) three-point attempts, which accounted for 46.5 percent of his total tries from beyond the arc.
James had his most efficient scoring season since departing Miami in 2014, but he has new challenges to face. Running mate Irving was traded to the Boston Celtics, and the Cavaliers received Isaiah Thomas (as part of a larger package) in return. Though Thomas and Irving are similar offensive players from a production standpoint, the former could miss a good portion of the 2017-18 season, according to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe.
Meanwhile, LeBron posted his lowest usage percentage since his sophomore season with Cleveland in 2016-17, as he looked to ease off more of the ball-handling responsibility to Irving. With his ex-teammate now playing for Cleveland’s biggest threat, he’ll have to assume more distribution duties until Thomas can return to the court.
Despite his age (he will turn 33 in December), this may not necessarily be a bad development. James is still one of the best passers in the NBA, and that’s where he distances himself from the pack.
Opponents understand how much of a threat he is around the paint, so even when factoring in his poor pull-up-shooting numbers, the help defense still has no choice but to attempt to cheat early. However, James is already preparing himself for the second defender and trying to spot where the rotational help will be going next.
In the below clip, Tristan Thompson sets a pick for James in a close game against the New York Knicks. As he begins his descent toward the hoop, LeBron notices Kristaps Porzingis starting to slide inwards as the help defender. Once he has both Knicks defenders in his vicinity, he throws an arduous pass over his shoulder to Kevin Love, who effectively seals the game with a corner trey:
The following example also begins with a pick-and-roll, except James finds himself as the roll man.
He is fed cleanly by Irving but quickly realizes Myles Turner is in excellent position to block his shot. He holds onto the ball a split-second longer, and as the defense collapses, he finds a wide-open Kyle Korver for another easy triple.
Though James is a below-average mid-range shooter, he is still an inherent threat to move the ball from anywhere on the floor. This includes the left elbow, where he had 19.0 assist percentage (AST%)—second only to Draymond Green.
The Cavaliers are deadly in small-ball lineups, specifically when LeBron has the ball and is surrounded by four shooters, like in the second quarter of this next game against the Toronto Raptors. Love sets a pick at the top of the key for Irving, and in the third second of the clip, it appears James will feed Love above the arc. The defense hesitates, and it’s too late, as he instead hits his point guard for a cutting layup:
His passing ability also translates out of the low-post, where he often tries to back down smaller defenders on mismatches.
The Denver Nuggets stand no chance below, as LeBron has Jameer Nelson guarding him. Two Cavaliers cut to the basket and Nikola Jokic slides in as the help, leaving an easy cross-court window open for James to find Love once again:
At the end of the day, a segment of NBA fans (read: Baylessians) won’t remember what happened in the first 47 minutes. They want to see late-game dominance.
And though James receives criticism for his heroics (or lack thereof), they do exist—just often in a slightly different manner. He has the highest AST% in the league (an absurd 53.3 percent) in the last two minutes of game situations with a differential of five points or fewer. And even if he isn’t looking to pass the ball, he can still be trusted to score in crunch-time scenarios.
Remember how he thrived in Inpredictable’s wider Clutch metric? Well, of all the players who took a minimum of 12 potential buzzer-beaters last year, LeBron was tied for second with a 62.5 percent Clutch2 eFG%, behind only C.J. McCollum:
Despite the Finals shortcomings, the Akron product is still contributing at an unbelievably high level.
With Irving gone, Thomas injured and the Cavaliers still trying to find the version of Kevin Love they traded for three years ago, Cleveland is going to need the 2016-17 version of James. His combination of shooting and skilled passing in a game’s closing moments makes him a clutch weapon the likes of which have never been seen. And even as he begins to approach his mid-30s, Lebron shows no signs of slowing down.
Follow Tim on Twitter @StubbHub.