CRAWFORD | With LeBron, sometimes a 'one-man game' IS good team - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | With LeBron, sometimes a 'one-man game' IS good team basketball

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LeBron James in isolation -- these plays have made up nearly a third of Cleveland's offense in the NBA playoffs. (AP photo) LeBron James in isolation -- these plays have made up nearly a third of Cleveland's offense in the NBA playoffs. (AP photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A great many commentators, myself included, labeled the NBA Finals as the league's best player (LeBron James) against the league's best team (the Golden State Warriors).

It was a neat package, an easy way of setting up the NBA Finals series between a team that relied primarily on one player and one that relied upon multiple contributors, including the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player in Stephan Curry.

But there was a problem with that analysis, and as I've listened to commentators talk about this series since, I felt more of a need to address that problem.

It can be summed up in this statement: Sometimes playing through a single, talented player IS team basketball at its best.

It seems a little bit old-fashioned now, but there was a time in basketball when everybody recognized who the best player on the team was, and the team built its attack around maximizing chances for him (or her) to score. It's an acknowledgement that sometimes, this talented player taking a bad shot is better than some of your other players taking a good one.

It takes a great deal of self-awareness for a team to realize that, and to play accordingly.

Sometimes people use the phrase “role-players” a bit dismissively when talking about the Cleveland Cavaliers roster outside of James. But the fact is, if those guys weren't playing their roles, James still would be great, but he might not be turning in the historic performance in the NBA Finals that he has to this point.

James' “usage rate,” or roughly the percentage of Cleveland's offense that runs through him, is 44 percent, according to the website basketball-reference.com. That's staggering for a single player. For the entire playoffs, it's 37.8 percent. That's the fifth-highest playoff figure all-time. But only one of those four ahead of him won a title — Michael Jordan in 1993, with a usage rate of 38 percent.

With a healthy team in the regular season, James' usage rate was 32.3 percent, fourth in the league behind Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City, Dwyane Wade of Miami and Demarcus Cousins of Sacramento.

In stats provided by NBA.com/stats, LeBron James, in 17 games, has run 190 isolation plays. That's 32.3 percent of the offense being placed into his hands. It's not an easy situation. Opposing defenses are able to gear up against him when he does that. Usually you're taking a challenged shot. 

James is shooting 32.5 percent from the field on those isolation plays. He's turning it over on eight percent of them. He's scoring on 35.3 percent of them. Of the 190 plays, 160 resulted in shots by James, 15 resulted in turnovers, and 15 in passes to teammates. James, it should be noted, not only leads the Finals at 41 points per game, but in assists, at 8.3 per game.

His efficiency numbers aren't good. But Cleveland isn't trying to be the most efficient team. Cleveland is trying to be the team that wins the championship.

And putting the ball in James' hands, for Cleveland, makes sense.

Isolation plays for Curry have made up 12.6 percent of Golden State's offense. He has shot 51.5 percent on those plays (effective FG percentage of 57.6 when you figure in three-pointers). He's scored on 51.6 percent of his isolations. Maybe he should get more.

I watch a great deal of college basketball, and I'm continually frustrated by teams who don't seem to realize who their best player is, who don't feed guys with the hot hand or who lose their most effective scorer for long stretches of offense.

In my brief playing days, we did whatever we could to get the best players open, set screens, passed the ball, passed up our own shots, and always kept an eye out for where they were.

At Bellarmine, Jake Thelen shot 74 percent for a season in 2014 and better than 65 percent for his career. A lot of that was because he played for teams that saw what he could do, and did not miss opportunities to get him the ball. Now, they're not running a lot of isolation at Bellarmine. It's a completely different system.

But the attitude is the same. Sometimes, to be a great team, you have to recognize who your great players are, and put them in position to be successful.

Kentucky needed to find Karl Towns late against Wisconsin (like it did against Notre Dame). Louisville needed to find Montrezl Harrell more at times last season.

It sounds simple, but it's not always done. It sounds counter to the way the game is taught now. We like to see a more democratic game, with everyone scoring and sharing the ball. The San Antonio Spurs are the pinnacle of that. But there's more than one way to win a championship. Sometimes, giving LeBron James the ball and getting out of the way IS team basketball.

So I want to give a nod to Cleveland's “role players.” Everyone will remember James' performance in these playoffs, particularly the Finals. But it's worth remembering, role players can win championships too.

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