LeBron’s Overlooked Skill: Nothing Comes Free in His Kingdom

LeBron James is the greatest basketball player in the world. This is a statement that cannot be argued among rational thinking fans of the NBA. His ability to efficiently excel in every aspect of the game is unmatched in today’s NBA, and hasn’t been seen, no offense to Michael Jordan (the GOAT!), since the days of Bird and Magic. But there is still one statistic that these legends cannot stack up to LeBron in: his ability to avoid fouling opponents.

lebron_kobeThis skill is almost never highlighted by the media because it occurs over an entire game and cannot be packaged into pretty highlights like a tomahawk jam, no-look pass, or chase-down block. Footwork and small adjustments in positioning during a defensive possession allow a player to avoid getting whistled, and these subtle moves do not grab the attention of the average basketball fan. And so, we only hear about this aspect of LeBron’s game when he is on a ridiculous 254 minute, 7 second streak of playing time without be called for a foul (which happened last season).

This season, LeBron is, once again, among the league’s best in not getting called for a foul. Of the 202 players who have played at least 10 games and 20 minutes per game on the season, he averages the third lowest number of personal fouls per minute (when adjusted to pace). When he is on the floor he is called for 0.45 fouls per every 1 foul that the average player is called for. Almost all of the players with comparable per minute foul numbers are small guards that are not known for their defense (Tony Parker, Kemba Walker, Ty Lawson, etc.). The only other notable defensive-minded players in the top 25 for this stat are Tayshaun Prince (hasn’t made All-Defensive team in 5 years), Arron Afflalo (not in the same league defensively as LeBron), Danny Green (Kawhi guards most opponent’s best wing), Tim Duncan (still a top-notch defender), and Kevin Durant (has the tools, but not elite yet). The only statistics that LeBron has performed comparably in is scoring output and efficiency (second in both) and turnovers. Here is the top 25 per minute breakdown for each major statistic (among the 202 qualifying players):

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These low personal foul rates are not new for LeBron. He has been doing it his whole career, and is among the greatest in the history of the game at it (these numbers were once again adjusted for minutes and pace):

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Once again, we see very few top-of-the-line defenders who can match up historically to LeBron’s ability to not get called for fouls. The only players with multiple All-Defensive team appearances and a lower foul rate are Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Dumars. Wilt is the player infamously known to value not fouling out over winning a game. Throughout his whole career he never fouled out of a game (LeBron has only done so 3 times in the regular season, and once in the playoffs), and if he was anywhere near fouling out he would simply stop playing defense. Joe Dumars was the choirboy among a team of rabble-rousers. The Bad Boy Pistons were constantly fouling. Couple this with the fact that referees could not call a foul every time down the floor (for fear of boring the paying customer), and only egregious infractions, typically made by the rabble-rousers, were whistled.

So how does the physically-imposing LeBron James remain so foul-averse? Here’s how:

  1. LeBron is not just a superstar. He is THE superstar. When a paying customer attends a Miami Heat game they want to know they will get to see the greatest basketball player in the world. LeBron does his part by suiting up for nearly every game, every season (he has played in over 95% of regular season games over his career). All David Stern and his officials have to do is make sure that he remains out of foul trouble, and the fans get their wish. If a whistle must be swallowed every now and then to keep LeBron on the floor, then so be it.
  2. LeBron is a very conservative defender that rarely goes for the block or steal. If he wanted to, LeBron could average 2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game by gambling for more steals and leaving his feet for more blocks. In fact, he came close to posting these numbers in his younger days, but his fouls also increased. He has just as much agility and athleticism as many of the top per game guys for both of these statistics, but his team needs him to stay out of foul trouble. Not gambling also allows LeBron to almost always stay between his man and the hoop, mitigating team defensive breakdowns.
  3. He really is that great of a defender. LeBron’s strength, balance, and footwork combine to form the perfect defensive monster. By using these athletic gifts with his high basketball IQ, he is able to anticipate and get to a spot before the attacking offensive player gets there. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t hurt that he can guard just about every player currently employed by the NBA.

Next time you are arguing with a Kobe or Durant fanboy over who the greatest baller on the planet is you will of course point to LeBron’s superior all-around offensive game and his ability to post a triple-double any given night. But now, you can point to the King’s equally efficient defensive game. Their is no mercy in LeBron’s kindgom and no points come free.

(Via Luke Baker, Hoops-Nation.com)

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