Questioning the King
This is not the worst team with LeBron; this is the worst LeBron we’ve seen since his rookie season.
To most, this might be a very controversial statement. How can a guy who played all 82 games while averaging 27.5 points, 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.4 steals, while leading his team to 50 wins, be having the worst season of his career? How can a team with LeBron that struggled all year to play any semblance of defense and offense not be the worst team LeBron has been on in his entire career? Before I explain my reasoning to which you will inevitably dispute with ad hominem attacks, I would like to clarify that I am a fan of LeBron James. I think if he were to retire today, he’d already be the greatest small forward of all-time. He might even be the most complete basketball player we’ve seen thus far. All that being said, I am a stats guy at heart; and the stats don’t paint a great picture for LeBron James this season.
So, let’s start with the most controversial statement: this is the worst LeBron we’ve seen since his rookie season. If we look at the traditional 5 individual statistical categories, you can easily refute this statement. This season, he’s scored the 5th most points per game of his career, along with the most rebounds and assists per game of his career; but his blocks and steals are lower than his career average, but not by much. On top of this, he is shooting 54.2% from the field and 36.7% from 3; which are some of the best percentages of his career. With numbers like that, you’d think its career suicide for me to make an outlandish claim like this; but there is more to basketball than individual numbers. There is also this team aspect we need to explore.
The best way to evaluate a player’s impact to his team is through advanced metrics. So, let’s take a look at LeBron’s advanced metrics throughout his career:
LeBron’s Regular Season Advanced Metrics
Compared to the rest of his career, LeBron James is having his 3rd best offensive season. This makes sense due to him exceeding his points and assists per game career averages this season; however, on the defensive side of the ball, he is having a career worst year.
According to the numbers, LeBron James ranks 194th this year in defensive win shares. This puts him on par defensively with guys like Courtney Lee, Gerald Green, Manu Ginobli, and Joe Johnson. His defensive rating ranks 458th, around guys like Gorgui Dieng, Enes Kanter, Austin Rivers, and Michael Beasley. If you are one of those people that don’t believe in analytics in basketball and rely solely on the eye test, here are some clips of LeBron’s defensive breakdowns from this year:
Now, obviously LeBron has made some great defensive plays this year. I’m not implying he has fallen off a map defensively; however, there does seem to be a drop off with his defensive effort any way you want to look at it.
Some may want to argue that the reason for this is because his team is terrible. LeBron’s team is so bad that LeBron’s numbers suffer due to him covering for his teammates inabilities, right? As much as I would like to easily explain this production drop off from LeBron to the inability of his team, the stats show that this is far from the case:
LeBron’s Team’s Regular Season Advanced Metrics
Right off the bat, you can tell from this data that the 2017-2018 Cavaliers are not the worst team LeBron has played on. The team he had his first 2 years in the NBA didn’t even make playoffs. The team he dragged to the Eastern Conference Finals and lost against Boston was drastically worse than his current team. If you only consider the full season, the 2017-2018 Cavaliers are only the 4th worst team he’s played on. Considering that the current team competing in the playoffs was redesigned right before the trade deadline, I also included the team stats after the trade deadline. With those stats, the team that LeBron is currently playing on is pushed up to the 5th worst spot of his career; which is surprisingly statistically close to the team he took to the finals last year.
At this point, some of you may be shouting at your computers, “LeBron’s impact to his team is the sole reason why their net rating is not the lowest of all his teams!” Well, luckily there are stats that demonstrate how that isn’t true. Below are LeBron’s on/off court net ratings for his worst teams since they started recording the stat:
LeBron James On/Off Court Advanced Metrics
The players who have had the biggest impact on the 2017-2018 Cavaliers (according to advanced metrics) are George Hill (8.8 On Court Net Rating, -1.2 Off Court Net Rating), Channing Frye (7.8 On Court Net Rating, 0.0 Off Court Net Rating), and Kyle Korver (7.5 On Court Net Rating, -3.3 Off Court Net Rating). This doesn’t mean that George Hill, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver are more important or better players than LeBron; what this means is that these players have a tremendous positive effect on the team’s performance when they play.
The Cavaliers have regressed drastically this season since last season, and a large part of that is the regression of LeBron James. He is the driving force behind every team he’s been on. He has always been the focal point of their offense and defensive anchor when he is on the floor. His play directly impacts the team more than almost every other player that has played professional basketball. This season, he has regressed. He looks like he doesn’t want to put in as much effort as previous seasons and the stats show it. He might be a more efficient scorer than before; but whatever offensive leap he made this year, his defensive regression has negated all of that. Like I said earlier, if LeBron James retires now, I would unquestionably consider him to be the greatest small forward to ever play the game and probably even the most complete player to have ever played the game; however, if this becomes a trend and LeBron’s defensive regression continues, it will not reflect well on his legacy when it’s all said and done.
(All statistics courtesy of NBA.com)
(Footage courtesy of the NBA, ESPN, AMAX, and CliveNBAParody)
(Stats accurate as of 4-21-18)