Heat

NBA Analysis: "LeBron Story" Nobody is Talking About

| by David Berri

The big story in the NBA this season has been the Miami Heat. The expectation was that this team would dominate.  But after 18 games, the Heat’s record stands at 10-8. So the Heat have currently underwhelmed. 

The Miami Heat Index – one of the blogs in The Wages of Wins network – is doing a wonderful job of covering the problems in Miami.  For example, the post from last Saturday went to great lengths to detail the many problems facing this team.

One of these problems is the play of LeBron James. By my calculation, LeBron posted a 0.441 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] and produced 27.2 wins last season. This season LeBron is still very good. But after 18 games, King James is only on pace to produce 15.2 wins (a mark that still leads the Heat) and is posting a 0.236 WP48. The difference between what LeBron did in 2009-10 and what he is doing this year does much to explain the problems in Miami.

Once again, the Miami Heat Index has this story covered. But I bring it up because I want to note that something similar is happening elsewhere. Yes, there is another team that is substantially underperforming expectations. And much of this team’s decline can be tied to a drop-off in the productivity of the team’s star small forward.

What team am I talking about? Obviously I am referring to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Okay, maybe this isn’t so obvious. The Thunder currently have a 12-6 record. And the team’s star small forward – Kevin Durant – leads the NBA in scoring. So how can this situation be similar to what we are seeing in Miami?

Well, let’s start with the Thunder’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). After 18 games, the Thunder’s mark is 0.2. Such a differential is consistent with a team that will win about 42 games across an 82 game schedule. Last season the Thunder’s differential was 3.6, which is consistent with a team that wins about 50 games (the team actually won 50 games). So when we consider efficiency differential, the Thunder have declined by about eight wins.

This decline, though, hasn’t been noticed by many yet. This is because although the Thunder’s current differential is consistent with a team that would win nine of their first 18 games, the Thunder have actually won 12 games. In contrast, the Heat’s problems have been magnified because the Heat have only won 10 out of 18 games; when their differential suggests this team should have won around 12 or 13 games. 

The Thunder’s “decline” though appears to be real. And when we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced, we can see the source of this problem.

The above table reveals that the Thunder are currently being led in Wins Produced by Russell Westbrook, a player John Hollinger thinks should be considered for MVP in 2011 (insider access required).  Although Westbrook has been good, there are few players who have done more in the NBA (Chris Paul is one name that obviously leaps to mind). None of those players, though, are on the Thunder.

Last season the Thunder were led by Kevin Durant. Durantula, though, has decline with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, steals, and free throw attempts. He is also offering more turnovers.  As a consequence, Durant’s WP48 has declined from 0.292 last season to only 0.102 after 18 games this season.  In other words, Durant has transformed from a superstar to a player who is essentially average (average WP48 is 0.100). As a result, Durant is on pace to offer 11.1 wins fewer than he produced in 2009-10.  

Although Durant has clearly decline, this drop-off has been mostly unnoticed (well, Hollinger noticed the decline in shooting efficiency in the same column declaring Westbrook an MVP candidate).  Certainly the volumes written on LeBron and the Heat dwarf what has been said about Durant and the Thunder. And I think that difference is at least partially driven by

  • Thunder’s relative good luck (i.e. a won-loss record that exceeds what the team’s differential suggests).
  • the fact Durant leads the NBA in scoring.

If Durant doesn’t return to form, though, eventually the losses on this team will happen with more frequency. And then – scoring title or not – the high hopes fans of this team has at the start of this season will be dashed. Of course, if Durant does return to form…well, then we will probably never hear much about this story (except briefly in this forum).

Just noting a change in performance is often not good enough for many people. What people demand is an explanation. So let me close with my explanation for why Kevin Durant and LeBron have both declined. 

LeBron entered the league in 2003 when Durant was 15 years old. I suspect — given this age when LeBron became a star — that Durant was a fan of King James.  In fact, I think he is such a fan that he cannot imagine offering a greater level of production than his hero. So when Durant observed LeBron struggling, he deliberately began making mistakes (in fact, Hollinger noted the air balls Durant has recently launched). 

And I think LeBron has noticed this, and this is why he is offering less. Yes, this is like the seen in the King and I (am I dating myself with this reference?) where the king kept lowering his head to see how far others would lower their heads.  LeBron demands that Durant offer less. And LeBron keeps offering less himself to see how far Durant will obey the natural order of the universe.

Okay, that’s a pretty silly explanation. I will note, though, that this story is no more silly than the convoluted explanations I have seen across the past few years for why Allen Iverson had a low-level of shooting efficiency and Eddy Curry was not very good at grabbing rebounds (my explanation…Iverson can’t shoot and Curry can’t rebound).  But if you have an even sillier explanation for any of this, please feel free to post it in the comments J

- DJ

P.S. Forgot to mention one explanation for Durant’s decline… sometimes over small samples of games a player’s performance can deviate from his long-run average. In other words, random stuff happens.  There might be another explanation. But the “random stuff happens” is sometimes the best explanation and should be considered before the “convoluted explanations” are tossed out there.