To beat Boston, James should look to pass

Sunday’s marquee meeting between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will likely decide who holds home court advantage for an all but inevitable meeting in the second round of the playoffs. In their last regular season contest, as in the playoffs, the battle between the Celtics veteran defense and Miami’s dynamic, but unpredictable offense will be the most fascinating match-up.

We’ve seen that the Heat are exceptionally difficult to cover when they work together.  However this year they’ve been inconsistent in this regard, ranking 28th in the NBA in assist rate. The Celtics on the other hand have one of the lowest assist rates against – not all that surprising when you consider how they inhabit passing lanes to encourage isolation-heavy offense. That’s not good news for Miami, because when they have managed to distribute the basketball, the Heat have been nearly unbeatable, going 31-3 in games where they accumulate more assists than their opponent.

The reverse has been true when the Heat have fewer assists than the opposition. In those contests their record is 19-21. Not surprisingly, a key variable in these games has been LeBron James, who averages 7.5 assists per game when the Heat “out pass” their opponents but only 6.0 when the opposite is the case. This 20% decrease is almost identical to Miami’s overall drop of 18% in these games, illustrating how closely Miami’s offensive performance is tied to Lebron’s.

LeBron's doing this less in Miami

When James joined the Heat this summer one of the more common predictions was that his new role in South Beach would closely resemble Magic Johnson’s with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s – not surprising given the number of comparisons made between these two since James first made national headlines as a high school prodigy.

But while the Heat have been successful, the reality is that James  – despite often being the top play-maker on the floor – is actually utilizing his presumably more talented teammates in Miami less than he did in Cleveland.

This doesn’t seem to be a direct effect of play calling. Based on data from Synergy Sports Technology, James is isolating with the basketball just 22% of the time this season compared to 31% in his final season with the Cavaliers. He’s also running more pick and roll sets with Miami. The difference is what he is doing out of these sets – overall he is looking to score more on his own despite the presence of two other stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

James is posting a five-year low for made field goals assisted by another player, at 32.2% according to HoopData (just for comparison teammate Wade is above 36% and Kobe Bryant over 37%). James has also seen a 4% bump in the number of jumpers he attempts off the dribble and his total possessions resulting from off the ball movement and cuts has nearly been cut in half from a year ago.

These numbers are probably influenced by the opposing defenses’ inability to focus solely on James as they did in Cleveland, so he is forced to kick out less. Also, unlike the Miami the Cleveland offense was generally predicated on creating a switch for LeBron, then letting him isolate to exploit the mismatch and create shots for himself and others.

This season, James is capitalizing on his scoring opportunities, converting 51% of his field goals—the best percentage of his career. And the Heat’s offense, though inconsistent, has been the league’s 4th most efficient this season.

Still, one wonders if is this change worth the impact it’s had on James as a facilitator. His 26.8 assist rate is down from 30.6 last year, and whether he’s simply taking what the defense gives him or responding to a new offensive system, LeBron isn’t passing the basketball at the same rate in certain scenarios as he has in the past.

Synergy tracks how often players pass the ball when drawing defenders in three different play types: isolations, pick and roll and post-ups. In his final year with the Cavs, James would draw and kick a total of 25.6% of the time in these three play-types, a number that has dropped to 23.7% this year. That may seem like an insignificant margin, but consider that James had drawn and kicked 88 more times last year through 75 games than he has this year.

James is also passing less frequently out of isolation settings than he was in Cleveland, despite the fact that his Miami teammates shoot over 53% in these scenarios compared to only 45% for the Cavaliers. In Cleveland, LeBron had a 1.21 pass to shot attempt ratio out of pick and roll sets, a ratio that has dropped to .97 with the Heat. In the most basic terms, he no longer passes more than he shoots when operating out of pick and rolls.

So what is the ultimate impact on his team when LeBron chooses to take over himself? Using the simple rational – outlined earlier – more assists than their opponent equals a Heat win.  When James opts to take over in the same manner that Kobe Bryant often does for the Lakers, Miami tends to suffer (LeBron attempts nearly 3 more shots per game in losses this season). The effect may be cyclical: James overshooting can lead to Heat losses, but games in which the Heat are losing seem to inspire James to shoot more.

It’s something of a catch-22 for the two-time defending MVP: better teammates would suggest that he should pass more frequently, but is also means defenses can no longer key in solely on him which leads to more favorable scoring situations. James is having his best shooting season ever and one of his most efficient overall – but is it costing his team?

Twitter: @JoeyWhelan

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