When LeBron James Chooses Stats Over Team

The above picture shows LeBron James collecting a rebound with 2.7 seconds to go in the first quarter of Thursday night’s Heat-Mavs game. After James secured the rock, he jogged his dribble towards the halfcourt line, never bothering to try a buzzer beater heave. LeBron wore an expression of utter disinterest as the arena’s blaring alarm and flashing red lights argued with James’ languid face.

This is a familiar sight to those familiar with the Miami Heat. When LeBron James is presented with the chance at a long buzzer beater, he errs towards protecting his field goal percentage. This is another way of saying that LeBron James chooses to marginally hurt his team for the sake of his long term statistics.

He’s far from the only one. While I ironically do not possess statistics on this statistics vanity, it does seem as though buzzer clutching is at peak levels. What does that mean? Do modern superstars indulge in a selfishness that might turn Bill Russell’s beard into an even grayer shade of gray?

Actually, I would argue that this buzzer clutching is indicative of a positive development, a development not so divorced from John Hollinger’s Memphis Grizzlies hire. “Yay points!” used to be the ruling NBA ethos, with little concern as to how well-known players compiled their point totals. In a less informed era, scoring leaders were lauded, considered better than their peers, even if the points came on shoddy shooting. This past decade of increasing analytics-savvy is different.

The percentages matter a lot, and they gain a new life when plugged into popular catch-all statistics like PER, Win Shares, and Wins Produced. If you’re hurting your field goal percentage, you’re also dropping multiple other indicators of your value, indicators that will get seen and passed around by fans and NBA executives alike.

So I do not view LeBron’s buzzer clutch as proof that he isn’t a winner or that he is unwilling to sacrifice. I see it as indivisible from his unselfish, smart, process-over-result style of play. LeBron James knows that his true value isn’t conveyed in raw point totals; It’s conveyed in efficiency. He wants you to know that, and two or three halfcourt makes per season isn’t worth clouding the message.

In a mico sense, the buzzer clutch is the result of bad incentives. By statistically punishing a risk-neutral attempt at an exciting long shot, the league compels players to go a boring, team-hurting route. In the macro sense, the ever-popular buzzer clutch reveals that players are responding to good incentives. These guys are aware of how their value gets considered, and efficiency vanity speaks to a want towards producing in a way that helps a team. LeBron isn’t a loser. He reveals winner-qualities in hewing his game to the stats that win. The buzzer circumstance just represents a strange, fairly unimportant glitch where efficiency is at odds with “efficiency.”

The next step is on us. These buzzer heaves should only count if they go in, or not be counted at all. We learn nothing from incorporating a risk-free miss on a near-impossible shot as though it’s the same as shanking a wide open corner three. Now that the players have caught up to efficiency metrics, it’s time to make the metrics more efficient.

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