What will LeBron's game look like in Miami?

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Let’s play a game. Forget that LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat via an hour-long ESPN special was one of the biggest PR disasters in recent memory. Forget everything about how James’ choice to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami rather than stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago or New Jersey represented him taking “the easy way out.” Forget about how some of LeBron’s lackluster performances in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals caused people to question if he’s capable of performing in big games. 
Forget about whether he’s a man, the man, THE MAN, or whatever else on the Heat. I’m not saying those aren’t legitimate concerns, because they are, and have been and will continue to be addressed on this website and many others.
All I’m asking is this: for however long it takes you to read this post, put aside your feelings about LeBron James, the man, and think of LeBron James as a basketball player. Because if you can compartmentalize LeBron’s off-court behavior and his on-court performance, you’ll find some things worth taking a look at.
For just a second, think of LeBron James as he is on the court. He’s walked away with the past two NBA MVP awards, and he may be the most dynamic talent to ever play NBA basketball. And after seven years in Cleveland, he’s going from a supporting cast made up of role players and fringe all-stars who only existed to support his gifts to playing with one MVP-caliber player, one All-NBA(maybe 2nd or 3rd team, but still) caliber player, and a series of highly capable role players surrounding the three of them. Forget LeBron’s legacy for just a minute: how will LeBron’s “superfriends” cause him to change his game? Let’s take a look at some of the potential differences in LeBron’s game next season:
Difference #1: More Lebron off the ball

Most people think that LeBron James will score less next season, but might average 10 assists per game/a triple-double because he’ll have better teammates to pass to. But consider the following: In the 2007 FIBA Qualifiers and 2008 Olympics combined, LeBron averaged .183 assists per minute while surrounded by the best players in basketball while playing against non-NBA competition. During the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron averaged .221 assists per moment while playing with his teammates on the Cavaliers against other NBA teams. What did shoot up when LeBron was surrounded by elite talent was LeBron’s scoring efficiency: LeBron shot 65.4% from the field during his last two international stints, as compared to 50.3% over the course of the 09-10 season. 
For a long time, the conventional wisdom about LeBron has been the following: he’s darn good as he is, but he’d be unstoppable if he had a consistent jump shot. It’s true that LeBron becomes less stoppable with every improvement in his jump shot, but a consistent jump shot wouldn’t make him unstoppable. Why not? Since LeBron makes around 70% of his shots around the basket and 75-78% of his free throws, teams will always try to force him into taking long jumpers. And no player in the NBA makes over half of his long jumpers. Not one. When you consider that most NBA players take most of their long jumpers off of assists rather than off the dribble, it becomes even more apparent that LeBron will never be “unstoppable” in a one-on-one situation, because no perimeter player ever can be. 
Why do I mention this? Because when LeBron gets the ball on the weak side against a defense that isn’t loaded up against him, he’s as close to unstoppable as it gets. He’s 6-8, 260 pounds, his top speed is as fast as any other player’s, he can change directions at full speed, he’s completely ambidextrous around the basket, and he can change directions while going full steam. If he catches the ball in stride and the defense is looking somewhere else, they have no chance of stopping him. 
According to Synergy Sports, LeBron took 125 field goal attempts off of a “cut” last season, and converted 101 of those attempts. That’s an 81% conversion rate. That, folks, is the definition of unstoppable, and that’s how LeBron shot 65% from the field in international play. LeBron is great at scoring in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. He may be just as good at making plays for other in those situations. But he’s unquestionably at his most effective when he can build up a head of steam and attack the rim against a defense that isn’t waiting for him. 
If Wade and Bosh can put enough pressure on defenses next season to let LeBron spend significant chunks of game time lurking on the weak side and striking when one either Wade or Bosh demands the defense’s attention, his scoring/efficiency splits could look absolutely freakish — I’m talking about 25 PPG on 55% shooting from the field, or a 65-67% True Shooting Percentage. True Shooting% isn’t as sexy as averaging a triple-double, but making baskets while missing few of them is how teams win games. 
(PS — Don’t forget how good of a spot-up shooter LeBron can be. Because of the degree of difficulty on his three-point shots, LeBron has never had a great three-point percentage, but he’s a very good natural shooter who can be deadly when given time to set his feet. In the 2007 FIBA games/2008 Olympics, LeBron shot 36/65 from beyond the arc, a conversion rate of 55%. The international three-point line is shorter, but 65 threes is a significant sample size, and LeBron made over half of his threes in international play. LeBron off the ball is freaky, freaky stuff.) 
Difference #2: More playmaking from LeBron?

This will be interesting to see. There’s no doubt that LeBron has the ability to put up huge assist numbers if he’s trusted to be the primary playmaker — he averaged 10.5 assists per game in February, when Mo Willams was injured and LeBron was the de facto point guard for the Cavaliers. With Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller (the latter went 50-99 on “spot-up” threes last season) surrounding him, LeBron certainly has teammates more than capable of converting his assists. 
And with Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo, and Eddie House being the Heat’s point guards, LeBron will be relied as the primary playmaker for much of the time. I just wonder how things will shake out with LeBron and Wade as the playmakers; Wade may be as good or better than LeBron as a playmaker, and there’s no doubt that LeBron is Wade’s superior on the weak side. In short, LeBron could average a 10 APG with his new teammates, but it may not be in the Heat’s best interest to have him do so. And I’m not sure if LeBron is quite as stat-obsessed as Wilt Chamberlain was when Wilt passed up scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity because he decided he wanted to lead the league in assists. Also, don’t forget that the Cavs roster, while decidedly less talented than the Heat’s roster, was constructed of players who were supposed to be effective playing off of LeBron. 
Difference #3: More LeBron in the post?

This is another scenario that could go either way. On the one hand, Chris Bosh is a better post-up threat than LeBron has ever played with, and Wade initiating plays could mean less of James in the post. Additionally, LeBron needs to put in serious work on his footwork in the post to become as effective on the blocks as he is on the drive. 
In the past, LeBron spent his summers with Team USA or Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent working on his game. With LeBron’s free agency/Miami PR campaign this summer, he may not have put as much work into his game as he did in summers past, and his priority when he did work on his game may be assimilating his game with Bosh and Wade’s rather than adding new facets to his own. (At least LeBron postponed the filming of his scripted movie, which would have been a “decision”-level PR blunder.) 
On the other hand, there are two reasons why LeBron may go to his post game in Miami more than he did in Cleveland. First of all, Pat Riley and Mr. Wade likely have LeBron’s ear like no player, executive, or coach in Cleveland ever did. If they tell LeBron he needs to go to the post more, he’s more likely to listen to them than Mike Brown or Mo Williams. After all, Riley did coach Magic Johnson, who utilized the post game beautifully. That fact won’t be lost on LeBron. With LeBron’s size, strength, explosiveness, and ability to use either hand around the basket, he’s a dynamo in the post waiting to happen — he’s just never seen a compelling reason to make post-up scoring a primary element of his game. Part of that is on James’ lack of faith in his teammates’ ability to be effective if he got fronted in the post and the ball didn’t get to him, and part of that is on his own lack of post-up fundamentals. The former won’t be a problem in Miami, so we’ll see if he’s willing to work on the latter. 
Second of all, LeBron did post up a fair bit in Cleveland, but he preferred to wait for the double-team and pass instead of try to go all the way and score. His Cleveland teammates usually didn’t convert when LeBron kicked it out, but that could well change in Miami. If James forces a double-team in the post, it’ll be awfully tough to stop Bosh or Wade if James kicks it out to them. LeBron’s always had the ability to be one of the best post-up players in the NBA if he wanted to be, and that will be just as true in Miami as it was in Cleveland. 
Difference #4: More LeBron on the break

The glacial Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Shaquille O’Neal were the starting centers during LeBron’s seven years in Cleveland, and Mike Brown’s defensive system didn’t encourage the kind of gambling that leads to fast-break opportunities. Because of that, LeBron got to show of his almost unprecedented ability in the full-court rarely, although he was highly successful when the Cavaliers did get a fast-break opportunity. With Wade and Chalmers being two of the most successful defensive gamblers in the league, Bosh being a great athlete for a power forward, and the small but fast Joel Anthony likely to start at center for the Heat, Miami should be a smaller, more athletic, and faster team than any of LeBron’s Cleveland squads were. 
It’s open to debate whether a relatively small lineup is the best way to match up against teams like Orlando, Los Angeles, or Boston, but the Heat should be much “faster” and give LeBron more opportunities to get out on the break than he ever received in Cleveland, and that will be a good thing for the fans. 
Those are about all the differences I can think of for right now. LeBron and Wade will be one heck of a tandem on defense, but that’s a whole different post. Also, I originally thought LeBron would spend a lot more time at the four in Miami than he did in Cleveland, but with Bosh and Haslem both on the roster I doubt that’ll be the case. Say what you will about LeBron, but there’s no arguing that it’ll be interesting to see what LeBron’s game will look like alongside Wade and Bosh next season.

Even without Stephen Curry, adjusting for playoff rotations still favors Warriors over Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, right, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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When the Warriors put five players expected to be in the playoff rotation on the floor during the regular season, they outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions.

No other team even neared that level with five of its own playoff-rotation players.

The second-place Spurs (+13.1 adjusted net rating) were closer to 10th place than first place.

But Golden State’s supremacy obviously took a hit when Stephen Curry got hurt. How do the Warriors rate without him in the rotation?

As I did before the first round, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Western Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Both the regular season and first round factored.

I wrote more about the Thunder’s and Spurs’ adjusted ratings yesterday. The East will come after its second-round series are set.

For now, here’s each Western Conference team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Western Conference

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 114.9 to 119.7 to 109.1
  • Defensive rating: 104.1 to 98.8 to 103.8
  • Net rating: +10.8 to +20.9 to +5.3

5. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 108.9 to 111.0 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.2 to 107.9 to 107.5
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +3.1 to +2.8

Observations:

  • By this metric, there’s a clear main event and undercard here – at least if the Spurs and Thunder don’t keep playing like they did last night.
  • Golden State obviously takes a big tumble without Curry, but this measure shows the limit of saying the Warriors got outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry during the regular season. Golden State’s other top players – Draymond Green (88%), Klay Thompson (85%), Andrew Bogut (85%), Harrison Barnes (66%) and Andre Iguodala (60%) – played a majority of their minutes with Curry. Put them on the court more in these Curry-less games, and it’ll help.
  • With Curry in the rotation (and Ian Clark and Brandon Rush out), the Warriors’ adjusted offensive/defensing/net ratings shoot right back up into the stratosphere: 119.8/98.7/+21.1. Golden State must just holds its ground until Curry returns. This measure suggests the Warriors can against Portland, especially with home-court advantage also in their favor.

Playoff Preview: Four things to watch in Portland vs. Golden State series

at ORACLE Arena on April 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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Portland has wildly exceeded expectations this season, making the playoffs as the five seed and getting past a banged-up Clippers team to the second round. But the NBA does not do Cinderellas well, this will be the end of the road. Here are the four questions we’re asking heading into this series.

1) When will Stephen Curry return? If Portland has a chance in this series, they need to do a lot of damage before the past-and-future MVP returns from his sprained knee. The question is when will that be? Curry is out for Game 1 and has yet to do any on court work, but Steve Kerr would not rule him out for Game 2 on Tuesday, although that may be gamesmanship as much as anything. But after Game 2 the teams are off for four days until the Saturday, May 7, and that may be enough time for him to return. Whenever he does come back, the dynamics change and the Warriors become a much more dangerous, much better team — one Portland can’t handle. The Blazers need to get all the wins early in this series they can.

Which isn’t very easy, Curry or no.

2) How will the Warriors defend Damian Lillard? When Lillard has gone up against his hometown team — he’s from Oakland — he averaged 36.5 points per game this season. Expect Klay Thompson to draw the assignment to cover him at the start of games, but also expect the Warriors to steal a page from the Clippers’ strategy and trap Lillard and C.J. McCollum each time they come off a pick. The idea is to force the ball out of the hands of the two best playmakers and make Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless or anyone else beat you. Aminu and Harkless will find the Warriors defense works on a string better than the Clippers and their shots will get contested.

However, most of the time, the Warriors will switch the pick-and-roll, which they usually do (especially when they go small) and Lillard will find Draymond Green in his face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has to find ways to get Lillard playing downhill off those picks to have a chance.

3) Can the Trail Blazers hit their threes? In Portland’s win over Golden State in the regular season (just after the All-Star break), they put up 137 points and made it rain threes — the Trail Blazers need to do that again. However, the Warriors were one of the better teams in the league at defending the arc this season, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from deep (second best in the league) and allowing the second fewest corner threes (although they are more willing to allow threes above the arc). Portland does not have a good enough defense to stop Golden State consistently even without Curry, they will just have to outscore the Warriors, and to do that it has to rain threes again.

4) How will Portland defend Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Both of these key Warriors cogs had strong regular seasons against Portland — Green averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while Thompson averaged 29.3 points shooting 59.4 percent from three. Obviously, that was with Curry on the floor drawing defenders, but Portland is not exactly known for their lock-down defense. Without Curry, expect Aminu to get a lot of time on Thompson, but that alone is not going to slow him. Also, expect the Warriors to post up Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or anyone else that Lillard and McCollum guard — the hardest part about defending Golden State is there is no place to hide weak defenders. The Warriors will expose the Portland defense.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. And that assumes Curry is out until Game 5, if he is back earlier than that the series likely ends in 5.

Report: Heat complained to ‘highest levels of the league office’ about favorable calls for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) is congratulated by Jeremy Lin (7) after making a basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The Hornets won 127-122 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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The Heat and Hornets are clearly tiring of each other, six games of testiness culminating with Game 7 today.

One particular battle line being drawn is over Jeremy Lin (6.3) and Kemba Walker (5.5), who lead players in this series in free-throw attempts per game.

Marc Stein:

ESPN sources say that one of the factors that ramped up the tension between the teams stems from Miami complaints to the highest levels of the league office after Game 4 about what the Heat deemed to be favorable officiating for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker.

Lin and Walker relentlessly driven to the basket. That’s why they’ve attempted so many free throws. If Miami wants to keep them off the line, trap them harder on the perimeter.

That said, this is part of playoff gamesmanship. If the Heat plant a seed with referees – through the league office or otherwise – that Lin and Walker are drawing too many fouls, maybe that affects a call today. With the margins so narrow, every little bit helps.

Watch LaMarcus Aldridge drop 38 on Thunder

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Oklahoma City has more than a few adjustments to make after a brutal defensive effort in Game 1 of their series against San Antonio, but at the top of the list is sticking with LaMarcus Aldridge on defense.

He was killing them from the midrange, and more than half of his looks were uncontested — the Thunder know he can knock down that shot, right?

It was a fantastic performance from Aldridge; we’ll see if he faces tougher defense in Game 2.