LeBron James
Does LeBron James actually make his teammates better? The numbers don’t lie (David Richard/USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest narrative in the 2018 NBA Finals has been that LeBron James doesn’t have any help. J.R. Smith stinks. Kevin Love is a shell of himself from his Timberwolves days. Then there’s Jordan Clarkson and words can’t even describe how bad that guy is. I mean his most productive teammate might be 37-year-old, Kyle Korver! All of those things are true and it’s a big reason why the Cavs have/had no shot to beat the Warriors. BUT… Are we sure that we’re asking the right question?

Can we just dispell the biggest myth in the history of sports real quick? There is a proponent of people that credit LeBron James for being the greatest player in NBA history. However, there’s an even larger group of people that believe LeBron James plays the game the right way and makes all of his teammates better. That latter statement couldn’t be further from the truth. James has never made the players around him better and the numbers don’t lie.

First, let’s describe what I mean by making other players better because a lot of people can’t understand how this process works. You see, great coaches or great superstar players allow their teammates to flourish at a more productive/efficient rate. Was Isaiah Thomas actually a better basketball player with the Celtics compared to the Suns? No, he’s always been the same guy but a great coach put him in a position to succeed like no one else did before. I mean, I’m not sure how we didn’t see that coming but that’s a story for another day.

This thought process isn’t that hard to understand but a lot of people in the media industry can’t seem to understand it. You’ve heard it all before with great coaches who make their players better. “I didn’t remember Rex Burkhead being this good with the Bengals”. I didn’t remember Dion Lewis being this good with the Browns”. “I didn’t remember LeGarrette Blount being this good with the Bucs”. Those are just Patriots running backs but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that players consistently perform better with the Patriots. Great coaches have that effect on their players. The same could be said with quarterbacks in the NFL. Just ask Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Deon Branch, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, etc. how much better Tom Brady made them?

The NBA isn’t much different from a quarterback’s effect on an offense. Star players, especially ones that have the ball constantly in their hands, should make the others around them better. Now everyone seems to think that LeBron James is the best player in the world. Hell, LeBron James even calls himself the chosen one like the arrogant S.O.B. that he is. If LeBron is really the best player in the world (He isn’t Kevin Durant is and has always been better than him) shouldn’t he make his teammates better? The numbers don’t lie, virtually all of his teammates perform worse than expected when paired with LeBron.

Kevin Pelton of ESPN recently released a model that shows that LeBron really makes his teammates perform worse than expected. The chart below shows all of LeBron’s teammates during his latest Cavaliers tenure.

“If a value metric is well-calibrated, that uptick in performance should be credited to the star player through his assist and usage rates. So ideally, we’d never show a player making his teammates better statistically, as any improvement in their efficiency would be offset by a decline in their usage rates and an uptick in assisted field goals.

That being said, what do we actually see with newcomers to the Cavaliers? I’m going to compare their performance to what my SCHOENE projection system forecast entering the year. While that’s not always a perfect capture of how good midseason acquisitions were on their previous teams it should be a useful point of comparison on average. And the results aren’t pretty.”

SCHOENE PROJECTIONS BY PELTON

PlayerSeasonProjectionActualRatio
Channing Frye2015-16.427.5521.29
Larry Nance Jr.2017-18.500.6361.27
Timofey Mozgov2014-15.439.5301.21
Jeff Green2017-18.365.4321.19
Tristan Thompson2014-15.440.4781.08
Jose Calderon2017-18.385.4101.07
JR Smith2014-15.510.5431.06
Kyle Korver2016-17.476.4921.03
Richard Jefferson2015-16.387.3871.00
Iman Shumpert2014-15.462.452.98
Anderson Varejao2014-15.520.499.96
Dwyane Wade2017-18.488.466.95
Rodney Hood2017-18.422.402.95
Kyrie Irving2014-15.648.599.92
Mo Williams2015-16.434.387.89
Kevin Love2014-15.700.599.86
George Hill2017-18.507.432.85
Matthew Dellavedova2014-15.437.371.85
Shawn Marion2014-15.462.380.82
Dion Waiters2014-15.439.351.80
Deron Williams2016-17.473.372.79
Mike Miller2014-15.438.335.77
Jae Crowder2017-18.532.391.74
DeAndre Liggins2016-17.464.341.73
Isaiah Thomas2017-18.632.389.62

For those at home having a hard time understanding this chart, a 1-1 ratio means that player performed up to expectations. You can see that only a handful have actually performed better than expected when playing with James. All of whom have extremely low usage rates. Channing Frye, JR Smith, and Kyle Korver are all catch and shoot guys that never have the ball in their hands unless it’s directly off a James pass where a shot immediately goes up. The same goes for Timofey Mozgov, Triston Thompson, and Larry Nance who are high energy offensive rebounders who clean up James’ missed layups near the basket. Any player who has All-Star talent (Kyrie Irving – Kevin Love) or needs the ball in his hands to be productive (List any point guard) never performs up to par.

Winners – Losers From the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline

Even if you take the hard numbers out of the equation and just use common sense it’s pretty easy to see that LeBron doesn’t make his teammates better. I mean we had a clear look at this with the Kyrie Irving trade. Irving set a career high shooting .491 percent from the field in his first season in Boston. That’s even more impressive when you factor in that the Celtics lost their second best player (Gordon Hayward) five minutes into the season. The players the Cavs got back for Kyrie aren’t even on the roster anymore because LeBron demanded that they get shipped out of town. I mean Isaiah Thomas was a 29 point per game scorer on a career-high .463 percent shooting. That number plummeted to .361 percent shooting this past year. Hell, Thomas was actually better when he got traded to the roughshod Lakers shooting .383 percent.

That’s Some Cheese – Episode 4 – 2.9.18

Zach Lowe of ESPN even opened up his NBA Finals preview by saying that the Cavs could really use Jae Crowder in this series to guard Kevin Durant. Oh… yeah LeBron demanded that he should get traded too. I mean how could we blame LeBron James considering how bad Crowder was in Cleveland? Crowder looked half dead in a Cavs jersey. Again, we aren’t asking the right questions. Crowder shot .463 percent in his final season with the Celtics and people really thought he could be a productive player on a championship team. So much so that the Cavs were dead to rights set on adding Crowder in any Kyrie deal. Crowder was traded to the Jazz where he helped them win a playoff series over the Thunder. In return, the Cavs got Rodney Hood who was supposed to save their season as a deadly three-point shooter. Now that he’s with the Cavs and stinks I’m told that he actually was terrible this whole time? I’m not buying it and the numbers don’t lie.

5 Trades For Cavaliers To Consider During 2018 NBA Trade Deadline

Let’s also not forget about the guy who everyone loves to blame, Kevin Love! Should we just ignore the fact that Kevin Love was one of the ten best players in the NBA? Should I just ignore the fact that Kevin Love actually led the league in rebounding two years in a row with the T-Wolves? Now people argue whether Love is actually capable of being the fourth best player on a championship team? I’m not buying it because players don’t deteriorate rapidly over their age 26-29 years. I mean just look at his appearance! Have you seen the number of gray hairs that are on his head? To Love’s credit, he’s totally changed his game (not for the better) and become a reliable three-point shooter. The problem is he’s no longer the guy who can mean mug guys in the post because he’s lost a ton of strength to adapt to James’ play style.

I’m sure there’s still a large crowd of people that are still dispelling my theory, right? I mean I could have just pulled out any number to prove my point, right? Well, that’s not exactly true. On the surface, these numbers are tough to interpret without direct comparison to other teams when they get new players. Pelton’s model also compares the new Cavs success with recent performances by new acquisitions by the Thunder, Rockets, and Warriors. Without surprise, the Cavs new teammates perform the worst. However, the Rockets and Thunder supporting cast still perform worse than expected. The Warriors newcomers actually perform better which isn’t a surprise because they actually play the game the right way.

Newcomer performance comparison VIA PELTON

TeamRatio
Warriors1.058
Rockets.978
Thunder.952
Cavaliers.937

“By itself, it’s tough to interpret this result, so let’s take a look at the performances of players joining other teams with high-usage creators over the same timeframe. As for comparisons, I used the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Of those teams, only newcomers to the Warriors beat their SCHOENE projections on average, though Cleveland has seen a larger decline than the other three.

Drilling down on Oklahoma City, there are really two different eras. During 2014-15 and 2015-16, with Kevin Durant on the roster, new players performed close to their projections (.987 ratio). Since Durant’s departure, that has dropped to .938 — almost identical to what we’ve seen with new LeBron teammates for the Cavaliers.”

That’s Some Cheese – Episode 21 – 4.30.18

Isn’t it funny how new players actually fell off the map in Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant left? Isn’t it funny how players on the Warriors became more efficient with Kevin Durant and vice versa? Durant masked a lot of the issues in Oklahoma City that are created by the Cancer himself, Russell Westbrook. I mean, use common sense. I don’t remember Victor Oladipo being this good with the Thunder compared to the Pacers? I don’t remember Domantas Sabonis being this good with the Thunder? I don’t remember James Harden being this good with the Thunder? I don’t remember Enes Kanter being this good with the Thunder? I mean Carmelo Anthony fell apart in an hour. Hell, even Paul George’s stock took a dip having the least efficient season he’s had in years. In reality, Westbrook isn’t much different from James. A star player who lives in a tunnel, who is overly loyal to a small market city, who refuses to be coached, who pretends not to be selfish by racking up assists with absurd usage rate stats, who needs certain role players to succeed, and doesn’t make others around them better. The only difference is James has gotten away with those flaws because he is the most talented pure athlete the world has ever seen.

If you really want to know the truth why the Cavs can’t compete with the Warriors, it’s not that hard to figure out. LeBron James doesn’t make his teammates better and he doesn’t allow them to even have the ball. LeBron doesn’t allow himself to be coached. We all know that Tyron Lue is essentially a puppet. I mean this isn’t a secret. He got David Blatt fired despite having a lengthy track record over in Europe. He also wanted Erik Spoelstra fired in Miami and has since proven to be more than qualified for the job. James’ Isolation is elementary and that might be putting it nicely. Cleveland doesn’t run plays. LeBron’s offense is very easy to understand. LeBron runs a pick and roll and looks for a switch on a small defender. If the opposing team doesn’t do anything he attacks the small defender. If the opposing team brings help, he then passes it to a teammate who is standing in the corner twiddling his fingers. The only time this ever changes is when his team goes on a fast break where he’s at his best because only his pure athletic traits are on hand. He does this on every single possession for his entire career. As a fan who doesn’t watch film, I shouldn’t be able to point this out but it’s a fact. Give it to LeBron and get out of the way. You just aren’t going to beat a team that runs such a high functioning offense like the Warriors that play team basketball.

I want you to notice a few things in the video if you haven’t already. I want you to watch the number of times there is more than one pass on a Cavs possession. It’s almost impossible to find a Cavs possession in a game where they pass the ball more than once. The hockey assist is not a thing in the Cavs repertoire. It’s one pass for James and a shot or he just tries to win the game by himself. There is no offense with the Cavs. I compared James to an old fashion car where you have to roll up the windows by cranking that annoying handle. After a while it gets tiring and he’s working way too hard to carry the team by himself and this really hasn’t changed no matter what team he’s played for. The Warriors are a much more efficient car where all they have to do is hit the button and the window opens.

Take a look at these spider charts for assisted plays. This isn’t a hard concept to understand even in the YMCA. The team that passes more often times wins. Who wants to play with a guy who has the ball in his hands every second of every play anyway?

LeBron James
(Ringer)
LeBron James
(Ringer)

Of course, James’ biggest fans will point out that his supporting cast isn’t great. That’s true but we also can’t ignore the fact that he created this mess. LeBron reminds me of that kid who was really cool and put together an awesome party. He made himself the center of attention but the ride was fun. But after it was over the mess that was left stunk up the joint. LeBron James invented player mobility and the player executive and he couldn’t be worse at it.

The Boston Celtics Are Winning The 2019 NBA Championship

LeBron demanded that his guy Triston Thompson get overpaid. He demanded that his guy JR Smith get overpaid. He ran Kyrie Irving out of town when he wanted him traded and then Kyrie found out about it and requested a trade. He’s filled up his bench with nobodies limiting roster flexibility carrying bums like James Jones, Udonis Haslem, Derrick Rose, and even Kendrick Perkins who’s on the roster to be his personal bodyguard/goon. His trading track record flat out stinks and he refuses to play with young players making his roster old and slow. Two first round picks for Timofey Mozgov? Really? Trading Dion Waiters for JR Smith and Iman Shumpert? Really? You can’t put the blame on LeBron for the in-season moves the Cavs made this year but he did curse out the team for not doing anything to force their hand so that’s something. There’s no reason the Cavs should have the highest payroll in the sports but it’s because of the mess that LeBron created. This cap situation is so bad that the team will be over the cap even if James leaves this offseason. The team has given James pretty much everything that he’s wanted. Yes, you can blame the Cavs for being a poorly run franchise but LeBron to use a metaphor should have never gotten back with his ex-girlfriend, Dan Gilbert in the first place. Kevin Durant joined the Warriors because they are a well-oiled machine. LeBron James left beaches and sunshine in Miami to join a dumpster fire franchise in Cleveland for the second time to go home.

Let’s also not forgot that James is a horrible teammate to play with off the court. The antics are flat out unbearable and has even caused reports that the Cavs are struggling with LeBron James fatigue! I’m not sure what that means other than the fact that they are sick and tired of his crap. This isn’t anything different from what came from the Heat where they believe he flat out quit in the Finals before leaving for the Cavs. Let’s focus in on the most recent example where LeBron shows up his teammates. In this video you will see a behind the scenes look at the Cavs following the brain fart by JR Smith forgetting the score of the Game 1 loss. (Make sure to buy your Don’t Drink and Hoop Shirts!)

Notice how later in the video, LeBron asks Ty Lue if the team has any timeouts. Pause. Isn’t this the same guy that claimed just weeks earlier that he has a photographic memory? No I’m serious, he actually tried to claim that and even tried to claim one of his turnovers was a missed shot but that’s besides the point. LeBron knew that the team had timeouts. That’s obvious. He made it a point to show up JR and his coach by putting on that classic sour puss face and throw the towel in his face. There’s no question the moment was ugly but James never rallied and let the moment go. Instead he quit and the Cavs never responded in overtime. Classic LeBron! When things don’t go his way, he throws in the towel.

With LeBron James’ upcoming free agency, everyone is curious to see where he goes. Unless he wants to stay with the mess that he created, people assume he’s heading elsewhere. Some pundits have even pegged the 76ers as a likely destination. The problem is the 76ers couldn’t be a worse fit for LeBron’s current play style. Experts laud his passing ability despite the fact that he has always been a turnover machine and should have never been a point guard, to begin with.

2017-18 Turnovers – 4.2 per game (4th)

2016-17 Turnovers – 4.1 per game (4th)

2015-2016 Turnovers – 3.3 per game (10th)

2014-2015 Turnovers – 3.9 per game (4th)

SHOP VENDETTA MERCHANDISE HERE!

If LeBron is such a great passer, why is he near the top of the league in turnovers every single season? If he does choose the 76ers, LeBron needs to take an off-ball role and become traditional scoring small forward. A LeBron – 76ers union could work if Ben Simmons is the primary point guard and lets the front office do their job. The problem is LeBron has never adapted the way he’s played and will likely take control of the front office with the ongoing turmoil of Bryan Colangelo. If the ball is in LeBron’s hands and forces Ben Simmons to stand in the corner it will continue the narrative that has plagued LeBron’s entire career contrary to what the experts say. Does LeBron James actually make his teammates better? The obvious answer is no and it’s not that hard to figure out.