‘Tom Haberstroh buries Bill Simmons’ was not the headline at ESPN, but it could have been. If it had been, the headline would have been more true to the substance of Haberstroh’s article than the headline they actually went with, “Good being king? LeBron ‘jealous’ of Durant.”
In a recent blog post, I poked fun at Bill Simmons for, among other things, suggesting that the Heat were wearing out LeBron James. I pointed out that LeBron’s minutes played per game were the lowest in his career. In Haberstroh’s article, the minutes played barometer just scratched the surface.
Haberstroh makes the case that LeBron, and by extension the Heat’s management, are making a concerted effort to reduce his workload this season, ‘coasting’ for the haters. That is the exact opposite of the point made by Bill Simmons on national TV last Friday on NBA Countdown.
Specific indicators noted by Haberstroh:
- Minutes per game – career low
- Rebound rate – dropped for the 1st time in 5 seasons
- Assist rate – lowest in 8 seasons
- Steal rate – never been lower
- Block rate – career low as well
Haberstroh could have stopped there. It really was enough. But no, this is the type of article which settles accounts [or family business]. With the last stat, Simmons, in effect, gets his arms tragically [to some] tangled in the ring ropes as the final roundhouse punch approaches, he is conscious, but unable to stop the blow [some might say his body language was all wrong].
- The Miami Heat have been 7.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with James on the floor
Wrap your heads around that one. Without LeBron, the Heat would rank 2nd in the NBA in points per 100 possessions. With him, they are 19th. It ain’t just Wade not getting back this year. [Forgive the chicken v. egg type reference, but I’ve always assumed that Wade argues calls to avoid running back on defense as opposed to not being able to get back on defense because he was arguing a call.]
At this point, Haberstroh is rumored to have pulled the podcast headset out of its USB port and walked out of Quikcam view.
The complete Haberstroh article is copied at end of post.
Is LeBron James coasting?
Is the Heat star going easy during this stretch of the 82-game slog?
By Tom Haberstroh | ESPN Insider
Many of LeBron James’ numbers are down this season. Is he coasting?
MIAMI — LeBron James is having an amazing 2013-14 season by any reasonable standard.
Except for his own.
James has somehow managed to raise his field goal percentage for the seventh straight season, to 59.1 percent. His true shooting percentage — an advanced shooting percentage that incorporates 3-point shots and free throws — stands at 67.2 percent. How high is that? As pointed out in a BIG Number episode last month, we’ve never seen a true shooting percentage north of 67 percent when taking at least 15 field goal attempts per game.
But the conversation around James has been more accusatory than congratulatory. The big question isn’t “How’s LeBron doing this?” It’s, “Is LeBron coasting?”
Despite his otherworldly shooting efficiency, there is actually gobs of evidence to suggest that James is indeed playing in second gear, even after we account for his minutes, which have dipped this season to career-low levels.
Rebound rate? Dropped for the first time in five seasons. Assist rate? His lowest in eight seasons (32.4 percent of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor). Steal rate? Never been lower. Block rate? Career-low as well. Outside of shot-making, all of the good things are down. Turnovers, on the other hand, are up to career-high levels.
So what’s going on here?
Just before he left for Washington, D.C., to meet the president, I asked James that very question.
The shooting department
Here’s something to chew on: The reigning MVP ranks tied for 18th in the NBA in field goal attempts per game (16.1).
James, the guy who seemingly can’t miss, takes as many shots per game as Kemba Walker , and fewer shots than Al Jefferson . That doesn’t consider the free throw line, but even when you add in foul shots, James ranks tied for 19th among qualified players (minimum 20 minutes per game).
For the coasting truthers, this is the hardest evidence that James is taking it easy. Shouldn’t he be shooting more?
James said he often wonders that himself. Both he and Kevin Durant have played several games without their co-pilots this season, but James’ shot attempts haven’t sky-rocketed like Durant’s have.
“I do get jealous, I’m not gonna lie,” James said. “I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he’s like 16-for-32 and then 14-for-34. … Man.”
But that might require a different approach.
“First of all, you have to have an unbelievable mindset to get up 30 shots,” James said. “I always think about it, though. If I get up high-20s, 30 shots a game, what could I do today, with the way I’m playing?”
It’s a question many basketball observers have asked, too. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has said that if James was focused on scoring, he could “realistically” average 37 points per game.
But it’s not as simple as “shoot more, win more.” The Heat are 8-2 in James’ 10 highest-usage games this season and 9-1 in his 10 lowest-usage games.
“I’m not much of a forced-shot guy,” James said. “But there are games where I have it going, and then at the end of the game, I’m like, damn, I shot just 12-for-16? Why don’t I get up at least six or seven more? I definitely notice it.”
But the Heat’s pace-and-space offense thrives on James’ rare ability to create for himself and for others. The thinking is that Miami, which owns the second-most efficient offense in the land, has found a healthy equilibrium in which teams can’t load up on James for fear that he’ll hit the open teammate. As soon as he starts putting on the blinders, it might force an identity crisis for himself and his team.
“I think part of it is our offense,” James said of his low shot total. “It puts us all in an equal-opportunity situation.”
This is true, but the offense is also largely the same one that saw him shoot far more (18.1 field goal attempts) just two seasons ago.
Ultimately, though, James might not be that type of player anymore.
“I don’t think it’s part of my DNA,” James says before cracking a smile. “But I think if my teammates came to me and said, ‘Listen. Tonight, go off, let’s see what you can do.’ I think I could do it then.”
Now consider this: The Heat have been 7.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with James on the floor, according to NBA.com. With him on the floor, the Heat have allowed 103.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 19th in the NBA. With him off the floor, the Heat have improved to 96.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, which would rank just behind the Indiana Pacers for second-best in the league.
It might be hard to believe that this is the same guy who drew Defensive Player of the Year buzz last season, but James’ work on the defensive end has fallen off dramatically.
And it’s not just the on-court/off-court numbers, either. James is currently blocking 0.3 shots per 36 minutes. That’s less than half his career rate. Same as Kyle Korver , Stephen Curry and Matt Bonner . Fewer per minute than Kyrie Irving , Mo Williams and John Wall .
“I haven’t gotten many chase-down blocks this year,” James says. “Guys aren’t challenging me as much. I mean, I’ve had a couple guys turn around and actually dribble the ball out.”
That’s true to some extent. James points to specific examples involving Landry Fields a few games ago, and J.J. Redick , who pulled up for an awkward midrange jumper on a fast break and clanked it in November . But those are the exception rather than the rule. It’s almost unbelievable that a player of James’ off-the-charts athleticism and instincts has yet to tally two blocks in the same game this season.
James’ steal rate has also tumbled, dropping to a career-low 1.3 per 36 minutes.
“I don’t know why my blocks and steals are down, not quite sure,” James says before joking, “Rio [Mario Chalmers ] and D-Wade [Dwyane Wade ] are always stealing everything. That’s where my steals have gone.”
Is James coasting?
By all accounts, James is a basketball genius. But there’s a difference between what he can do and what he has done this season.
James can consistently guard positions 1 through 5, but that doesn’t mean he has consistently guarded 1 through 5 this season. James can take over a game at will, but that doesn’t mean he has taken over games at his will.
The impetus to do so, though, may not be there yet. The Heat are sitting comfortably as the No. 2 seed in a dreadful Eastern Conference, with a 7.5-game buffer in the standings and still within reach of the Pacers.
“We’ll see Wednesday how I’m coasting. You’ll see the numbers I’ll put up on Wednesday. Just watch.” — LeBron James
And consider the mileage. Counting preseason, regular season and postseason, James has played more games than any NBA player since joining the Heat back in 2010 — 340 games and nearly 13,000 minutes in all.
So for James, this isn’t coasting. It’s more like energy management.
“I cannot coast,” James said, “because I don’t know if the next game will be the last game I’ve ever played. It’s my mindset, when I get out on the floor, I gotta go hard. I don’t know where it came from, the way I was brought up, the way I played when I was a kid.”
To be clear, James even in second gear is better than just about every player in the game. His 29.3 player efficiency rating is still second in the league behind Durant, even if it’s down from last season’s league-leading 31.7 rate. By every measure, James remains a dominant force overall — even if this Heat season feels like an 82-game preseason.
But James’ numbers do speak volumes.
“I’m listening to the numbers. Even though I’m not a big numbers guy, I do my part,” James said. “Maybe I do have to start ramping it up a little but more.”
With two days off this weekend and a refreshing visit to the White House on Tuesday, James promises we’ll see a different James against the 17-19 Washington Wizards .
“We’ll see Wednesday how I’m coasting,” James said jokingly as he made his way into the Heat locker room on Monday. “You’ll see the numbers I’ll put up on Wednesday. Just watch.”