Has LeBron Been King James in the Playoffs?

I was thinking of waiting until Monday to comment on LeBron in the playoffs.  Tomorrow is the decisive game seven between the Cavaliers and Pistons, so as I write this I do not know if LeBron and the Cavaliers have dethroned the defending Eastern Conference champs, or started looking for a good place to play golf this summer. 

Although I do not know how the series will end, I thought I would still spend a bit of my Saturday commenting on the media’s coverage of LeBron. 

After reading and watching the media’s accounts of LeBron’s exploits in the playoffs I am left with this impression of the conventional wisdom: LeBron has raised his level of play in the NBA’s post-season and consequently his team is on the verge of eliminating the team that finished the regular season with the best record.

As we note in the book, though, the conventional wisdom is often incorrect.  And with respect to LeBron in the playoffs, it appears to be incorrect again.

Now before I talk about LeBron in the playoffs, I need to review what he did in the regular season.  LeBron this past week was named to the All-NBA first team.  He was joined by Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash.  Of these players, LeBron’s 20.4 Wins Produced in the regular season, led the field.  Nash, Nowitzki, Bryant, and O’Neal finished with 18.6, 18.0, 14.3, and 8.5 Wins Produced respectively.  Shaq’s relative low total reflects the fact he only played in 59 games and averaged less than 31 minutes per game.

From this we see that LeBron was very, very good in the regular season.  Is he playing better in the playoffs? As I detailed in “Simple Models of Player Performance”, one can easily see if a player has improved by looking at his Win Score.  In the regular season LeBron posted a per-minute Win Score of 0.258.  The average small forward has a per-minute Win Score of 0.152, so as we saw with Wins Produced, LeBron’s Win Score tells us that he was really, really, good in the regular season.

In the first round of the playoffs, though, LeBron’s per-minute Win Score dipped to 0.201. Again, he is well above average.  But Regular-Season-LeBron was better than First-Round-LeBron. 

What about the second round against the Pistons?  Again, LeBron’s productivity has dipped.  Against Detroit LeBron’s per-minute Win Score is 0.184.  He is still above average.  He is still playing well.  But Regular-Season-LeBron was better than Second-Round-LeBron.

What has caused the decline?  The key is turnovers. In the regular season LeBron turned the ball over about once every thirteen minutes he played.  In the playoff, though, he is turning the ball over once every nine minutes played.  As a result his turnovers-per-game has risen from 3.3 per contest in the regular season to 5.2 per game in the playoffs.  So although LeBron is offering similar levels of shooting efficiency and rebounds, his increased turnovers has reduced his effectiveness.

So why are the Cavs winning?  Two players have played better in the post-season: Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall.  Now one can argue that these players are more effective because the Wizards and Pistons focus their attention on LeBron.  And I cannot dismiss that argument.  But the media is not showing many highlights of Gooden and Marshall and noting that their performance is possible because of the greatness of King James.  No, the media is mostly showing highlights of LeBron and noting his greatness.  And he is still great.  But the numbers tell us he was better in the regular season. 

By the way, this is the same story I told earlier about Kobe Bryant.  And it is the same story we told about Michael Jordan in the book.  An excerpt detailing Jordan in the playoffs is available here.  So LeBron’s slight dip in the post-season is not unique.  Most stars play worse in the playoffs.  This should not be surprising. LeBron is not playing the Atlanta Hawks this week.  He is playing the Pistons.  And the Pistons won 64 games this year because Detroit is pretty good.  And I think after committing seven turnovers last night and only hitting 40% of his field goal attempts, LeBron just might agree.

— DJ

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