NBA

LeBron James, analytics and revisualizing greatness

The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James are in a familiar spot, though the journey hasn’t been the same. Down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors — hello 3-1, my old friend — the Cavs return to the Bay Area to try and force a Game 6.

The memes won’t let you forget the series standings, but this isn’t 2016. Warriors in five was the most popular choice among media guesses prior to Cavs-Warriors III, and if the defending champs are destroyed in Game 5, then it’s possible LeBron’s G.O.A.T. resume will have taken its worst hit since 2011, when he disappeared against the Dallas Mavericks his first year in Miami. He’d be 3-5 in the Finals and barring a miraculous four-year run of winning championships, odds are LeBron James will never supplant Michael Jordan in basketball lore.

But that’s okay, because the idea of greatest of all time is a subjective argument based on the narrative elements and numbers you value. This isn’t about comparing those numbers. It’s not about piling on LeBron or trying to argue for him. This is simply about LeBron’s contribution to widening our window into understanding greatness and changing the way we see and digest it. This is about the serendipitous timing of the explosion of analytics coinciding with the career of one of the best all-around players in NBA history.

In the ways Jordan revolutionized basketball with his ability to dominate one-on-one and make centers-as-your-best-player obsolete, LeBron was too part of a revolution in the NBA; he is one of the vehicle who helped escort the league into the analytics era. It’s true analytics would’ve taken off without LeBron ever existing, but he is the player who set the baseline for all-around greatness in the NBA, at least during the time we’ve really had the ability and interest in measuring it rigorously.

Before analytics entered the NBA  —  and formally won the future in 2013 when the league installed SportsVU cameras in all 29 stadiums  —  resources for understanding production were limited to raw box score numbers and a heavy reliance on the eye test, which still has value to scouts and couch scouts like me. But both leave out too many variables, namely the fact that not all shots are worth the same and any hope of really measuring defense, which is half the game.

When James entered the NBA in 2003–04, offense equaled stardom. During that season, Tracy McGrady, a future Hall of Famer who embodied the old way of production, led the league in scoring with 28.0 per game…but on 23.4 shots .

McGrady was considered a bonafide superstar and elite scorer because that’s how the game was viewed. Today, we’d look at his season differently. We’d see McGrady was a 32.9 percent 3-point shooter that season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.6. We’d see that his season ranked 111th in true shooting percentage of the 135 seasons in NBA history in which a player averaged at least 28 points per game. We’d also see the state of the Magic, whose defense was atrocious when McGrady played and improved significantly when he went to the bench. We’d see how they fired Doc Rivers after a 1–10 start and finished 19–48 in the 67 games McGrady played that year. With the information now available, we can dig deeper and see that though McGrady was an elite offensive player, high volume scoring at low efficiency carries less weight now that we can track it.

That’s not a knock on McGrady, it was not his best season and his play was still remarkable. There will always be volume scorers in the NBA. But we get it now that all 30-point games aren’t created equal.

LeBron represents the first generation of NBA player for whom an entire career of all-around contributions could be tracked in real-time. Before then, our understanding of the impact of playmakers like Scottie Pippen or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson wasn’t as all-encompassing. We could miss the small things that made them great, or the small things that kept them from being great.

Take Bird,  considered one of the best all-around players ever and the biggest competition to LeBron as the best small forward ever. Bird said a good game was stuffing the stat sheet and involving his teammates. In 1986, Portland Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay took Bird’s praise a step further and said Larry Bird was the most clutch player ever. But there was no way to track it other than missed or made shots and a heavy dose of the eye test.

Thanks to analytics and LeBron widening the window, we’ll never take a facet of a player’s game like that for granted. We know what dominance across the board looks like because we’ve seen LeBron and — here’s where it’s important — measured what he’s done while he’s actually doing it. Many of our analytic tools can be applied retroactively, but LeBron is of the first for whom we could robustly measure it all as it was happening.

As the league progresses, players will inevitably top LeBron in certain categories. Stephen Curry will always have a higher true shooting percentage and Tim Duncan will always have the better defensive rating. But it’s not a matter of measuring LeBron against the best ever at each respective stat.

As we have built these tools for measuring greatness, so many have been calibrated with LeBron at one extreme. We may not truly appreciate the depths of LeBron’s value until the next generation, when we see guys lack in categories he dominated and see if players Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons are able to come close to that level of all-around production. Fortunately for us — and perhaps unfortunately for Greek Freak and Simmons — we’ll be able to track that production from game to game…even possession to possession. There is no hiding greatness or flaws in the modern NBA. We can see it in LeBron.