LeBron James Cleveland CavaliersProfessional basketball is a game that is driven by its superstars. Even though there are many popular players, there is always one that rises above the rest. One man whose face and name dictate the way the league is viewed by the masses. It started with Jordan. As the game became more popular and found its way on to more TV sets, he became the face of the league. Who can forget when he approached Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, “I want to thank you guys for everything you’ve done, but just so you know, there’s a new sheriff in town.” As his career wound down, he passed the torch to Kobe. The face of the league and one of the most famous sports teams the world has ever seen, Kobe stood tall in LA. The Lakers have a proud history and he planned on exceeding all expectations. He was not only the most dominant player on the court, he showed you could do it without ever stepping foot on a college basketball court. But as great as he has been, all good things must eventually come to an end. As his reign ends, another began. LeBron James has known that his entire life was moving towards him being the best basketball player in the world, so when his time came, it all seemed like business as usual. Cleveland turned to Miami and Miami turned into a title. But, as one year turned into the next, we can see that Northeastern Ohio’s chosen son has made his way home. King James has brought his talents back to Cleveland. Long live the King.

It’s been a long and tumultuous road in Cleveland. Last season the finished 33-49, and the year before that they only won 24 games. There is no denying that James is the consensus best player in the NBA right now, but just what can he do for Cleveland? There are so many unanswered questions. Will he show up and continue to get great individual numbers but only make the team marginally better? Can we expect a series of playoff appearances but ultimately falling short of a title? Or will he come in and be the missing piece that makes all the other pieces better? As Phil Jackson once said, “Good teams become great teams when the members trust each other enough to sacrifice the Me for the We.”

Looking at a traditional box score will tell us little of what LeBron can really bring to Cleveland. He’ll score more points and get more rebounds than the guy he replaces, but that only tells a fraction of the story. What about the leadership he brings, the toughness on the defensive end, the opportunities his presence creates for the other players? Those ‘stats’ don’t make it into a traditional box score, but good luck winning a title without them. A truly great player makes the others around him better, he is the catalyst that makes the whole better than the sum of its parts.

Offensive Production

When trying to measure the overall value of an individual player we have a couple different options. The regular stats, the ones you see in the paper; PPG, Reb and FT% measure a players performance in one area, but even those can be misleading. For example, just because a player scores more doesn’t make him better. Taking more shots does not necessarily help your team. Taking and making more does. For that we developed a new statistic, Offensive Efficiency.

OE = (FG + A) / (FGA – ORB + A + TO)

Basketball is only cumulative over the course of 48 minutes, not a lifetime, efficiency counts. But even that only tells part of the story. We can also use something similar to the Simple Rating on 82games.com. There they use a single number to measure a players stats vs his counterpart on the other team while he is on the court. LeBron was the leader last year with a rating of 18.6. Second place was Kevin Durant at 15.8.

Defensive Prowess

But even those stats, advanced as they are, only tell us about his offense. Scoring points is great for selling tickets, but anyone who knows the game will tell you that defense wins championships. How do we measure that? The old stats of Reb, Steals and Blocks aren’t enough.

One of the difficulties with defensive stats is they are much harder to attribute to an individual than offensive stats. So we have to take a more top down approach, evaluating the defense of the team, and then attempt to isolate the value of LeBron from within that framework.

We can start with something like Defensive Efficiency for the team. But the problem is the other four guys on the court with James changes. If he was the only guy who came on or off the court it would be pretty easy to measure his production, but since the lineup is fluid, it becomes a little more difficult. In short, a player can get a boost in his stats from playing on a good team and vice versa for a player whose team is in the cellar. However, through a little statistical magic we are able to get more of a clear picture.

One way to start is to look for production relative to the team in the players absence. For the 2012-2013 season Lebron James’s stats are:

EFG % (Net) = -.08    ORB % (Net) = -1.2   TO % (Net) = 2

So when LeBron was on the court his opponents have an EFG% of .8% lower. You would then do this for every player on the team and arrive at their ‘base’ number. Then you figure out individual stats based on different 5-man lineups and from there you can begin to see much each individual brings to the table.

Once we have that information we can go even one step further and determine what that players contribution is in Defensive Stops Gained. DSG is one number that measures a players defensive production. DSG is the easiest way to think of defensive abilities overall because the ultimate goal of a defense is to stop the opposing teams possession with no points scored. DSG gives us the number of defensive stops gained for a player relative to the rest of his team.  Running all the numbers shows LeBron had 186 DSG in the 2012 – 2013 season. 4th on the list that year.

LeBron; The Euro Version?

As much as we know about LeBron, and hundreds of hours of SportVUE technology tell us a lot, there is one question that all the advanced stats in the world can’t answer. How is he going to play with his new coach? Astute insiders have noted that the current coach of the Cavaliers is Dave Blatt. He was a point guard for Princeton playing for coach Pete Carril and later went on to a variety of experiences  as a Euroleague player and coach in Israel, Russia and many points in between. Blatt’s style is decidedly European.

“Will LeBron be able to play in a European system?”

That’s the fascinating question asked by Tim Cone, who has won 18 championships in the highly competitive Philippines Basketball Association while running the triangle offense. Cone, an astute student of the game, and one of the most sophisticated coaches, will have his eyes on LeBron trying to judge his adaptability.

“There is a lot of player movement in European basketball. It’ll be interesting to see if LeBron will spend that much energy and time moving without the ball. It can be really tiring,” Cone said.  “Will he move without the ball the way Manu Ginobili does in San Antonio?” Only time will tell.

In the NBA, more and more over the years, teams come down the floor and send the ball to their best player. Then they rely on him to break down opposing defenses and get a shot for himself or one of his teammates. System basketball is the exact opposite of that. But for all the doubters out there, who think that a European style system has no place in the mecca of basketball, the NBA, I mention the Bulls, Lakers and Spurs. Under Phil Jackson the Bulls and Lakers won 11 championships. Every team was running the triangle offense. Both those teams had the all-time great players Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. There is also the Spurs under Gregg Poppovich. James is well acquainted with what their ‘system’ style of play can do; they just defeated him in June to win the NBA trophy.

If we can use the offseason as any indicator it looks like LeBron is willing to accept the style change with no hesitation. He came into the preseason 10 pounds lighter, almost as if he plans on doing a lot more running without the ball.

Better Off With than Without

No matter what stats we look at LeBron is going to be one of the top players in the league. It comes as no surprise that he leads both individually and according to team stats as well. The man is a complete player who takes pride in his game. I’d even be willing to bet if you took his individual stats and gave them a per dollar measurement based on his salary, he would still be a leader in the league. Meaning, not only is he the best, he’s not overpaid! However, once we bring money into the equation, things change even more. Then not only does LeBron give you what you pay for on the court, he brings even more off of it.

Just having LeBron James on your team generates more revenue. More ticket sales, more jersey sales, concessions at the game, increased revenue from televised games etc. What LeBron brings to a franchise in terms of name and brand appeal goes without measure. And as if that isn’t enough, James is now the face of the McDonalds Monopoly game…right in time for the start of the NBA season.

It comes as no surprise that LeBron contributes to your team in every way. He’s not an offensive wizard who happens to be a defensive liability and he’s not a hired gun who plays the game at a high level but he’s a cancer in the locker room. No matter what stats we use to gain a more clear picture of his contribution he stands out as the best. The stats say to go with him. Fans and teammates love him too. I guess the numbers don’t lie.