Has LeBron James Lost a Step in His Return to the Cavs? History Says It’s Likely

LeBron James was going home eventually. Most everyone around the NBA expected him to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point before his career ended; after all, he’d never fully severed ties with the area and being viewed as a traitor where he grew up didn’t seem like something James wanted to face for the rest of his life. However much his skin thickened from the fallout of leaving, being loved by those who came up as he did still clearly matters to LeBron.

The only question was whether or not he’d come back while he was still at the height of his powers, or at least with a ready enough reserve to drive the franchise to a championship. That’s why, when he decided last summer to return, the howl of joy from northern Ohio was so unbridled. LeBron James wasn’t coming home as a battle-scarred veteran of skirmishes waged elsewhere—he was coming home as a warrior in his prime, ready to singlehandedly, if need be, deliver the chalice for which Clevelanders have thirsted for so long.

Or did he?

By the calendar, James, at 30, should have at least three solid seasons left to ply his do-everything talents. Michael Jordan, the measuring stick for every modern-day championship-contending superstar, played three more full seasons and won three more rings after the age of 30. Why couldn’t James duplicate that feat or even go beyond it? His listed height and weight (6’8″, 250 pounds) suggests he’s merely added 10 pounds since his rookie year and one before-and-after comparison will tell you how far from reality that is; but by any measure he has several inches and pounds on Jordan (last listed as 6’6″ and 216) and big men are generally able to squeeze out a few more quality years.

NBA teams, though, know better than to base where a player is in his career on his age; seasons and minutes played are a far better barometer. Looking at that metric, James didn’t return to Cleveland at the point Jordan began his pursuit of a second three-peathe returns with nearly the same mileage Jordan had on him when he retired from the Bulls for good at age 34.

Two teams at the forefront of the analytics movement told B/R they have tried to determine the tipping point at which career minutes played take something irretrievable from an NBA player. Both teams said they’ve yet to find it because there are too many variablesbody composition, style of play, role, concentration of minutes and ratio of regular-season to postseason minutes being only a few. That leaves us merely with anecdotal evidence, not only in terms of when a player realizes the NBA grind has diminished his physical ability for good, but also of the impact of multiple deep playoff runs. Every player will tell you the stress and heightened level of play in the postseason extracts something even greater than regular-season games and that the shortened offseason doubles down on the damage because their bodies have less time to recover.

“It takes a lot out of you that you can’t get back,” says Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who went to two consecutive NBA Finals (2002, ’03) with the New Jersey Nets. “Just the mental grind takes time to recover from. And then if you’re handling the ball 50 percent of the time? Look at every guy who has had to do that and gone to multiple finals in a rowthey’ve all broken down in some way. LeBron is the only one I can think of who hasn’t.”

Kidd turned 29 a few months before the 2003 Finals. Minutes played, regular season and playoffs combined at that point: 29,085.

A year later, he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee. One of the most explosive and athletic point guards ever had to transform himself from a one-man fast break into a walk-it-up technician and three-point specialist. He did all that after returning to his original team, the Dallas Mavericks, and eventually earned himself another trip to the Finals and the ring he’d missed out on with the Nets. But where he was the driving force – literally and figuratively – nine years earlier, he was now merely a cog. An invaluable, important cog, but a cog nonetheless.

Mark Jackson is 33rd on the all-time minutes played list with 39,121 plus another 3,776 from the postseason, despite only going to one NBA Finals. He doubts he’d logged any of them if he hadn’t learned early on to do what Kidd did in his return to Dallas.

“I was never a phenomenal athlete,” he said. “It didn’t slow down for me because it was already slow. If I’d had speed I’m not sure I would’ve made [it in] the league because it forced me to understand angles and timing right from the start.”

Even Jackson, though, recognized a change around the 20,000-minute mark. “I played against Allen Iverson his rookie year,” he said. “He shot the gap and steals the ball. There was a time when I could’ve fouled him or at least made him change direction. But I couldn’t even catch him. I realized then the clock was ticking.”

Kidd retired third on the all-time list of regular-season minutes played with 50,111. Microfracture surgery allowed him to extend his career and for a time he still felt he could hold his own athletically, but he believes the 40,000-minute mark was another turning point. He had to rely on his vision, strength and hands to compensate for what his legs no longer could do.

He’s noticed Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, among others, hit the same physical plateau around the same time.

James not only has Kidd beat 4-2 in consecutive Finals reached, and Finals’ appearances overall, 5-3, but the number of postseason minutes logged each time is not close. Kidd crossed the 850-minute playoff threshold once, logging 803, 852 and 744 minutes in his three longest playoff runs. James crossed the 950-minute threshold twice, logging 893, 922, 983, 960 and 763 minutes in his longest runs.

Jordan? He played more than 900 minutes in one postseason just once, in 1992.

His overall minutes in his two three-peats were fairly comparable (2,409 in the second vs. 2,392 in the first) but keep in mind that he played a different role capturing the second trifecta. He still closed games, but facilitating the offense and taking on the toughest defensive assignments fell far more often to his younger sidekick, Scottie Pippen.

Jordan bowed out after 35,887 regular-season minutes and 7,474 posteason minutes played. Three years later, he’d return one last time and add a little over 5,000 minutes to his regular-season total with the Wizards.

James, entering this season, already was closing in on Jordan’s Chicago totals with 33,276 regular-season and 6,717 postseason minutes. Cramps? Yeah, the man has earned the right to cramp up.

It’s actually remarkable that back spasms and leg cramps are the extent of James’ physical issues, considering how much he already has played. Sure, the variables also include a different level of physicality in today’s game vs. Jordan and Jackson and Kidd’s (early) eras. James hasn’t had to endure anywhere near the same body-to-body punishment that any of them did and it’s hard to know exactly how that fits into the equation.

The point? If James looks tired, he has a right to be. If he has lost a step, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. And if he isn’t up to the task of doing all that he did in Miami for the last four years, there’s a very good reason. This might not just be about “the process,” as James likes to say, of learning how to win championships.

This might just be about the price.


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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Memphis Grizzlies: Most Complete Roster in Franchise History

For anyone doubting the 12-2 Memphis Grizzlies, think again. Fresh off crushing Western Conference foes Houston Rockets 119-93 and L.A. Clippers 107-91, the Grizz are feeling good about themselves. In fact, the Grizzlies are 7 points away from being undefeated. It seems as if the only thing that can slow this team down is the flu. Are the Grizzlies just hot? Or is this the real team we should expect for the rest of the season? After a few games, I would have said they were just hot. But 14 games into the season and showing no signs of slowing down leads me to believe this is just the way this team plays. They really are that good.
The Grizzlies recently in action vs the Celtics
What separates this year’s team from previous seasons? Finally, the Grizzlies solved the issues restraining them from breaking through these past few seasons. Primarily, I’m talking about the role players on the wings. The Grizzlies finally have what they need: consistent, efficient shooters. These players are crucial in the

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Kings’ protest is latest in fascinating NBA history

The NBA has had some crazy protested results over the years, though they rarely are upheld.



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Kobe Bryant Poised to Be Least Valuable Scoring Champion in NBA History

Don’t make the mistake of thinking scoring is everything that matters in the NBA.

Sure, teams win by putting up more points than the opposition, but determining value on the basis of points per game alone is a recipe for disaster. Efficiency matters, as does the manner in which the points were accumulated.

There’s a process that typically leads to the ball going in the basket, after all, and it’s quite important to make sure those around you are scoring as well.

Beyond that, defense has to come into play, as it’s literally half the battle—for most good teams, at least.

A player who throws up gaudy scoring figures night in and night out can be valuable, but he doesn’t necessarily have to qualify as such. During the 2014-15 season, Kobe Bryant has essentially been the poster boy for that concept, leading the NBA in scoring but providing little value to the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.

In fact, he’s poised to become the least valuable scoring champion in the history of the Association, assuming his numbers remain steady throughout the year and he doesn’t suddenly change his playing style.

He also actually has to win the scoring title for that to become a reality, as that’s by no means a guarantee.

At this stage of the season, Bryant is 0.4 points per game ahead of Anthony Davis and two clear of LeBron James and the rest of the field. But there’s been no indication that Bryant is going to slow down, so let’s run with this as a terrific example of why scoring can’t be equated with value in every situation.

Thanks to the archives of Basketball-Reference.com, we have data on scoring champions going all the way back to 1952, when Paul Arizin won the title for the Philadelphia Warriors by averaging 25.4 points per game. Since then, only a single winner of the 64 (including Bryant this year), has put up a worse player efficiency rating than the current Lakers 2-guard:

Not exactly a great start for Bryant.

Elvin Hayes is the only scoring champion with a worse score in this category, and that’s a bit misleading. Not only was the San Diego Rocket a rookie when he paced the league in points, but he also didn’t have the luxury of steals and blocks counting in his favor.

Even as a rookie, Hayes was a rim-protecting force, though that doesn’t show up in his numbers here.

The closest comparison to Bryant actually comes from “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who recklessly gunned his way to a scoring title in 1977 while playing hero ball for the sub-.500 New Orleans Jazz.

While the shooting guard still provided his team with some value and contributed in other areas, he played with the same mentality that currently drives Bryant to log so many shots.

PER is by no means a perfect stat, but it does a nice job encapsulating overall value in one number. The league-average mark is always exactly 15, and anything above 20 tends to be a great score.

When a player submits a 30-plus PER, he’s putting together one of the best seasons in NBA historyassuming he’s playing enough minutes to matter and operating in a large role.

Wilt Chamberlain’s 31.8 PER in 1963 remains the gold standard, both for scoring champions and players in general. Of the 64 seasons we’re looking at, 26.5 is the average mark throughout the recorded portion of the Association’s history.

Another way of looking at value in a single number involves using win shares. That stat shows an approximation of how many wins a player has added to his team as an individual over the course of a season.

Of course, Bryant is at a severe disadvantage here, as he hasn’t played anything close to a full campaign. To account for that, we’ll prorate his 0.1 win shares to a full 82-game season, giving him 0.6 projected win shares in 2014-15.

How does that stack up?

Yikes. That’s not good for Bryant, who is far and away the least valuable scoring champion according to win shares. And that’s true if you look at win shares per 48 minutes as well, essentially taking playing time and sheer volume out of the equation.

To put things in further perspective, the average win shares and win shares per 48 minutes for all scoring champions in NBA history are 14.87 and 0.228, respectively.

But that’s not all the data we have access to. Since 1974, we have the ability to look at box score data, which leads to offensive box plus/minus (OBPM), box plus/minus (BPM) and value over replacement player (VORP).

Basketball-Reference.com has a good explanation of these stats, though you should read on your own for more detail if you so desire:

BPM is presented intuitively, representing points per 100 possessions for which the player was on the court. For example, a player with a +4.3 BPM is said to have contributed 4.3 more points than an average player over 100 possessions, based on measurable statistical output from game box scores. The calculation makes heavy use of context dependent box score stats like USG%, TS%, STL% and others (as well as the statistical interactions between these components)…Note that there is a separate calculation for the offensive component of a player’s BPM, which yields both OBPM (Offensive Box Plus/Minus) and DBPM (Defensive Box Plus/Minus).

Further, BPM is scaled so that -2.0 represents a theoretical “replacement level” – thus, this concept is easily extended to permit calculations of one player’s value over that theoretical threshold – that formula is [BPM - (-2.0)] * (% of minutes played), which is VORP, and interpreted as per 100 team possessions.

Essentially, OBPM shows how much more value a player provided over 100 possessions on offense than a league-average contributor. BPM does the same, but for both sides of the ball.

VORP is similar to BPM, but it’s calculated against a replacement-level player—someone you could just pick up out of free agency at any point in time.

None of them make Bryant look good.

You can see that displayed in the following graph, which shows data in all three categories for any scoring champion with a bottom-10 finish. That way, we can compare the future Hall of Famer to all relevant players.

Again, that’s not good news for Bryant.

He’s the worst of the bunch in all three categories, and he’s actually the only scoring champion in NBA history with a negative BPM. That’s thanks to the awful defense he’s playing, one that has left the Lakers allowing 13.9 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

To drive home the point, let’s not just look at the old days of basketball history. Instead, let’s just compare Bryant in all of the aforementioned statistics to the other players populating the top 10 in the scoring race during the 2014-15 season.

Win shares will still be prorated to account for the entire season, thus further underscoring the differences between these players’ values.

It’s still not a pretty picture for the Laker.

Only Blake Griffin has had comparable levels of limited value for the Los Angeles Clippers. The rest of the candidates blow him out of the water, though Carmelo Anthony hasn’t exactly been providing the New York Knicks with too much outside his scoring.

As for Griffin, he’s largely in a similar situation to Bryant, although there’s plenty more hope he’ll turn things around as the year progresses.

The Clippers power forward has regressed significantly in 2014-15, shooting inefficiently, failing to make much of an impact on the boards and struggling on defense during his second year under Doc Rivers.

It’s hard to compare players between positions, but the narratives are rather similar for those twoeven if Griffin’s youth indicates they’ll diverge soon enough.

Kobe’s going to get his shots, he’s going to get his attempts, and we know that,” Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) after his team beat the Lakers in overtime and Bryant went 10-of-24 from the field for 27 points. “We just wanted to make him work hard for everything that he gets, and work hard on the defensive end so that he doesn’t just have a night off at that end and can spend all of his energy just on the offensive side.”

That’s been the strategy for just about every team thus far, as the vast majority of NBA organizations realize that they aren’t going to be beaten by an oft-shooting 2-guard who isn’t providing much value in any other area of the game.

Being a prolific outside shooter in the NBA requires an almost comical amount of optimism,” Benjamin Hoffman recently wrote for The New York Times. ”A player has to accept that more than half of his shots will miss but has to retain the confidence to thrust the ball toward the rim every time he has the chance.”

Every scorer in NBA history has had to deal with thateven the ones who have done most of their damage right around the basket. But at least most of them have provided value in other areas as well.

What Bryant is doing in 2014-15 is fun. It’s thrilling to see a 36-year-old on the heels of two major injuries gunning for scoring titles and doing everything he can to carry a struggling offense.

But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s valuable.

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Where Does Lance Stephenson Rank Among Greatest Rebounding Guards in NBA History

Lance Stephenson‘s tenure with the Charlotte Hornets has gotten off to a rough start on the offensive end, as he’s failed to mesh with his new teammates and thrive in Steve Clifford’s offense, which is markedly different from the one run by Frank Vogel and the Indiana Pacers

The shooting guard fondly known as Born Ready has averaged only 9.5 points per game on 37.8 percent shooting from the field through his first 11 appearances, and it’s not as though his work from beyond the arc has aided the cause. After all, Stephenson has taken 20 downtown attempts and connected on just five of them. 

This will surely improve as the season progresses, especially as Stephenson gets used to playing without the ball in his hands as often and becomes less reliant on high screens set for him on the wings. But even while he finds more iron than net, Stephenson is making history.

Though there’s plenty of time left in the season for him to regress to more typical numbers, the 2-guard from Cincinnati is poised to assert himself as the greatest single-season rebounding guard in NBA history. 

That’s not an exaggeration, even if players such as Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson have always been viewed as untouchable glass-cleaners thanks to their gaudy per-game averages. 

Let’s start there. 

It’s not as though great rebounding numbers are new for Stephenson, as he averaged an impressive 7.2 boards per game during his final season with the Pacers. He has a remarkable knack for reading the ball off the rim, and it doesn’t hurt that he sometimes likes padding his numbers by thieving an easy rebound from one of his teammates. But in 2014-15, he’s taken things to a new level. 

After 11 outings, Stephenson is averaging a jaw-dropping 9.2 rebounds per game, a number that positions him among the elite at any position, much less among guards. This isn’t the result of one fluke performance, as that average may actually be misleadingly low: 

Stephenson has consistently put up impressive totals, even breaking into double figures in four consecutive games at one point. The aberration came against the Golden State Warriors. In that game, he was held without a single rebound for the first time since April 4, 2013, when he produced a goose egg in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder

If we strike the exception from the record, Stephenson would be averaging an even more impressive 10.1 rebounds per game. But we can’t do that, since he did throw up a zero, so we’re left looking at how 9.2 stacks up against the best per-game averages from guards throughout all of NBA history: 

Case closed, right? 

Well, not exactly. While Stephenson is far from the top of the per-game leaderboard, that’s not the most telling number we have at our disposal. After all, some players have far more opportunities than others to collect rebounds based on pace of play and number of missed shots forced. 

Which player is more impressive? 

  • Player A: Grabs 10 rebounds per game while on a team that sprints at all times but is terrible at shooting and forces a lot of misses. 
  • Player B: Grabs 10 rebounds per game while on a team that slows everything down, shoots at high percentages and can’t play defense. 

Their per-game totals are even, but Player B should be far more impressive because he’ll have fewer opportunities. That’s where total rebounding percentage comes into play, as it shows the percentage of rebounds a player grabs out of the ones that are available while he’s on the floor. It takes both pace and team ability out of the equation. And here’s why that’s so remarkably important. 

In 1951-52, the first time the NBA tracked rebounds, the average team pulled in 54.52 rebounds per game. This season, that number has dropped to 40.36. In fact, here’s how the average number of rebounds per game has progressed throughout all of league history: 

That alone makes for a pretty big difference. Shooting percentages have gone up as basketball history has progressed, and pace has simultaneously dropped rather significantly. 

Stephenson’s 9.2 rebounds per game are essentially the equivalent of 16.3 during Robertson’s record-setting season in 1961-62. They’re the same as 9.9 during Magic Johnson’s best rebounding campaign, so you can see how eras come into play. Still, we’re not factoring in team-to-team variance, which total rebounding percentage will do: 

Playing on a team that operates at a sluggish pace during a year in which there have been fewer rebounds per game available than at any other point in NBA history, Stephenson jumps to the very top of the rankings. In fact, the top 10 as a whole looks quite different and features a number of players from this season, some of whom will regress to the mean as the sample size grows larger. 

Of course, there’s one inherent flaw. 

Total rebounding percentage isn’t calculated for seasons prior to the 1970s, which means a number of candidates from the original per-game list are no longer appearing, simply because we don’t have the necessary data.

While we won’t be able to account for team-by-team variance, let’s take a look at how Stephenson would have fared on a league-average squad in each of the years that hosted the players who finished above him on the per-game leaderboard: 

It’s not even close. In fact, the disparity is so large each season that it seems like a safe assumption neither Tom Gola nor Robertson would appear above Stephenson on the rankings for total rebounding percentages. 

Yes, that means the Charlotte 2-guard is indeed on pace for the greatest rebounding season by any guard in NBA history. 

He’ll have his work cut out for him maintaining the numbers throughout the entirety of a grueling 82-game campaign, and he has plenty of years left before we can begin to claim he’s one of the greatest backcourt rebounders over the course of his career. But everything looks promising right now. 

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Cavaliers make 3-point history, beat Hawks

The Cavaliers made their first 11 3-point attempts to rout the Atlanta Hawks



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Kobe Bryant breaks John Havlicek’s record for most missed shots in NBA history (video)

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant etched his name into the record books again on Tuesday night. But this time, it was for something he’s probably not going to be boasting about.
He’s now missed more shots than any player in NBA history—a record previously held by John Havlicek.
In the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Bryant attempted a difficult turnaround jumper over Courtney Lee. He missed the 14-footer. Normally it’s no big deal, but this record-breaking shot was No. 13,418…

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Memphis Grizzlies: Breaking down the best season start in franchise history

Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol during a timeout.
Since their inception in the league in 1995, the Grizzlies (Vancouver or Memphis) have never started a season 4-0. After defeating the Pelicans at home 93-81, this is no longer the case. Even with several playoff teams under former coaches Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello, the Grizzlies were unable to start a season playing this well. With several consecutive playoff appearances and a Western Conference finals appearance, this team may be poised to get over the hump and make it all the way to the NBA finals. With so much competition in the west, this will be no easy feat. But the cream rises to the crop, right? Only time will tell. But what is certain though, is that this Memphis Grizzlies roster has all the tools to make a deep run. It’s just a matter of avoiding injuries, catching a bit of luck, and playing hot when the playoffs come around. After watching the first four games of the season, there are a few notable areas with room for improvement.

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Hornets make biggest comeback in franchise history

Charlotte was down 24 points in the third quarter.



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Ranking Top 25 Single-Season Team Performances in NBA History

Figuring out how modern-day offenses and defenses stack up against the units of the 1950s and ’60s isn’t exactly an easy task, but it’s quite necessary when attempting to determine the very best teams of all time.

Yes, if you’ve been following along with this series, we’re finally to the big kahuna: the top 25 squads throughout all of NBA history. 

Just looking at points scored and allowed doesn’t do the trick because that doesn’t give pace an opportunity to come into play. For that reason, defensive and offensive ratings—pace-neutral metrics that show how many points a team allows and scores per 100 possessions—are much better gauges to measure prowess on those ends of the court.

But when attempting to rank teams historically, as we’re doing here, that’s still not good enough. After all, not every team with identical defensive ratings is on the same level. Nor is every team with an identical offensive rating equally competent at scoring the rock.

If two teams gave up 95 points per 100 possessions, which is worse—Team A, which did so during a year in which defenses rose to the top of the heap, or Team B, which did so when everyone was scoring points like the video-game sliders were all the way up?

Team A should be the easy answer because context is crucially important. That, in a nutshell, is why DRtng+, or adjusted defensive rating, is the best inter-era metric for comparing defensive performances. 

The same holds true for ORtng+, or adjusted offensive efficiency.

Calculating these metrics isn’t particularly troublesome: Just divide the league-average defensive rating from the year in question by the team’s defensive rating and then multiply the result by 100 to achieve DRtng+. Similarly, ORtng+ is derived by dividing the team’s offensive rating by the league average and then multiplying by 100.

A score of 100 means the defense or offense was perfectly average that year. That does tend to happen fairly often, given that we’re working with the 1,315 teams throughout league history for which we have data. 

The final step in determining the strength of a team is averaging the two metrics. The result, called TeamRtng+, weighs offense and defense evenly to ascertain the overall effectiveness of any team in NBA history.

When determining the best squads throughout the NBA’s many seasons, the style of play doesn’t factor into the equation. Neither does points scored/allowed per game nor memorability, subjectivity and win-loss records. 

TeamRtng+ is all that comes into play. We’ll be looking at the worst team in each franchise’s history, counting down toward the very worst squad of all time. Analyses like this have been run before, notably by Hardwood Paroxysm’s Andrew Lynch and Ian Levy, but this is taking it to a whole new level by calculating things before and after the 1976 ABA/NBA merger. 


Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com. This introduction is an adapted form of what was used when ranking the top 20 offenses in NBA history as well as the top 20 defensesbottom 20 defensesbottom 20 offensesbest teams for each franchise and worst teams for each franchise throughout the same period. 

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