LeBron’s High-Usage Shooting Efficiency (Featuring Adrian Dantley)

As anyone (statistically-inclined or not) can tell you, LeBron James is having a pretty good year. His 26.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game (through 81) makes for another entry in his already stunning portfolio of versatile seasons: This will be his 6th time hitting 25/7/7+, a feat that has only been accomplished 8 times since the merger:

Totals Shooting Per Game
Rk Player Season Age Tm G FGA FG% 3P% FT% PTS TRB AST TS%
1 LeBron James 2012-13 28 MIA 76 1354 .565 .406 .753 26.8 8.0 7.3 .640
2 Michael Jordan* 1988-89 25 CHI 81 1795 .538 .276 .850 32.5 8.0 8.0 .614
3 Larry Bird* 1986-87 30 BOS 74 1497 .525 .400 .910 28.1 9.2 7.6 .612
4 LeBron James 2009-10 25 CLE 76 1528 .503 .333 .767 29.7 7.3 8.6 .604
5 LeBron James 2010-11 26 MIA 79 1485 .510 .330 .759 26.7 7.5 7.0 .594
6 LeBron James 2008-09 24 CLE 81 1613 .489 .344 .780 28.4 7.6 7.2 .591
7 LeBron James 2007-08 23 CLE 75 1642 .484 .315 .712 30.0 7.9 7.2 .568
8 LeBron James 2004-05 20 CLE 80 1684 .472 .351 .750 27.2 7.4 7.2 .554
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
(Generated 4/17/2013.)

But the thing that sticks out (which stat-heads have been going berserk about) is his shooting, which has been by far the most efficient of his career.  Indeed, it may be one of the greatest shooting efficiency seasons of all time.

While his raw shooting % wouldn’t break the top 100 seasons, and his “true” shooting % (adjusted for free throws and 3 point shots made) would still only rank about 60th, the key here is that James’ shooting efficiency is remarkable for someone with his role as both a primary option and a shooter of last resort.  Generally, when you increase a player’s shot-taking responsibilities, it comes at the cost of marginal shot efficiency. This doesn’t mean this is a bad decision or that the player is doing anything wrong—what may be a bad shot “for them” may be a great shot under the circumstances in which they are asked to take it (like when the shot clock is running down, etc).

While there’s no simple stat that describes the degree to which someone is a “shot creator,” we can use usage rate as a decent (though obviously imperfect) proxy. There have been around 150 seasons in which one player “used” >=30% of their team’s possessions:

Usage >30% vs. TS%

All player seasons with USG% >= 30. LeBron’s in red.

As we would expect, the best shooting percentages decline as the players’ usage rates get larger and larger.  The red points are LeBron’s seasons (which are pretty excellent across the board) and as we can see from this scatter, his 2012-13 campaign is about to set the record for this group (though we should note that it’s NOT a Rodman-esqe outlier).

Amazingly, the previous record-holder was Adrian Dantley! Dantley is a Hall of Fameer who I had practically never heard of until his name kept popping up in my historical research as possibly one of the most underrated players ever.

Dantley never made an All-NBA first team or won an NBA championship, but he does extremely well in a variety of plus-minus and statistical plus-minus style metrics. While he didn’t have the all-around game of a LeBron James (though he did average a respectable 6-7 rebounds and 3-4 assists in his prime), Dantley was an extremely efficient high-usage shooter. For example, if we look at the top True Shooting seasons among players with a Usage Rate of greater than 27.5%, guess who occupies fully 5 of the top 10 spots:

Totals Shooting Advanced
Rk Player Season Age Tm G FG FGA PTS FG% TS% USG%
1 Amare Stoudemire 2007-08 25 PHO 79 714 1211 1989 .590 .656 28.2
2 Adrian Dantley* 1983-84 27 UTA 79 802 1438 2418 .558 .652 28.2
3 Kevin Durant 2012-13 24 OKC 81 731 1433 2280 .510 .647 29.8
4 LeBron James 2012-13 28 MIA 76 765 1354 2036 .565 .640 30.1
5 Charles Barkley* 1990-91 27 PHI 67 665 1167 1849 .570 .635 29.1
6 Adrian Dantley* 1979-80 23 UTA 68 730 1267 1903 .576 .635 27.8
7 Adrian Dantley* 1981-82 25 UTA 81 904 1586 2457 .570 .631 27.9
8 Adrian Dantley* 1985-86 29 UTA 76 818 1453 2267 .563 .629 30.0
9 Karl Malone* 1989-90 26 UTA 82 914 1627 2540 .562 .626 32.6
10 Adrian Dantley* 1980-81 24 UTA 80 909 1627 2452 .559 .622 28.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
(Generated 4/17/2013.)

Dantley was also in the news a bit last month for working part-time as a crossing guard:

Key quotes from that story:

“It’s not a big thing to me … I just do it. I have a routine. I exercise, I go to work, I go home. I have a spring break next week. I have a summer off, just like when I was a basketball player.”

“I just did it for the kids … I just didn’t want to sit around the house all day.”

“I’ve definitely saved two lives. I’ve almost gotten hit by a car twice. And I would say 70 percent of the people who go across my route are on their telephone or on their BlackBerry, text-messaging. I never would have seen that if I had not been on the post.”

What a character!

Graphs of the Day: Bird vs. Bron

One of my favorite stat-nuggets ever is that “Larry Bird never had a losing month.” So, yesterday, I figured it was about time to check whether or not it’s, you know, true.

To do this, I first had to figure out which Celtics games Bird actually played in. The problem there is that his career began well before 1986, meaning the box score data aren’t in Basketball Reference’s database. But they do have images of the actual box scores, like so:

Fortunately, Bird played in every game in his first two seasons, so figuring this out was just a matter of poring through 4 years of these pics: Easy peasy! (I’ve done more grueling work for even more trivial questions, to be sure.) But results on that later.

Independently, I was trying to come up with a fun way to illustrate the fact that LeBron James won a lot more games in his last two seasons on the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers than he has so far on the perma-hyped Miami Heat:

So that graph reflects every game of LeBron’s career, including the regular season and playoffs (through last night). It’s pretty straightforward: With LeBron an 18-year-old rookie, the Cavs (though much improved) were still pretty shaky, and they pretty much got better and better each year. After a slight decline from their soaring 2008 performance, LeBron left to join the latest Big 3—which is a solid contender, but no threat to the greatest Big 3. (BTW, I would like to thank the Heat for becoming Exhibit A for my long-time contention that having multiple “primary” options is less valuable than having a well-designed supporting cast—even one with considerably less talent.)

But with Mr. Trifecta on my mind (not to mention overloading my browser history), I thought it might be fun to compare the two leading contenders for the small forward spot on any NBA GOAT team. So here’s Larry:

Wow, pretty crazy consistent, yes? Keep in mind that, despite the Celtics long winning tradition, they only won 29 games the year before Bird’s arrival.  Note the practically opposite gradient from LeBron’s: Bird started out hot, and basically stayed hot until injuries cooled him down.

As for the results of the original inquiry: It turns out Bird’s Celtics started the season 2-4 in November 1988, just before Bird had season-ending ankle surgery (of course, Bird’s 1988 games ARE in my database, so this was a bit of a “Doh!” finding). And, of course, he also had losing months in the playoffs.

His worst full month in the regular season, however, was indeed exactly .500: He went 8-8 in March of 1982. So, properly qualified (like, “In the regular season, Bird never had a losing month in which he played more than 6 games”), the claim holds up. If I were a political fact-checker, I would deem it “Mostly True.”

In case you’re interested, here is the complete list of months in Larry Bird’s career:

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