LeBron, of course, is referring to Kawhi Leonard’s game winner last night against Philly. Normally, I wouldn’t write about this, but LeBron’s take is stunningly bad and I think says a lot about how people view analytics.
At the core, analytics works on the concept of Expected Value. Basically, if you shoot 40% from 3, then if you take that shot 100 times, you’ll score 120 points (.40 x 3 x 100). However, if you shoot 55% from 2, over 100 shots, you’ll score 110 points (.55 x 2 x 100). So over the course of a season, shooting 40% from 3 is a lot better than shooting 55% from 2. The major issue with the long 2 is your FG% doesn’t improve very much, if at all, since it’s essentially the same shot. So the math on it is really bad. Even the most analytically-adverse coaches understand this. If you don’t believe me, watch their reaction when someone shoots a 3 with their foot on the line. The issue, really, is that they don’t like math. Because it’s scary or they hate nerds or something. No one really knows.
What LeBron seems to think is that none of that matters in the PLAYOFFS because the games are so close and situations like Kawhi’s are very binary. He either makes or misses. Expected Value isn’t seemingly as much of a factor. But in a close game, hunting for small advantages is even more important. Analytics aren’t super-important when you’re up 40. The Raptors took 89 shots last night from the field so, yes, small margins can add up. This is why you foul Shaq in the final minute of the game and not Steve Nash. Sure, Shaq might make both of them, but it’s a lot less likely.
The difference between regular season analytics and playoff analytics is similar to the difference between how you’d play a cash game at the poker table versus a tournament. The math changes in tournament poker because if you lose everything, you’re done. You’d never fold pocket Aces pre-flop in a cash game, but you absolutely should in a tournament in some very unique circumstances.
Last night’s situation was more a freeroll, because if the Raptors came up empty, they’re still going to OT at home. In a vacuum, the math here is really simple: find the highest % shot on the floor, wherever it is. It’s hard to believe that a contested long 2 over a 7-footer is the highest percentage shot on the floor (especially when two of his teammates are wide-open, including Kyle Lowry in the corner, a spot where he shot 44% this year). Even Michael Jordan knew when to pass to Steve Kerr.
Analytics are a complicated thing. Kawhi’s shot went in and that’s all that anyone will remember. If he misses, that’s all anyone remembers. But the decisions that fed into that shot don’t change. When setting up a final shot, the coaches had to take into consideration that Kawhi wasn’t shooting very well from the floor, but he is one of the 5 best players in the world and, more importantly, if you don’t put the ball in his hands and you lose, your odds of him re-signing next year go down. So, you kind of have to let him make the call. If this is a Gold Ball game, you might let your senior star draw the extra defender and have him pass to one of his wide-open teammates. He’s graduating anyway. In the very near future, we’ll be able to see this in real time as we watch the game. Second Spectrum has a “Player Mode” stat overlay that updates scoring percentages in real time. It’s very cool.
LeBron, by all accounts, has a very high basketball IQ and is a very smart guy. He was one of the initial investors in WHOOP, a fitness tracker that takes data and analytics to a new level. So for him to be biased against it is kind of weird. Then again, he insisted on having a teammate who has trouble remembering the score during the PLAYOFFS and when the Lakers had to build a team basically from scratch around LeBron, they put together a collection of misfit toys that anyone with 2 eyes and a broken abacus knew would…struggle.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that LeBron hasn’t fully grasped the analytics revolution. Then again, analytics is literally the process of taking information, processing it, and making decisions based on that. Looking around the Eastern Conference, realizing that your Finals streak is essentially over, moving to a nice climate, and start making that Warren Buffett money? That’s analytics.