Lebron James’ Hot Streak: Individual Brilliance Doesn’t Always Translate to Team Dominance

Lebron James is currently playing at ridiculous levels.  Yes, shooting 71.4% FG% over a 5-game span usually qualifies as ridiculous.

Lebron’s not just getting a bunch of dunks, he’s shooting more efficiently.  It’s true that he’s been shooting from better spots on the court (i.e. not long 2-pointers).  See below: in the past 5 games, James has shot from the paint about five percentage points more than normal (50.7% to 55.8%), and about two percentages points more from three-point range.

Lebron James shot distribution - 2012-2013 Regular Season Lebron James shot distribution - Feb 3 - Feb 10

But what if we did some basic math to see how many more points you’d expect Lebron to score, solely from better shot locations?  Over the course of the 2012-2013 regular season prior to February 3 (the start of this ridiculous streak), James averaged 1.38 points per shot (pps) in the paint, 0.8pps from the long two, and 1.2pps from three-point range.

Assuming Lebron shoots just as efficiently, but shoots more from the paint and three-point line, we would expect Lebron to overall score about 1.2 points per shot.  Before, we would have expected him to score 1.16pps.  So it’s not a huge difference.  Over 15 shot attempts, that would translate to 18 points vs. 17.4 points, or a measly 0.6 point difference.

Shot location can’t explain everything.  Especially when you realize that Lebron actually has been averaging 1.55 points per shot over the past week.

My shot charts are rarely this green.
My shot charts are rarely this green.

So to state the obvious, Lebron isn’t just shooting from better locations, he’s just shooting better.  Over 15 shot attempts, we would expect James to score 23.25pps at his new shooting efficiency and new shot location distribution, 5 points more than the expected 18pps given James’s prior efficiency level and new shot location distribution.

By the way, we’ve completely disregarded free throws from this analysis.  Chances are, he’s even more efficient than +5 points.  He’s shot double-digit free throws in 4 of the 6 games played in February, which he hadn’t done in nearly a month previous, since January 4 vs. Chicago.

One minor issue: turnovers.  James averages 2.8 turnovers/game, but has averaged 4.2 turnovers in these 5 games.

Yeah, but how did the team do?

Five brilliant individual performances, five Miami Heat wins.  Good, right?

Maybe.  Miami won five games, but didn’t necessarily dominate their opposition.  Looking at the average scoring lead/deficit during each of the five games (and NOT looking at the misleading final margin of victory), you realize that the Heat didn’t outright control those games, save for the pounding of the Clippers on national TV.

  • +1.5 points (vs. Raptors 2/3)
  • +2.2 points (vs. Bobcats 2/4)
  • +5.3 points (vs. Rockets 2/6)
  • +14.6 points (vs. Clippers 2/8)
  • +0.8 points (vs. Lakers 2/10)

Put another way, the Heat on average led the Raps/Bobcats/Lakers by only a basket or less over the course of each of those 3 games.  Note that the Heat achieved better results against the two current playoff teams (Rockets, Clippers), and struggled against the objectively worse, non-playoff teams, of which the Raptors are a little terrible, the Bobcats are very terrible, and the Lakers are probably terrible.

Amid the media exuberance over Lebron’s individual brilliance, it seems to me that team performance kind of got lost, ignored, or even misremembered.  From this game margin data, I believe the Heat should have handled these inferior teams more handily than by just 2 points, ESPECIALLY given Lebron’s level of play.  But Lebron’s freakish field goal percentage and the team’s 5-0 record seem to disguise this assertion.

We should celebrate great individual performances, but we shouldn’t overlook team performance when doing so, because individual domination may not always translate to team domination.

As always, you can play around with a lot of this data yourself.  Lebron James shot charts.

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