We are in the third quarter of Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons, on the Nov. 18 earlier this season. On the first possession, LeBron James receives an entry pass from Kevin Love on the right block, dribbles three times and hits a turnaround 14-foot fadeaway over Marcus Morris. On the next possession, LeBron shoots another shot from mid-range.
LeBron shooting mid-range jumpers in the third quarter has actually been a common thing this season. In the graph below every shot of LeBron’s from this season is placed according to time of the game and location on the floor. Every quarter is divided into four segments of three minutes. The graph consists of two parts: The grey bars on top show how many shots LeBron took in each segment and the colourful chart on the bottom shows how these shots were distributed on the floor.
This season, LeBron begun his third quarters by shooting from outside, as seen above in the abrupt change between the end of the second quarter and the first half of the third. Free throw attempts and shots close to the basket drop beneath 50 percent of all shots as the second half begins.
It is also worth noticing how LeBron shoots more 3-pointers in the second half compared to the first. I have decided to include all two-shot fouls instead of leaving out e.g. personal fouls that led to free throws because of the opposing team being in the penalty.
These patterns are incredibly important to understanding how a player like LeBron approaches a game. We see all sorts of shot distribution statistics for a player but rarely do we consider how those patterns might change of the course of a single game.
There has been a lot of discussions about visualizations in sports, stirred by Luke Bornn’s tweet on radar graphs. In the interests of satisfying all aesthetics, I have made a plot of the same data as above, but as a line chart, to make the value of each percentage clearer:
The abrupt change from second to third quarter is still visible, as is the rise in 3-pointers in the second half.
I see the advantages of both graphs, but I would like to use the first one in this article for a specific reason: In my mind the line chart portrays a certainty in the percentages that is not there. Going back to the first graph, we see in the top that LeBron has shot around 100 shots in each segment. That is not enough to pinpoint with certainty the percentages in each category and so I prefer the stacked bar chart in this case because I think they’re a bit better at showing the overall pattern.
The picture is more noisy in the playoffs on account of the samples being smaller. A 13-game sample is significantly smaller than a 74-game sample. But some patterns emerge and we again identify that LeBron starts the third quarter by shooting more mid-range jumpers and he also increases his 3-point attempts in the second half.
Have LeBron always liked shooting jumpers in the beginning of the second half? Combining his three last seasons seems to indicate yes:
Now that is more of a sample size. I looked at the seasons individually and there was not any strong trend that would hinder us from summarizing them as one. Once again LeBron begins the third quarter with a higher tendency to shoot jumpers.
There are obviously a lot that potentially could factor in to where LeBron shoots from in given situation: Opponent defensive scheme, the specific defender, the score of the game, teammates on floor and so on.
I have only scratched the surface of that topic in my research, but looking at teammates it is clear that out of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, it is Thompson that by far has the biggest impact on where LeBron shoots from.
In 1746 minutes with Tristan Thompson this season, LeBron has shot 202 mid-range shots and 320 shots in the restricted area.
In 1047 minutes without Tristan Thompson this season, LeBron has shot 62 mid-range shots and 293 shots in the restricted area.
LeBron gets WAY more to the basket, when he plays without Tristan Thompson, which also makes a lot of sense as the center will probably be Channing Frye or Kevin Love (or himself) camping out at the 3-point line and opening up space.
You should not be disappointed, if LeBron does not come out with a flurry of mid-range jumpers on Thursday in Game 1. The graphs here only show tendencies. Any given game might include factors that changes the equation for LeBron. But if he does come out shooting from mid-range, know that he is comfortable and doing what he is used to.