It is about LeBron James, and rightfully so. He is 28 years old, he is by his own oversized leaps and bounds the best player in the world, and he is unquestionably better than he’s ever been before. In Game Seven of the NBA Finals, he scored 37 with customary efficiency while pushing the Spurs’ best offensive player to the margin. Game Seven marked the fifth time in the last two years that the Heat have faced elimination, and in those games, James has averaged 35.4/11.4/5.1, while shooting better than 50% from the floor. For the first eight years of his career there were questions about his mindset, a sort of braying and inherently silly attempt to isolate his “clutch gene.” These were always silly questions, to a certain extent, but they at least and at last seem answered.
This is what we have been talking about, and are going to be talking about. This is because our instinct is to assimilate what’s just happened into the legacies of the various parties involved, rather than consider the multitude of counterfactual scenarios that don’t end with a celebration in the Heat locker room. What if Ray Allen misses an off-balance, contested three in the corner with 5.2 ticks left in Game Six? Or Dwyane Wade fails to rebound LeBron’s errant three on the prior possession? Or Kawhi Leonard, who like Paul George played as though inspired by the challenge of facing down the Chosen One, makes that first free throw? After supposedly exercising all the demons surrounding their assemblage with a decisive victory in last year’s Finals, this much is true: at a particular point not so many days ago, only an exceedingly unlikely sequence saved the Miami Heat from another round of reductive psychoanalysis from the spittle-flecked armchairs on the First Take set. The Heat were—Lebron was—this close to failure. We will forget this, and are maybe already forgetting it.
Point being, selective recall has a nebulous effect on NBA historiography. Michael Jordan, forever and always the benchmark for LeBron’s greatness, won six titles, and was thus enshrined as an insatiable, world-historic winner. We look back on his six titles as inevitable; the early-career flameouts against the Pistons either become the crucible in which Jordan’s unbreakable winner-dom was forged, or are consigned to the margin. It’s not enough that Jordan and the Bulls won all those championships; it is, retroactively, that they were destined to do so all along, that it simply couldn’t have happened any other way.
This is problematic for obvious reasons, but more to the point, this is boring, a duh-storm of written-by-the-victors myth-fogging that obscures what was, actually, some pretty interesting basketball. What’s done is done with Jordan, and nothing on earth is going to stop ESPN’s professional totalizers from totalizing where LeBron and the Heat are concerned. But we might as well talk about the basketball while we can. Which means, when we’re talking about these Finals, talking about shooting: the shots that went in, the shots that didn’t, but also where they came from.
In Game Seven, Shane Battier knocked down six of his eight three-pointers. In Game Six, the Heat shot 58% from beyond the arc. After a space/time continuum-rupturing hot streak from outside over the series’ first five games, Danny Green made just two of the eleven threes he took in Games Six and Seven. The Spurs managed a paltry 30% from range once the series returned to Miami.
Regardless of what it becomes in the days and weeks and years to come, three-point shooting was, in fact, the story of the 2013 NBA Finals. We knew before the Finals began, because it has been the case for years, that LeBron would be the best player on the floor; until last night, that was assumed to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Heat to win the title. Now, of course, begins the process of acting as if LeBron’s greatness was irresistible and that this championship was prophesied way back in that mystical summer of 2011. But it wasn’t. LeBron is great, and we saw that. But these Finals came down to which team effectively spaced the floor by shooting from deep, and that tells us much more about the Finals that await next year and in years to come than any sudden mutation in LeBron’s clutch gene.
The NBA in its current iteration places more of a premium on three-point shooting than ever before. In some ways, this is bad luck for LeBron: he does literally everything on the court better than anyone else, save for getting back on defense after a missed shot, which he does worse than anyone else. He can dominate a basketball game in more ways than even Jordan could, and, indeed, his physical frame would have been an even greater asset in the rough-and-tumble 1990s. Even when he has an off night shooting, he can neutralize the other team’s best player, make passes that no one else on Earth could even conceive of, convert a handful of jaw-droppingly athletic plays in transition. But he can’t make his teammates’ corner threes go down. And without that, as we’ve seen, even the Big Three Heat are vulnerable.
The value of floor spacing was catalyzed by a rule change: in 2001, in an effort to speed/open up play, the NBA removed its ban on zone defense, implementing in its place the far less restrictive defensive three-second rule. Cue the unshackling of defensive rotations, the advent of Thibodeau-style help defense; cue the transition from isolations to pick-and-rolls and rapid ball movement, and the analytics that showed the enormous value of the three-pointer relative to midrange jump shots, and the reinterpretation of the hand-checking rule in 2004 that further encouraged slash-and-kick basketball.
Thus the strategic dialectic—defenses introduce a new wrinkle; offenses respond; rinse, repeat—was essentially reset by the legalization of zone defense, proceeds apace. Teams are still experimenting on both ends of the floor—think about the Rockets’ emphasis on high-efficiency shots on offense, or the varying ways defenses handle the primary ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. But it’s fair to suggest that the NBA is converging on a new equilibrium, one that places a higher value than ever before on one of the game’s higher-variance aspects. In a sense, this is just a new gloss on basketball orthodoxy: when facing a zone, shooting matters more. Much more.
Unsurprisingly, this is especially true in the playoffs, when the squads remaining are effective at sending help and recovering defensively. Regression analysis shows that effective field goal percentage—a pretty good proxy for how well a team is shooting—is a significantly better predictor of winning percentage in the playoffs from 2006-2013 (the Lebron Era, roughly) than it is from 1991-1998 (the Jordan Era, slightly less roughly). This result holds even when the other three of the so-called “offensive four factors”—offensive rebounding rate, turnover percentage, and free throw rate—are included in the analysis. And, of the four, effective field goal percentage is the only factor that has become significantly more important in the zone-legal NBA. Again, this time with data: shooting matters more than ever.
On the surface, the Heat’s space-the-floor small-ball offense is well suited to take advantage of the importance of the three. The thing about shooting, though, is that it comes and goes, and seven games isn’t a large enough sample to expect a team to shoot its mean percentage. The four teams that have given the Big Three Heat teams trouble—Rick Carlisle’s 2011 Mavericks, Doc Rivers’ 2012 Celtics, Frank Vogel’s Pacers and Pop’s Spurs—were smart, well-coached teams with elite-level paint defenders, who understood that LeBron in the paint was the most unstoppable force in basketball. So they packed the paint, and counted on the whims of variance (and Wade’s ego, and decline) to give them a chance. For the Mavericks, facing an inferior version of this Heat team, that plan was enough to win a title. For the Spurs, but for a few unforeseeable breaks in Game 6, it would have been.
Unlike last year, when the Heat steamrolled an incredibly talented OKC team that simply didn’t rotate well enough on defense to provide a challenge, this year’s Finals showed how brutally difficult it can be, even for LeBron, to win even one NBA Championship. Within minutes of the final whistle, Magic Johnson and Bill Simmons were off to the races as to how eclipsing MJ’s six titles is now a goal that’s “in play” for James. And sure, if anyone could, it’s LeBron.
But the dynamics of the post-illegal defense, post-analytics NBA have made it harder for one player to exert a Jordan-like influence over the game. And despite our insistence that every championship won or lost be a referendum on a given star’s legacy, James will only accomplish the things now “in play” if the corner threes—shots he can set up but will seldom take—are falling. Basketball is difficult, and protean, and changing before our eyes. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Success is not guaranteed. It’s all even tougher than it seems.