LeBron’s Tired Decisions: Are Stall Tactics an Outgrowth of Fatigue?

Even freights needs coal, and LeBron’s human — although his exploits suggest otherwise. One of the big issues for LeBron is the accumulated miles of 12 NBA seasons. While his 36.1 minutes/game this year is the lowest of his career, that’s as much necessity as boon.

The Cavaliers' meek depth has placed a great deal of responsibility on James. In the early season it was on James to set the example for a defense that could be fierce one moment and lackadaisical the next, much like their leader early in the season.

After being told by a friend in December that nobody on the Cavaliers would play defense if the King didn’t play as hard as he could every play, that’s just what he did.

But the weight of scoring and being more engaged every defensive play has weighed on him. The fourth quarter in particular James has showed signs of weariness with negative effects for the offense. Indeed, we believe that the vaunted LeBron James stall-ball offense is a way for James to catch a breath without surrendering the possession to someone else. (Whether he should is another question, but probably wasn’t an issue when Wade was beside him.)

You can see some of the effect in the number of three-pointers James takes in the fourth quarter of games He only takes 3.9 with two days rest, 5.0 with one day rest and 5.6 with none. His turnovers also increase from 3.4 to 4.0 to 4.4, but this doesn’t show up in the fourth quarter, as he actually makes fewer turnovers in the fourth with no rest (1.1 to 1.3). But he takes 40% more 3s in the fourth with no days rest (2.1 vs. 1.5 with one day, 1.0 with two).

This lends credence to the sense that LeBron slows it down to buy some rest and tends to settle for jump shots in these instances. In the playoffs we expected to see an even greater frequency of such plays as the intensity goes up and LeBron has to do even more to cover for his shorthanded crew.

We ran the numbers on all the times during the playoffs that LeBron held the ball for 9 seconds or more, a total of 44 possessions, once we tossed out the five occurrences at the end of a quarter.

You can see that he doesn’t hold the ball like this during the first halves of games very much but it becomes more frequent as the game goes on. Many of these long holds turn into 3s by the end of the game. (We found a third of the 4th quarter shots occurred within a minute before the typical automatic timeout around the 6:30 mark, five more occurred with between one and three minutes left in the game.)

While James has been more-or-less successful on these super-long holds of 9+ seconds, they’re emblematic of a problem where LeBron’s tendency to hold the ball gums up the offense (or it doesn’t run at all, more often). Fatigue leads him to foist up more pull-up jumpers, his most inefficient scoring weapon. Indeed the longer he holds it the worse he shoots.

Is it any surprise that he was so effective in Game 5 when he attacked so quickly? In the first half when Lebron went 10-12 he held the ball for 6+ seconds on just two shots (made both). More than half his shots were off touches of 2 seconds or less. For the series, just a quarter of his shots are taken that quickly and his eFG% in those circumstances is an absurd 83.3%. D’ya think it would benefit James to go quicker?

It’s something that’s really on James. He prides himself on understanding the game — and perhaps Coach David Blatt can gently push him — but what do you say to arguably the best player in basketball? “Hey I noticed you start to make much worse decisions when you get tired.” Good luck with that.

Blatt would be better served trying to get James a little extra rest as it seems to be a product of fatigue as much as anything. For example, his overall eFG% is higher with zero-rest than one-day, a sign of his willingness to step it up. But sometimes he just doesn’t have the gas to do so. It’s the Coach’s responsibility to do as much as he can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
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