Does LeBron take a backseat after tip-off?

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
4:28
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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In the opening minutes of each game of this series, my Twitter timeline is buzzing. What about? Usually something along the lines of this:

What’s taking LeBron James so long to be aggressive?

It’s true, LeBron seems to facilitate more in the early stages of the game rather than attacking with his shot. If you ask LeBron, this is a deliberate choice. In his mind, LeBron plays the role of a furnace, trying to warm up his teammates.

But I also know that our eyes sometimes deceive us. Maybe the paying customers want instant gratification. They want LeBron and they want him now.

So does LeBron actually ease into his shooting game like many observers believe?

I decided to get out my shovel and do some digging. Here is what I found:

This season, LeBron has averaged 19.4 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes, according to NBA StatsCube.

If we take a snapshot of the first minute of the game, what happens?

His shot rate drops to 12.4 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes. And it rises from there as shot frequency gradually increases until it skyrockets to 36.6 field goal attempts per 40 minutes in the final minute of the first quarter. Then it drops back down.

Here’s the chart that illustrates his frequency of field-goal attempts as the game progresses.

LeBron

See those three spikes? Those humps are the final minute of each quarter at the 12-minute, 24-minute, and 36-minute mark. At those moments, LeBron usually gets the ball to fire off his final possession shot -- typically and maddeningly a step-back midrange jumper.

Now, this is just looking at his shot frequency while in the game, so playing-time effects are mostly neutralized.

Notice what happens at the 13-minute mark, the opening minute of the second quarter. His shot frequency plummets to 11.4 field goal attempts before rising again just before halftime. Then it drops again to begin the third quarter before slowly increasing to another peak at the third quarter mark. Then it drops again.

These are the peaks and valleys of LeBron’s shot frequency. But are they unique to LeBron? What if we compared it to Dwyane Wade? Let’s find out.

LeBron/Wade

Looks like LeBron isn’t alone. Just like his teammate, Wade warms up slowly in the first quarter as well, before peaking in the final minute of quarters. But interestingly enough, we don’t see a peak just before halftime. However, it looks like Wade takes that final shot at the end of the third quarter.

Perhaps the most interesting part? Look at Wade’s fourth-quarter field-goal attempts. It slowly trickles down as the game approaches the final buzzer. Wade gets the ball in the initial stage of the fourth quarter, then he and LeBron share the ball in the middle of the period. In the final few minutes, we see that LeBron takes more shots than Wade.

Now, it’s here that I have to point out that this chart omits the important factor of free-throw attempts. If LeBron gets to the free-throw line, that isn’t accounted here. This is strictly looking at field-goal attempts. That may affect the trends slightly, more significant at the end of games when teams foul out of desperation. With that said, looking at field-goal attempts does offer a sizable window into their shot tendencies.

Let’s see what happens when we add Chris Bosh into the picture, shall we?

Bosh/Wade/LeBron

The first thing that jumps out is that Bosh’s shot rate bottoms out at the 10-12 minute mark. He’s actually played in the final minute of the first quarter only once this season. Erik Spoelstra’s substitution patterns have varied this season but that’s the one mainstay he hasn’t changed. So you can disregard that dip because there’s not much data there.

Elsewhere, what do we find? Look at that first minute. Bosh’s shot frequency rarely exceeds that 20 line but he takes 21.8 field goal attempts per 40 minutes in the first minute after the ball tips off. Remember what happened in Monday’s game? They went straight to Bosh on the first play and he converted an easy lefty hook on Elton Brand. That’s a season-long trend, nothing new.

But that’s about it as far as Bosh’s time to shine. He’s almost completely disregarded in the fourth quarter as his shots dwindle from 18.7 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter before bottoming out at 9.3 shots per 40 minutes in the last minute of the game. Think about that. Bosh’s touches are cut in half from the start of the fourth quarter until the game ends. Scaling back a bit, here are Bosh’s per-40-minute field-goal attempts by quarter starting with the first: 17.0, 16.8, 14.8 and finally 12.2 in the fourth quarter. You can see that tail-off in the chart above.

In the end, it does appear that LeBron takes a back seat in the opening minutes of the game, and he does that at the start of every quarter. Wade takes over in the beginning of the second quarter and fourth quarter, probably because LeBron typically takes a short breather then. Wade then trails off at the very end of the game, though that has changed recently. Bosh gets first dibs in the beginning but doesn’t get the spotlight thereafter.

So, yes, LeBron does ease into his shot. But Wade does too. In the end, we found the answer to our initial question but we made some other discoveries too. We'll take a look at those more in-depth in the future but, for now, there's plenty here to digest.

Special note: Thanks to NBA StatsCube for the data.

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