What if LeBron had been a Warrior?
December, 31, 2010
By Tom Haberstroh
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sport
How gaudy would LeBron James' career numbers look if he'd been drafted by the Warriors?
It’s everyone’s favorite game to play. Whether it’s at the neighborhood bar or by the office water cooler, we like to dream up scenarios that test the limits of basketball imagination. What if Portland chose Michael Jordan? What if Grant Hill didn’t have paper mache for ankles? What if Wilt Chamberlain played in today’s game?
What if LeBron James played his career under a “NellieBall” offense like the Golden State Warriors ran during most of his career?
As the Heat prepare to take on Golden State on Saturday night to greet 2011, here why it’s a worthy thought exercise:
If there’s one thing that statistical analysts have discovered through their years of data-crunching, it’s that context matters. When we compare players of different eras and different uniforms, we find that playing environments affect production in pretty significant ways.
For instance, one big reason why Wilt’s 100 points record seems more untouchable than ever is because today’s NBA is played at a snail’s pace compared to his day. Faster play means more possessions. And more possessions lead to more opportunities to score. And more opportunities to score pulls 100 points within reach.
Which brings us back to Golden State. Under the command of Don Nelson, the Warriors treated each possession as if quicker shots earned more points -- which, of course, is crazy talk. As a result, his Warriors teams averaged an estimated 99.2 possessions per game during Nelson's four years. Playing for Golden State, and by extension playing against Golden State, has had an inflationary effect on per game statistics.
Looking at James’ career, we find that all of his teams played at a sloth’s pace. The fastest team that he’s ever played for was the Cavaliers last season, a team that squeezed out a whopping 91.4 possessions per game, good for 25th fastest in the NBA. Overall, LeBron’s teams played 10 percent slower than the NellieBall teams.
But 10 percent is nothing more than a drop in the bucket, right? Wrong. It may not seem like much but over the course of an 82 game season and a seven-season career, ten percent adds up. How much does it add up? Try 1,608 points, or the equivalent of an additional season of averaging 21.6 points per game to his career line. So, merely by virtue of playing for a fast-paced team could have netted him 17,689 points by now, which would give him a nearly 4,000 more points than the next best scorer through their age-26 season. And James isn’t halfway through his age-26 season yet.
And that’s just points. What about assists, you say? Glad you asked. With a career rate of 7.0 assists per game, James currently holds the 25th highest assist average in NBA history. He would jump 10 spots in the record books simply due to pace. Not only that, LeBron likely would have been added a steals title to his belt in 2004-05, when he snatched 177 balls way from the opponent. Allen Iverson grabbed 180 for the league high.
While high-octane basketball can inflate numbers, that isn’t always a good thing. Take fouls, for instance. People don’t realize how fortunate Dwight Howard is to play for the Orlando Magic, perennially one of the slowest teams in the NBA. There’s no telling how many disqualifications he’d see on a speedy team. In this parallel universe, we’d have to account for the games in which James would foul out sooner or receive more cautionary bench time. But unlike Howard, James has a unique ability to avoid contact on the defensive end (we can put aside the star treatment theories for now) and he keeps his personal foul tally so low that he rarely gets in danger of picking up his sixth.
But turnovers? Yeah, James would have a lot more of those too. In fact, James has ranked in the top 10 in the league in total turnovers ever since he stepped foot in the NBA, but has never lead the category. That wouldn’t probably change. In this imaginary world, James would have led the league in total turnovers several times including this season when he’s currently second behind Russell Westbrook.
Would being on a fast-paced team change how voters cast their MVP ballots? Probably. Steve Nash netted his two MVP awards while playing for the “7 seconds or less” squads who lead the league in possessions per game. When James placed second in MVP voting in 2007-08 to Kobe Bryant, he averaged 31.5 points per game. Does he win that award if he averages 34.5 points per game?
In the end, all of this doesn’t change anything in the record books. And many may view this as a fruitless exercise. But ask yourself: how much does pace influence your perception of greatness?