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Hoops Lab: The Professor Talks Hoop

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.


LeBron James is the best player in the world

Sometimes we take things for granted. For example, if I'm driving through a stop light, I take for granted that the driver wanting to turn left opposite me at that light knows I have the right away. But then every once in a while someone will try to whip through the light in front of me, and I have to jam on the breaks. And I'm reminded that in this life you can't take anything for granted.

Here's another thing I take for granted, but that seems to go over the heads of some people out there: LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. He has been for a while now. To me, that really shouldn't be up for much debate.

And yet, every time someone hands Skip Bayless a microphone he can't wait to blast James. OK, you're right, it's Skip Bayless, but it's not like he's the only one. After last year's playoffs people were falling all over themselves to declare LeBron a fraud. From NBA legends like Magic Johnson on down, the narrative was revived and stamped into cement that LeBron is unclutch and can't handle the big stage. It has become such a part of the standard coverage of James that if he passes up a shot to win AN EXHIBITION GAME he is excoriated, with shouts of "choker!" and "passive!" raining down from the peanut gallery. It's gotten bad enough that my stepfather called me up on Sunday after the All-Star Game to weigh in on another James choke. I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that is the first time he has ever called me on the phone ever. It's just bananas how much of a microscope James is under.

And the problem with looking at everything through a microscope is so many of us have missed the obvious big picture: once again, LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. I mean seriously in a "this isn't really that close" kind of way, LeBron is clearly the best basketball player in the world. I'd like to take for granted that we all would realize that by now, but instead I guess I need to actually make a case.

So, let's start with the box score stats. If you go over to basketball-reference.com, you'll find that James has led the league in PER (which overemphasizes volume scorers) for four straight years, and is leading the league again this season. James has also led the league three straight years in Win Shares (which overemphasizes efficient players), and is leading the league again this season. Then, if you go over to wagesofwins.com you'll find James has the most Wins Produced (which overemphasizes rebounds and assists) in the NBA over the last four seasons. You get the idea. If one judges by the box scores, pretty much no matter how you do it, LeBron James measures out as clearly and distinctly the best player in the world for the last several years. But I'm the first to point out that there is a lot more to basketball than the box score. I'm most impressed with a player's impact on his team's winning. And these days, you can calculate that without looking at the box scores at all. So, what does adjusted plus-minus say about James?

Unsurprisingly, LeBron has been the most impactful player in the NBA over the last four years by a pretty significant margin. How significant? In this 2008 2011 4-year APM study, James' score was +10.2, then the second through sixth best players (Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul) all were between +7.8 and +7.3. There was James, then a chasm, then everyone else in the NBA in a cluster. No other player was more than two full points ahead of the next person on the list. Said another way, the gap between James and the 2nd best player in terms of impact was bigger than the gap between the 10th best player and the 50th.

"But Prof", you might say, "you're just looking at the big picture. What about the end of games, where LeBron becomes LeChoke?" I'm SO glad you asked me that, because the funny thing about basketball these days is that there are a ton of nerds like me keeping track of every aspect of the game we can think of. Including how a player performs late in close games. And wouldn't you know, that LeBron kid seems to do pretty well in crunch time as well. How well? Let's use 82games.com to compare LeBron's clutch performances (defined as last 5 minutes of game/OT, game within 5 points) with Kobe Bryant's over the past four years. Averaging their per-48 minute stats, we get:

LeBron: 55.8 points/48 min, 48.9% FG
Kobe: 52.4 points/48 min, 43.8% FG

Kobe is almost universally known as the most clutch player in the NBA. And LeBron doesn't just beat him in late game situations in both scoring volume and scoring efficiency, he also beats him handily in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. On the whole, LeBron BLISTERS Kobe's performance in late-game, close situations. Late in games, James is one of the most dangerous weapons the NBA has seen with his combination of size, speed, explosiveness, and streaky shooting range. He can (and does) do everything at the time of the game when anything could be needed.

"But Prof", you might say again, "everything you just said was the regular season. What about the playoffs, where King James becomes a peasant?" Man, another GREAT question. Because it was definitely James' down series against the Mavericks in last year's playoffs that got everyone's tongue wagging. Was that an indication that James just stinks it up in the playoffs?

In a word: no.

All of the stat trends that I mentioned before hold up in the playoffs as well. LeBron is currently second in NBA history in postseason PER (trailing only Michael Jordan) and he's third in history in Win Shares/48 minutes (trailing Jordan and George Mikan). This includes a record-setting 2009 postseason, where James posted the highest single-season win shares/48 min and 2nd highest PER in NBA history. And while postseason runs aren't generally long enough for accurate single-season APM measures, we can still look at raw on-court/off-court +/- over the last several postseasons and see a definite trend. The reigning king of perception when it comes to clutch and postseason success is again Bryant. Bryant's best postseason on/off +/- is +13.4 in 2009. James has bested that mark three times in the past five years with a peak of +31.1 in 2008. If you look at the usual suspects among superstars over the last five years, James' composite +13 on/off score is right there with Dirk Nowitzki (+13.7) and Kevin Garnett (+12.5) at the top of the league, ahead of Chris Paul (+12.0), Pau Gasol (+9.6) and Bryant (+9.3). And while these days many point to James' poor Finals from a year ago, you don't hear too many talk about him leading the '07 Cavs to the Finals by scoring 48 points with nine boards and seven assists (including the last 25 Cavaliers points) in a double-overtime victory over the Pistons. You can't just remember the bad and forget the good - especially when the good for LeBron James drastically, dramatically outweighs the bad.

So LeBron James has been the best regular season player by a long shot for the last several years. He's been the best postseason performer. He's been one of the best crunch time options as well. Michael Jordan had a commercial where he once described how many game-winning shots he had MISSED in his career. And while Kobe has made some memorable ones, he has missed a lot more than James ever has. I think it's about time we start appreciating James' full body of work, instead of looking for every excuse to tear down one of the best players the game has seen.

Around the League

Howard watch: Now that the All-Star weekend has passed, all eyes turn to what the Magic will do with Dwight Howard. With Orlando hosting the break it was unlikely it would move its franchise guy before-hand, but now it faces the reality of having two weeks to move him before the trade deadline and the strong possibility of losing him for nothing in the offseason. Plus, as of March 1, teams are allowed to trade players that they signed as free agents this past offseason which should make trades a bit easier to facilitate. As such, expect the Howard rumors to be flying hot and heavy for the next two weeks. The Lakers, Nets and Mavs are the teams that I hear most often mentioned as destinations for Howard, but there could be others as well. Depending on the trade package, I actually think a trade to the Lakers or Mavs could hurt Howard's fantasy stats as he'd have to adjust his offense to fit other superstars instead of having the system built around him the way it is in Orlando (or would be in New Jersey). Howard owners should keep a close eye on this one - actually, I might even advocate trading him now if you can get value for him because I see more situations where his numbers would likely suffer than cases where he could potentially get better.

Silly (trade) season: While Howard is the biggest name on the trade blocks, he is by no means alone in the rumor mills. Pau Gasol is another name bandied around often, as in the last few days I've seen rumors sending him to Orlando for Howard, to Houston for a combo of Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, to the Timberwolves, or to Boston for Rajon Rondo. And speaking of Rondo, the latest rumors have the Celtics "aggressively" shopping him to other teams. Lamar Odom has left the Mavericks for personal reasons, and I've heard everything from he's going to retire to he's going to be traded to he's going to be bought out and sign with the Nets. And Michael Beasley is another talented forward that has been rumored to go to every team from the West (Lakers) to the East (Celtics) coasts.

The point is, there are way more rumors flying around than we can hope to account for and 99 percent of them won't happen. You can't run your fantasy team based off the wild rumors that always pop up right before the trade deadline, outside of cases like Howard (or last year Carmelo Anthony) where the odds of a trade are pretty high. That said, my best advice is to stay locked in so that when you hear about an ACTUAL move happening you can be ready to pull the trigger on potential free agent pick-ups or (if you're lucky) trades before your opposition has fully caught up with the ramifications. Other than that, just enjoy the silly season and hope that your favorite team makes the best moves.

Bryant channeling inner Rip Hamilton: Kobe Bryant (nose/concussion) had to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton on Wednesday after Dwyane Wade inadvertently broke his face in the All Star game. There had been questions about whether he would play on Wednesday, but he was cleared to play and had one of his best games in weeks with 31 points on great shooting with eight assists and seven boards in a blowout win over the Timberwolves. Bryant has always been one to take adversity as a personal challenge to succeed, so perhaps his injury will actually be a good thing for his owners.

Curry's foot: All season we've been worried about Stephen Curry's tendency to re-re-re-sprain his ankle, but now the issue has spread to include his foot. Curry has sprained a tendon in his right foot that has him day-to-day, including a 3-second decoy appearance on Wednesday night. More worrisome, though, is how the foot issue might connect with his problematic ankle. As Jeff Stotts wrote in his Injury Analysis column, the tendon that Curry strained "aids in ankle stability so a weakened muscle would only further compromise his already fragile ankle". Production-wise Curry is one of my favorite players out there, but with his injury history I just would not be able to rest easy with him on my team.

Nowitzki's aching back: Dirk Nowitzki "felt something in warm-ups" in his back Wednesday night, and was only able to manage one point in 10 minutes of play before being pulled due to back stiffness. He will be re-evaluated before Friday's game, but this is just another example of Nowitzki struggling in this Lockout season. Nowitzki was finally putting together a string of Nowitzki-like games before this latest setback, and the injury doesn't sound major, but back issues are always something to watch - especially in an older 7-footer.

Millsap's heel: Paul Millsap injured his heel on Tuesday and was unable to play on Wednesday. The extent of his injury is not yet known. Millsap was replaced in the starting line-up by Derrick Favors, who produced a decent 6-point/7-rebound/3-assist/2-steal stat line in 29 minutes of action. Favors will only be worthy of added attention, though, if Millsap's injury keeps him out for an extended period.

Lopez's big return: Brook Lopez made his season debut last week after missing the first two months of the season with a foot injury, but on Tuesday he announced he was all the way back with a 38-point explosion against the Mavs. Lopez's injury should still be monitored because foot injuries like that have been known to linger in big men, but Lopez is being showcased right now as potential trade bait and with Deron Williams funneling him the ball he could have strong short-term value.

Sell high on Parker? Tony Parker has been having a huge season for the Spurs, even getting a bit of MVP buzz on the national shows. At age 29, Parker is the only primary Spurs player that is still in his athletic prime, and that seems to have translated to him handling the Lockout better. That said, Manu Ginobili should be returning to the court soon and Spurs coach Greg Popovic has already shown that he will sit Parker on occasion for added rest. Parker is ranked No. 24 overall by Yahoo! in the last month, and if you can get anywhere near that value for him in a trade it might be a good time to sell high on Parker.

Ariza and Batum surging: Two players that made solid leaps up the Rotowire NBA Cheat Sheet this week were Nicolas Batum and Trevor Ariza. Both Batum and Ariza have really surged in the last few weeks, and it's their ability to contribute to the trifecta of 3-pointers, steals and blocks that make them such unique and valuable roto producers.

New Additions

JR Smith (52% owned in Yahoo! Leagues): In his first five games with the Knicks, while working out the kinks and settling in, Smith has averaged almost 11 points and more than one trey in about 26 minutes off the bench. But in his last five years in Denver, Smith averaged more than two made treys per game and averaged almost 14 points. The Knicks offense is faster and more 3-point oriented than the Nuggets were, so once Smith settles in I expect those points and treys to creep up over his career averages.

Devin Harris (51% owned): Harris has had an extremely down season this year, but even so he should be owned in more than half of leagues. He has picked up his production of late, ranking No. 30 by average over the last two weeks according to Yahoo and topping that off with a 19-point effort on Wednesday.

Jordan Crawford (46% owned): Crawford has been on fire of late, averaging 22 points (54% FG, 91% FT) with 3.6 boards, 3.0 assists, and 2.2 treys over the last two weeks. He has beaten out Nick Young of late for starter's minutes, and while he is still in a battle for playing time Crawford's likely here to stay on this Wizards team.

Rodrigue Beaubois (8% owned): Beaubois has shown flashes over the course of his career, and this season he was showing more before a death in his family caused him to sit out a good chunk of February. Now he is back and playing well, and with Dirk Nowitzki hurt on Wednesday it was Beaubois who picked up the scoring slack to the tune of 16 points in 38 minutes played.

Best Players in NBA history: Shaquille O'Neal

In this section of the Lab I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments - in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week's player is Shaquille O'Neal, the self-proclaimed (and for good reason) MDE: "Most Dominant Ever). But some would also argue that MDE could stand for "Most Disappointing Ever", as some say he didn't reach his full potential.

To read my take on O'Neal's career and weigh in with your opinions, be sure to check out this week's blog.

Keeping up with the Professor

If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.

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