LeBron's elbow, one year later

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
12:32
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Exactly one year after LeBron James' series of reckoning against Boston, Hoopdata's Jeff Fogle examines the tea leaves in search of some answers about what, if any, effect did LeBron's elbow have on his performance.

Fogle revisits the discussion at the time of the series: There was conclusive evidence and testimonials that James' elbow was clearly bothering him, particularly in the Cavs' win over Chicago in the first round. Remember the left-handed free throw against the Bulls (see the 3:18 mark of the video)? We're even told to check NBA.com for further details of LeBron's condition. Remember James' admission that, despite the persisting discomfort, he wouldn't use the elbow as an excuse for the Game 2 loss in Cleveland against the Celtics?

As Fogle points out, much of the elbow talk subsided after the Cavs walloped the Celtics in Game 3 of that series and James had a monster game -- just as he did in Game 1.

What did Games 1 and 3 of the Cleveland-Boston have in common? James had three days of rest:
*Cleveland had three days off to prepare for Game One of the Boston series after eliminating Chicago on April 27, 2010. With the series starting on May 1, 2010, that's three off days to rest and get ready. LeBron had a great first game. 35 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. Concerns about the elbow disappeared...

*A quirk in the schedule gave Cleveland and Boston three days off before Game Three in Beantown. They played May 1, May 3, and May 7. Again, with a lengthy recovery time between games (and whatever potential treatment may be involved over a layoff), LeBron was great! He had 38 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Fogle then delves into the numbers, paying close attention not just to LeBron's general output, but to his relative performance as a jump shooter vs. as a basket attacker. Some interesting data emerged:
LeBron was hitting his open looks from distance in the games where the arm was well rested. In fact, he was more accurate from behind the arc than in the 16-23 foot range. But, in the quick turnarounds, he was a woeful 2 of 17 on treys (44 percentage points worse). Doesn't THAT suggest a potential injury issue all by itself? A guy's got a bad elbow, and he goes 2 of 17 on long shots in games with limited preparation and rest time. Why wasn't that a red flag to the national media.

Unbelievably, James was 10 of 43 from OUTSIDE OF TWO FEET in those four games. TWO FEET!

Fogle looks at an array of stats -- stuff that an elbow injury wouldn't affect as much such as rebounding, close-range shots and assist totals ("The elbow moves more side-to-side on passes, compared to straight up and down on jump shots."). Fogle also notes that James logged his highest turnover totals on short rest:
He became so reckless, because he was fighting hard to get close to the basket and either score or kick the ball out to a shooter, that his turnovers shot way up. He commited 7 turnovers in Game Four, and a whopping 9 turnovers in the Game Six finale.

He's been called a quitter because Cleveland didn't win the series. Here are the so-called quitter's stats in that series finale:

27 points (even though he was just 2 of 10 from outside two feet!!!!)
19 rebounds (huge total for a small forward)
10 assists (completing a triple double)

Is this data conclusive? It's tough to say. One could argue that any high usage athlete -- a small forward, a starting pitcher or, for that matter, a singles tennis player or a competitive cyclist -- will naturally perform better with more rest, whether or not they're nursing an injury.

But in a conversation where assumptions have reigned supreme and things like quitting and choking have been ascribed so freely, Fogle's discoveries should certainly be food for thought.

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