What to Expect from LeBron in the Finals

What might we expect from LeBron James in his NBA Finals rematch against the Golden State Warriors? On ESPN for the last couple of days I’ve noticed them really pushing Andre’ Iguodala as a “LeBron stopper” that slowed him during last season’s Finals, and that thus may slow him again this season. However, a closer look at LeBron’s production in those Finals suggests that while Iguodala may have done the best job among the Warriors, he really didn’t slow him any more than the other playoffs opponents.

Plus, this year’s Finals shapes up very differently than last year’s. The Cavaliers have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy this season, which makes them a much different offense. Plus, the Cavs are stylistically playing offense differently than they did even in the regular season with more small-ball and 3-point shooting. And, as usual, LeBron is at the exact center of everything that the Cavs do, so how he performs in the Finals will go a long way towards determining the final outcome.

So, what should we expect from LeBron in the 2016 Finals?

There are two ways to look at it. One way is that while the Warriors may not have a “LeBron Stopper” they may, in the words of Jason Rubin, have a LeBron Speed Bump. In the 2015 Finals LeBron did struggle with his scoring efficiency while Iguodala was on the court, with a paltry 47% true shooting percentage. I argued in the Nylon Calculus link above that Iguodala didn’t slow LeBron any more in those Finals than his other 2015 playoff opponents did, and that therefore he wasn’t dominating him defensively the way the narrative might suggest. However, @BrianLewis709 had a reasonable counter for me on Twitter, that LeBron’s other 2015 playoff opponents also had very good wing defenders in Jae Crowder, DeMarre Carroll and Jimmy Butler and thus that Iguodala holding him to the same level was an indication that Iggy was making a huge difference defensively.

That’s actually a defendable point. Especially when you factor in that in two regular season games against the Warriors this year, LeBron still managed only 20.5 points on 40.5% field goal percentage. Also, in the Warriors’ recent series against another dominant offensive small forward in Kevin Durant, they held him to only 53.7% true shooting after he had lit up the previously dominant Spurs defense for 60.2% true shooting just a round before. With Draymond Green helping out in addition to Iguodala, the Warriors do have some plus defenders that could make life difficult on LeBron.

However, there is also the opposing view-point that it wasn’t the defenses that slowed LeBron in the 2015 playoffs but instead the circumstances tripped him up. With Irving and Love both injured last season, the Cavaliers’ offense bogged down with a lack of talent around LeBron. Defenses were able to focus on him in entirety, which damaged his efficiency but not his volume. Also, because the Warriors in particular had such a high-powered offense, it behooved the Cavs to slow down and dirty up the game which helped contribute to LeBron’s low percentages while still giving the Cavs the best chance to remain competitive. I tend to agree more with this second point of view, which would suggest that LeBron’s performance in these Finals is less dependent upon the Warriors’ defense and more dependent upon his own approach. So, let’s look at what LeBron is doing differently in these playoffs than he did in 2015.

For one thing, LeBron’s minutes load has been down thus far in 2016 compared to 2015. In 2015 he had to play iron man minutes, 42.2 mpg, in large part because there wasn’t enough supporting talent for him to get much rest. In 2016 he’s playing more than four fewer minutes, down to a career-low pace of 37.9 mpg, that has allowed him to remain fresher. I believe it was Kenny Smith from TNT that pointed out just how high LeBron has been able to get on some of his postseason dunks, higher than expected from a now 30-something with so much mileage on the odometer. But the Cavs swept their first two series which has allowed for plenty of days off, and with healthier teammates LeBron has been able to sit more even during games than he ever has been able to in his career.

Another big difference is that in this year’s playoffs, LeBron has not been settling for jumpers but has instead been taking it to the rim. A LOT. According to his entry at basketball-reference.com, LeBron has taken almost half of his shots (48.6% of them, to be exact) within three feeet of the rim and he’s finishing those shots at a 74.6% clip. That would represent by FAR a career high percentage of close shots for James (his previous best was 38.1% of his shots from close back in 2006), and a sea-change difference from 2015 when he took only 30.3% of his shots from within three feet of the rim. Part of this is due to improved shot selection, but a lot of it is due to talented teammates that space the floor and prevent defenses from loading up on James the way that they used to. Qualitatively speaking, while the Warriors did a great job on Durant overall in the last round it certainly seemed to me that he enjoyed much more success when he went to the rim. A lot of his difficulties came from settling for contested long-range jumpers (he shot only 28.6% on 6.0 trey attempts per game). So if LeBron continues to attack the paint, it would seem that he should find success against the Warriors.

This dovetails in with the third major difference from a year ago: this time LeBron doesn’t have to create everything himself. While only 22.3% of LeBron’s 2-point shots were assisted in 2015, in 2016 a whopping 48.3% of his 2-pointers come off assists from teammates. Similarly, last year 48% of LeBron’s treys were assisted while 68.4% of them are off of assists in 2016. Not coincidentally, LeBron’s 2-point field goal percentage has increased from 46.5% to 61.5% and his 3-point field goal percentage is is up from 22.7% to 32.2%.

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Bottom line: the Warriors have two strong defenders in Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green that have proven that they can make life difficult for over-sized superstar small forwards, especially when they try to create a lot off the dribble and are willing to settle for jump shots. However, this season LeBron no longer has to force the action the way that he did in 2015, and I think that this will be the more important factor in determining his Finals production as opposed to Golden State’s defense. I look for LeBron to be a monster in these Finals, which will help make the Cavaliers a lot more competitive in the 2016 Finals than they were in 2015.