LeBron James: Late-Game Proficiency Not As Simple As Mere Numbers

Feb 1, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) works against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 125-97. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at LeBron James in late-game, clutch situations not as simple as the numbers.

Last spring, ESPN Senior Writer Marc Stein presented evidence that LeBron James has difficulties “when attempting a tying or go-ahead shot in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime.”

Specifically, LeBron was 5-of-47 (10.6 percent) in such situations over the past 10 seasons, while the 10-season NBA average among those shooting a high volume of such shots was 22.7 percent (23.5 percent when excluding LeBron’s performance).

While Stein makes what appears to be a valid point, it remains unclear whether LeBron’s clutch shooting performance is significantly worse than average.

Statistically, a sample of 47 shots is not so large that we can conclude, sans test, that 10.6 percent is significantly lower than 23.5 percent.

Therefore, we conduct a one-tailed test for difference in two proportions to determine whether LeBron is significantly worse than his cohort’s average.  We find this to be true at the .025 significance level.

If LeBron’s true level of “clutchness” (“choke artistry”) were equal to the average of his comparison group, then the likelihood of observing five or fewer makes on 47 shots would be approximately .021 (2.1 percent).

It is important to note that LeBron did not have the option of passing to most of the comparison players from Stein’s list.  The only player on the list who teamed with LeBron was Dwyane Wade (9-of-47; 19.1 percent).

From a test for difference in proportions, we find that LeBron was worse than Wade only at the .10 significance level.

LeBron’s true opportunity cost of taking a shot with the clock running down is the expected number of points that his most clutch teammate would have generated, but this is a whole other data set.

Success in the 2016 Finals notwithstanding, it appears that LeBron has had his share of woes with the clock running down.  Given his strong passing skills, facilitation may be a better (marginal) option for him in the closing seconds of a game.

As in a mixed strategy Nash equilibrium in game theory, more passing would in turn open up higher quality shots for him and improve his expected clutch shooting percentage.

At the very least, we can say that the Cavaliers would probably not sacrifice much if LeBron were to place a moratorium on isolating himself with the ball, running the clock down to four seconds and taking a last-second shot with somewhere between two and 10 hands in his face.

Strangely, the sports media may be partly to blame for LeBron’s apparently (and uncharacteristically) poor decision-making in pivotal, late-game settings.

For many years, the media has largely criticized LeBron’s willingness to draw in defenders and make an adept pass with the game clock running down.

For example, Scoop Jackson writes that LeBron has a “stomach-turning stigma” of “not taking/shying away from/being afraid to take the last shot.”  Such armchair criticisms by the media date back years further than 2012.

LeBron’s (early-career) inclination to pass the ball in high leverage game settings has traditionally been attributed as a weakness.

But if LeBron has one of the highest basketball IQs on the planet—higher, presumably, than most basketball writers—why is the media so quick to second-guess him?

Perhaps LeBron understands that a) he is probably not a strong shooter in high-leverage settings, b) he, nonetheless, draws several defenders in these settings such that his teammates have open shot opportunities, and c) he is a creative and efficient passer.

Perhaps LeBron’s early-career deference in high-leverage settings was a strength rather than a weakness.

The Curious Case of Rudy Gay

Another interesting aspect of Stein’s article is that Rudy Gay essentially shoots at the (unconditional) league average field goal percentage when taking pivotal, last-second shots!  For his regular season career, Gay is 17-of-38 (44.7 percent) in such scenarios.

This is more than 10 percentage points higher than any other player who took a high volume of such shots over the last 10 seasons.  If LeBron is a choke artist at reasonable significance levels, then we should also consider whether Gay is clutch at similar levels of significance.

We compare Gay’s proficiency (44.7 percent) to that of other players who shot a high volume of last-second shots over the past 10 seasons (21.5 percent) in a one-tailed test for difference in proportions.  The test concludes that Gay is not only clutch, but very clutch.

The p-value associated with the test is 0.00043, meaning that there is only a .043 percent chance, in estimation, that a player could perform as well or better than Gay by mere chance.

In other words, we would expect such an aberrantly high level of performance to occur by change in only 1 of every 2,325 NBA players.

The evidence suggests that Gay’s “clutchness” is many times more significant than LeBron’s need to learn the basketball equivalent of the unassisted Heimlich maneuver (In the case of literal choking: Lean over an available table, chair or like object and vigorously thrust upper belly upward against edge).

Gay’s shooting performance is apparently immune to the psychological tyranny of the game clock.

There is no statistical difference (at reasonable significance levels) between Gay’s career field goal percentage overall (45.2 percent in the regular season) and his field goal percentage when taking pivotal, last-second shots.

In basketball perhaps more than in other sports, the clutch shooter is something of an anomaly.  He or she must be intimately aware of the clock (in order to get the shot off) but, at the same time, largely immune from the psychological effects of the clock.

There is strong evidence to support the conclusion that Rudy Gay is just such an anomaly.  His ability to shoot proficiently under dire circumstances cannot be easily explained away by good play-calling.

If the last-second plays drawn up for Gay were so good, then coaches and players would be using similar ideas (or at least ideas of equal effectiveness) in other scenarios throughout the game.  Indeed, two points early in the game is as valuable as two points in the final seconds.

As such, it is unlikely that the play-calling to which Gay was privy suddenly improved at the end of games.

Rudy Gay in an Alternative Basketball Universe

Basketball is not a game of narrow, game-management oriented roles to the extent that baseball is.  Basketball does not feature “closers” for example.

In the early days of organized basketball, however, teams were allowed to appoint specialists in free throw shooting who could attempt all free throw shots.   In his 1941 book, Naismith writes that this rule encouraged narrow specialization among players of the early game.

If today’s NBA somehow featured a role for late-game “offensive closers” (or, more exactly, “offensive win-creators,” as they would be trying to pivot the game’s outcome), the Cavaliers might trade for Rudy Gay and substitute him in for LeBron in high-leverage game scenarios.

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