Hero Ball: It's LeBron's World, We're Just Witnesses

Someone that’s better than everyone else must endure a near-crippling desire to simply do it themselves. Nobody becomes that great without tremendous talent, endless repetition, and a level of perfectionism that necessarily gets frustrated with failure. (Remember how LeBron would look at Dion Waiters?)

Basketball, unlike just about any other team sport, really allows one guy to do everything. Allen Iverson didn’t need linemen, receivers or a breakaway to score, and he’d do it every time down the court. But if you’ve followed the sport you know that you can’t win it all as a team of one, though the 2007 Cavaliers did go awfully far.

James has shared the ball his whole career – he’s no Iverson. But having the ball in your hands so much and being forced to make so many decisions with it can sometimes have a corrupting influence on the most benevolent superstar. Even Frodo succumbed to the ring for a time.

James talks a good game. Speaking after the Grizzlies win he noted that to win, “You have to share the balI, you have to move the ball, and get the ball moving from side to side. Not only ball movement but player movement as well.”

Yet much of the last week and at times during the last month, we’ve seen more and more backsliding into hero ball. Particularly in the fourth quarter, we’ve seen one-on-one drives that don’t result in as many open drive & dish shots as you see earlier in the game.

James the last few games has been guilty of some really bad shot selection, such as this fall-away jumper that carries a 9.5 difficulty rating. Notice how far he falls-away while trying to loft it over a long defender. There was no better shot than this?

The play in March has differed from their play in February. Some of it is simply that they’ve been on the road a lot more. But the ball movement that marked their run up to the all-star break has receded. Parsing NBA.com’s shooting stats you’ll find that the Cavs your eyes aren’t failing – the Cavs have been getting bogged down more on offense.

In February open (no defender for 4’-6’) or wide open (no defender for 6’) comprised 41.8% of their shots (29.9% jumpers, 11.9% jumpers from >10’). That dropped to 39.9% (29.1/10.8) in March.

Looking at touches that extended beyond 6 seconds, they comprised 18% of the Cavs shots in February, but that was up to 21% in March. The rate of 2-point shots with long touches went from 13.7% to 17.4% and the shooting percentage on these shots dropped from 48% to 42%. Similarly shots preceded by 7 or more dribbles jumped from 14.7% of the shots to 17.7% and such two-pointers rose from 10.8% to 14.6%

If you glazed over with those numbers – the simple point is that they’re holding the ball, taking shittier shots and making less of them. They’re still good enough to make a startling percentage of them, but the poorer quality of shot we’ve seen the last month is symptomatic of an offense that’s gotten increasingly stagnant as the month has gone on.

Some of that is undoubtedly due to the schedule that had them on the road so often in March (10 of 15 games). Some of that is due to the team’s unerring ability to play down to the competition as they did in their squeaker over the 76ers on Sunday. Some of it is just that they’re tired as Blatt noted after the game.

“It was evident that we were physically slow and a little mentally beat down but we found a way to win,” he said. “I do think fatigue was a big part of us having less than a stellar performance.”

Cavs in the Fourth Quarter

That offensive stagnation is most apparent in the final frame.

Since LeBron’s return the Cavs are +9.3 pts/gm in offensive efficiency (which is rated per 100 possessions). They’re 21st in percentage of baskets featuring an assist. As you may have noticed, the Cavs are a very good offensive team in the first quarter.

They’re +12 in the first frame, third best in the league behind the Spurs and Clippers, and have a 1.8 Assist-to-Turnover ratio. Their assist rate, though higher, still has them at 21st. Their +12.6 differential in the second trails the Spurs and Warriors during that time, and they’re second-best third quarter team at +10.7. (The Warriors are an absurd +24.)

But a strange thing happens in the fourth quarter. (Again, all measured since LeBron’s Jan. 13th return.)

The Cavaliers are only +0.9 in the fourth. Though they shooting worse in the fourth quarter – (by eFG%) 53.6% (1Q), 54.6% (2Q), 56% (3Q) and 50.9% (4Q) – it’s an affliction everyone shares as the Cavs are still third-best in the league.

The fourth quarter issues can be traced to two related issues. Their Assist-to-Turnover ratio is nearly 1-to-1 (1.13), fourth-worst in the league. This is an issue because they simply aren’t very good at forcing turnovers (22nd in the league for the game, same as fourth quarter). A similar (smaller) issue is that they’re 21s in keeping opponents off the offensive glass. In the fourth quarter that sinks to 25th.

This give opponents more offensive opportunities. Then add to that the fact that the Cavaliers are 20th in eFG% during the fourth quarter. (They’re 10th in the 3rd quarter.) The means you’re giving the other team more opportunities and they’re making more. Some of this is due to the fact that the scrubinos are in the game. But only some of it.

When we started looking into this, I thought I would find that James’ ball-dominant fourth quarters were hurting the Cavs, but in looking over the data, I couldn’t help but find something else.

The guy who’s killing the team most in the fourth quarter isn’t LeBron James, or even Kevin Love (tho’ he’s played his part) but Kyrie Irving. Clean up whatever you spit up and join me at the stat console.

In the fourth quarter in March Kevin Love has an eFG% of 39% and a TO rate of 17.5/per hundred possessions. Irving’s eFG% is 36.5% and his TO rate is 12.2. His usage rate 3.5% lower in the fourth quarter. Love, who’s averaging less than 6 minutes in the fourth, sees his usage drop by ten percent.

Meanwhile, LeBron James’s usage jumps by over 30% in the quarter, yet his assist to turnover (1.7) is only a little lower than it is for the game (2.2). Given how much he has the ball, you’d expect much worse, as Irving (1.3) and Love (1.0) are. Also worth noting – J.R. Smith did not make a fourth quarter turnover in March and has the lower turnover rate of any regular in the final frame since LeBron’s return.

Of course, that doesn’t absolve James. The lack of ball movement and general stagnation that sets in during the fourth this month may hurt other players who don’t get to touch the ball enough to create a good rhythm. Watch the Spurs – or the Grizzlies game – when everyone touches the ball and it moves there’s a better feeling on the court.

However the simple fact is that our fourth quarter defense is as much a result of defense and poor ballhandling as the relative efficiency of the offense. It shouldn’t escape notice that Kyrie’s a net -11.3 in efficiency during the fourth quarter in March. (Since LeBron’s return he’s +1.8 in the fourth, so Kyrie’s defensive backslide is definitely a recent development.)

Kevin Love was +0.7 and the leader? Would you believe Timofey Mozgov at +11.4?? It’s a limited sample because he only played the fourth in five of the 15 games, but interesting. Blatt’s fascination with small lineups has been a feature of March and Mozgov’s arrival coincided with Kyrie’s vast defensive improvement.

It seems reasonable to assume the trouble Kyrie’s had defensively is a big part of the team’s defensive issues and the lack of Mozgov in the game. Is it a coincidence that their numbers are nearly negative/positive mirror images? We think not.

Before the Sixers game Blatt responded to our suggestion that the team’s suffered from dribble penetration and offensive rebounds with the small lineup. He inferred it was related to the team’s decision to drive players off the three-point line, sacrificing shots at the rim by pressing hard on the perimeter.

The Cavs are fourth in defensive 3-point percentage since LBJ returned, though they’re 20th in the fourth quarter, and just about same in the fourth in March. Perhaps this something Blatt’s working on addressing with more aggressive pick and roll defense. Then again, it might just be a monster of his own creation due to his refusal to play Mozgov. We’ll look more into that tomorrow.

As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and find my columns now (nearly) daily in the Cleveland Scene blog.

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