LeBron James has a return engagement with the Boston Celtics Sunday afternoon. Exactly a year earlier to the day, LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers started a second round series with Celtics that would mark the beginning of the end of his career with the Cavs. Did LeBron quit on Cleveland? Was LeBron so anxious to "take his talents" elsewhere that he disappeared down the stretch? A forensic study of the stats from that series suggest a very clear answer...
Well, very clear to me at least. It's tough to convince a LeBron-hater that he was anything other than a man in a black hat in the final three games of the Boston series. Haters are expecting more woes when LeBron's Miami Heat take on the Celtics over the next two weeks. If you're on the outside looking in, it's tough to know for sure. You should at least be responsible in your commentary. Calling LeBron a quitter, given the statistical evidence, is about as irresponsible as it gets.
First, some background.
*LeBron James entered the Boston series last year nursing a bad elbow. There were concerns about it after Cleveland eliminated Chicago. It wasn't a secret. Everybody knew it was bothering him, and he was playing through the pain. He shot a free throw lefthanded in the final win of the Bulls series.
*In the media, LeBron kept emphasizing a theme of "no excuses" for himself and his team. He wasn't going to talk about the elbow. They had to win regardless of the hurdles in front of them. No whining to the press. No acknowledgment that it was an issue, period.
*Cleveland had three days off to prepare for Game One of the Boston series after eliminating Chicago on April 27, 2010. With the series starting on May 1, 2010, that's three off days to rest and get ready. LeBron had a great first game. 35 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. Concerns about the elbow disappeared.
*Concerns about the elbow resurfaced quickly! James was clearly favoring his elbow two days later in Game Two (as this game recap from ESPN's website shows). There was a statewide "Uh oh" in all of Ohio because it was obviously bothering him.
*A quirk in the schedule gave Cleveland and Boston three days off before Game Three in Beantown. They played May 1, May 3, and May 7. Again, with a lengthy recovery time between games (and whatever potential treatment may be involved over a layoff), LeBron was great! He had 38 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists.
And, THAT was the moment where everyone stopped talking about the elbow. From ESPN's website recap:
"I think he's healthy," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who has been dismissive of James' injury. "His elbow looked very good tonight. So enough with the elbow injury. I think we can go ahead and focus on basketball."
Instead of saying "Wait, Doc. He just had three days off before the game. That's not going to happen again in the series," the media went along with the storyline. LeBron was fine. The elbow injury had been overplayed. Rivers had been right to be dismissive. End of story.
And, even though the teams played every other day from that point forward, with only one day off between games rather than two or three...and, even though LeBron had HORRIBLE shooting stats in those games, particularly from distance...nobody was talking about the elbow injury any more. Cleveland was eliminated because LeBron disappeared. Because he was gutless. Because he was ready to leave town and play for somebody with a better chance to win a championship.
Wasn't it possible that LeBron's elbow was functional if he had three days of rest between games...but was A BIG PROBLEM when games were bunched together?! Isn't that more likely than him being the guy in the black hat?
I'm going to run through some numbers from the shot location breakdowns here at Hoopdata (which have been up for a year, by the way, so it's not like they were buried in somebody's backyard this whole time). Here's a link to Cleveland's team page from last year's playoffs. You can click on any individual game for shot location breakdowns and other data.
Remember that Games 1 and 3 came after three days of rest and preparation. Games 2, 4, 5, and 6 came with only one day off between games.
LEBRON AT THE RIM
Games 1 & 3: 12/19 (63%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 15/26 (58%)
A slight drop off. But, the closer you are to the basket, the less an elbow injury is likely to affect your shot.
LEBRON FROM 3-15 FEET
Games 1 & 3: 4/7 (58%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 4/10 (40%)
Quite a difference there. He's dropped off in both cases because he's further from the basket, but the spread is now 18 percentage points rather than just five.
LEBRON FROM 16-23 FEET
Games 1 & 3: 5/11 (45%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 4/16 (25%)
We're in the range where a bad elbow could definitely affect your jump shots. With three days between games, LeBron was at 45%. In the quicker turnarounds, that percentage plummeted to 25%. Note again that both percentages are going down (as expected) the further he gets from the basket. The spread between the two situations is now 20 percentage points.
LEBRON ON 3-POINT SHOTS
Games 1 & 3: 5/9 (56%)
Games 2-4-5-6: 2/17 (12%)
LeBron was hitting his open looks from distance in the games where the arm was well rested. In fact, he was more accurate from behind the arc than in the 16-23 foot range. But, in the quick turnarounds, he was a woeful 2 of 17 on treys (44 percentage points worse). Doesn't THAT suggest a potential injury issue all by itself? A guy's got a bad elbow, and he goes 2 of 17 on long shots in games with limited preparation and rest time. Why wasn't that a red flag to the national media.
Unbelievably, James was 10 of 43 from OUTSIDE OF TWO FEET in those four games. TWO FEET!
Did James take his ball and go home? Did he pout on the sideline? No, the evidence suggests he did what a star would do who could tell he was in trouble away from the rim.
*He picked up his assist totals late in the series, with 25 over the last three games. The elbow moves more side-to-side on passes, compared to straight up and down on jump shots.
*He picked up his rebounding totals late in the series, highlighted by a monster finale. Rebounding from the small forward position is often correlated to positioning and hustle. You can do that with a bad elbow.
*He became so reckless, because he was fighting hard to get close to the basket and either score or kick the ball out to a shooter, that his turnovers shot way up. He commited 7 turnovers in Game Four, and a whopping 9 turnovers in the Game Six finale.
He's been called a quitter because Cleveland didn't win the series. Here are the so-called quitter's stats in that series finale:
27 points (even though he was just 2 of 10 from outside two feet!!!!)
19 rebounds (huge total for a small forward)
10 assists (completing a triple double)
9 turnovers (trying to carry the team on his shoulders)
We have a superstar who refuses to make excuses. We have an opposing coach who convinced the media that there wasn't a meaningful injury. We have a series loss for a heavy favorite who was expected to win the East and battle the Lakers for the league championship (remember they already had those puppet commercials done for when LeBron met Kobe---instead we got to see the cast of "Grownups" sitting behind Phil Jackson before an onslaught of ads featuring purple swimming pool water). It dissapointingly added up to variations of "LeBron quit," "LeBron disappeared," "Something happened to LeBron but we don't know what," "Maybe LeBron had an argument with his mouthy owner behind the scenes and mailed in the last three games." All sorts of conspiracy theories.
The evidence is pretty compelling that a superstar athlete had an elbow injury that needed more than a day off between games within a physical series to recover.
If he goes 10 of his first 43 from outside TWO FEET in this year's series, then let's talk about all the gut check stuff.
An indisputable basketball superstar suddenly couldn't shoot from distance. Do you want to believe that he quit on the team, but creatively posted 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists in the series finale to cover his tracks? Or, is it much more reasonable that a proud man who won't make excuses did the best he could when dealing with a WELL-PUBLICIZED injury to the elbow on his shooting arm?
If you're a sportswriter who likes touting any of the conspiracy theories, could you at least mention this extremely reasonable possibility to balance things out?