Thursday, February 25, 2010

Does LeBron Make Teammates Better?

One of my co-bloggers suggested to me yesterday that LeBron James is great at "making his teammates better".

Without denying any of the greatness of #23, I must quibble with this contention. Sure, there is a real basketball sense in which a great player can help his teammates to excel. A point guard can pass the ball to scorers in precisely the right position, at the right moment. A dominant big man can draw double-teams in the paint, leaving 3-point shooters wide open. An agile and intimidating help defender can allow a mediocre defender to survive in a one-on-one defensive scheme, while said mediocre defender thrives on the offensive end of the court. And yes, LeBron James does many of these things.

It is also true that LeBron has done more with less (note: I know that it's not possible to optimize two variables simultaneously) than any other superstar in recent memory. In 2007, LBJ was able to lift his team to the NBA Finals, playing alongside co-starters including Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, and Drew Gooden.

However, players who do best with the ball in their hands a lot may not do so well (or at least, I should say: they may not do better) playing with LeBron James, who often brings the ball from the backcourt, sets up offensive plays, drives, and sometimes rebounds his own side's misses and starts a set anew.

Let us consider two specific teammates of LeBron James whom my co-blogger mentioned as having been "made better" by James: Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

As a second-round draft pick, Williams impressed by claiming Milwaukee's starting PG job in just his second year, 2004-05, and keeping the spot for three more. Williams had a great 2008-09, but his statistics that season were not appreciably better than his 2007-08 statistics in Milwaukee. More likely, the East All-star selection committee felt that Cleveland deserved two players out of 12 due to its great to-date regular season performance, so they chose Williams. This year, Williams has not recovered to his Milwaukee performance levels, turning in only 4.9 assists. Granted, Cleveland's PG may not need to be a "distributor" given LBJ's role in the offense, but Williams is not doing much better than Eric Snow did for Cleveland at age 34 in 2007. Why not just keep Snow around? He's not the most entertaining guy on NBATV anyway.

(The above is a joke, of course, as Williams brings quickness and a jump-shooting ability that Snow could not.)

First, let us note that Ilgauskas was named to the NBA All-Star team in February 2003, when LeBron James was still competing in the Ohio high school circuit. At this time Ilgauskas's Cavs team was among the worst in the league, so it was really an achievement for Ilgauskas to receive notice. Ilgauskas was named an All-Star again in February 2005, at which time James was still figuring out the pros. Since James became the unquestioned star of his team (and of the league) in 2006, Big Z's hairline has waned, but his game has not. His scoring and rebounding has followed a somewhat desultory path, but (if we take a 3-year moving average) seems to have risen or stayed steady since James came aboard. His field goal percentage has also risen since his early seasons, suggesting that James's presence allows Ilgauskas to shoot 'em from apposite places for his skill set (under the basket or 20 feet away). On this point, I would concede that James's presence has, in fact, made Big Z better, which is impressive as Ilgauskas has aged from 30 to 35.


Anonymous said...

This post makes the blogger seem really ignorant about basketball and the NBA

Bhel Atlantic said...

Dear Anon:
Thank you for your opinion. Would you care to share your disagreement with the points in the post?