Charting the Evolution of LeBron James' Clutch Performance

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Charting the Evolution of LeBron James' Clutch Performance
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

LeBron James is considered a lot of things, but a "choke artist" is no longer one of them.

Upon spurning the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, The Chosen One was reviled for selling out. 

Leaving the confines of Ohio to go chase titles with two other superstars in South Beach wasn't considered chivalrous, it was diffident. For all intents and purposes, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were LeBron's safety nets. He deserted the city and team that worshiped the hardwood he dribbled on for the luxury of deferring.

In Miami, James was free to shy away from "the moment." With the game on the line, he could capitulate to his brethren; he could pass when the world and opposing defenses expected him to shoot.

Most understand that LeBron has always been a distributor. He's played the part of a point forward his entire career.

With the Cavs, however, he wasn't afforded the comfort of passing in crunch time. Who would he give it to, especially during his swan song in Cleveland? Daniel Gibson? Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Antawn Jamison? A healthy Shaquille O'Neal?

The latter poses some intrigue, but there's no arguing James wasn't on a team brimming with closers. He was the one. Hence, his departure.

Elsa/Getty Images
James is now playing in a significantly different environment and roster than he was in Cleveland.

Much of what has been made of LeBron's escape from Cleveland is subjective hearsay. We know he joined Bosh, Wade and the Heat to chase championships and form a dynasty. By no means are we certain that he did so for the purpose of shielding himself from the pressures that come with playing in the NBA.

That said, there were occasions, plenty of them, in fact, where James was over-passing. With the fate of the game in his hands, he opted to submit to the will of the defense or his teammates, the evidence of which is in the numbers.

During his final season in Cleveland (2009-10), James averaged 66.1 points on 41 field-goal attempts per 48 minutes of clutch play. 

Through his inaugural campaign in Miami (2010-11), LeBron saw those numbers skew outside his favor considerably. His scoring fell to 45.1 points on 27.3 shot attempts per 48 minutes.

Much of the same happened in the 2011-12 season. His scoring trended down even further, to 40.4 points per 48 minutes of clutch time. Even now, certain sticklers will chide him for the 33.9 points and 26 field-goal attempts he's putting up in crunch time.

Via chartgo.com.

As the above graphic shows you, those critics would have a case. His scoring and shot attempts have generally declined since joining the Heat. Clearly, he's still disappearing down the stretch.

Except he isn't. Not this season.

My biggest issue with James under these circumstances, as alluded to previously, was how often he could be found off the ball.

This problem dates back to his earlier days in Cleveland. Between 2007 and 2012, the percentage of his shots that were assisted on never dropped below 20.

When your best player is LeBron, an innate passer and ball dominator, why is he playing off the ball more than a fifth of the time? Capitalizing off of a well-placed pass isn't something we can chastise, but why isn't he the one making that decision? Even in Miami, he shouldn't be playing off the ball that much.

And this year, he's not.

James' point totals are significantly lower than they were with Cleveland, but with so many weapons in Miami, that's not so much the point. What he does with the ball and who's controlling the ball, that's the point.

Presently, just 13 percent of his clutch field goals come off of assists. He's also dishing out 15.2 assists per 48 minutes of crunch time, his highest mark since before 2007. In his first two seasons with the Heat, he combined to average 13.5 assists per 48 minutes.

From this, we can conclude (at least somewhat) that he's creating for himself and his teammates more and thus, playing off the ball less. Which is how it should be.

Via chartgo.com.

Of course, had his team generated more impressive results over the last two seasons in clutch time, our criticism of his tendencies at these stages of the game would have been futile.

In his final three seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs' winning percentage never dipped below 71 percent when put into these situations, and that was with him playing away from the ball more than he should have.

Still, while there, he was forced to take more control. Between 2007 and 2010, he never averaged fewer than eight assists per 48 minutes of burn in the clutch. The ball was, at the very least, in his hands.

The result? Cleveland outscored opponents by 36.9 points per 48 minutes in his final season as a Cav.

Once he arrived in Miami, those numbers dipped substantially, and so did the team's winning percentage.

Throughout the 2010-11 crusade, the Heat outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 48 minutes of clutch play with James on the floor, winning 59 percent of these particular battles. In 2011-12, they outscored opponents by 10.8 points with him on the floor and emerged victorious 60 percent of the time.

Horrible? No. Indicative of a team LeBron could call his own? Also no.

Clad with a championship ring and a fresh approach to how he wages war in the waning moments, the results have changed. Drastically.

James has helped bolster Miami's percent of victories to 80, and the Heat are also outscoring opponents by 34.7 points per 48 clutch minutes this season.

Night and day.

Via chartgo.com.

LeBron's most acrid of critics can't even refute his evolution as a clutch performer. There's no longer any evidence to support their claims.

Last season, per NBA.com (subscription required), James ranked 12th in total points scored in the clutch (90), putting him behind players such as Paul Millsap (91) and Jason Terry (92).

This year, he ranks second in total clutch points (128), trailing only Kevin Durant (139), shattering his mark from last season. He's also already posted more rebounds (50) and assists (50) than he did last year.

Via chartgo.com.

It takes but a cursory glance at his performance during Miami's historic winning streak to see he's improved on his clutch performances as well.

According to Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com, through 23 consecutive victories, James has played 48 minutes of clutch time and put up 48 points, 18 assists and 16 rebounds:

During the win streak, James has been on the court for 48 minutes of clutch time, the exact equivalent of a full NBA game. Here are his numbers: 

49 points, 18 assists and 16 rebounds. 

That's not a typo. 

...

In these clutch situations during the streak, James has an astounding 46.0 player efficiency rating (PER) and is shooting 45.2 percent from the floor (league average is 40.5 percent). The 49 points is a monster total, but the 18 assists? That's what stands out, especially considering he only has three turnovers over that time. In fact, James has either made or assisted on 32 of Miami's 47 crunchtime buckets over the past 23 games. 

To put this in an even clearer perspective, I point you toward the league leaders in each category.

Via chartgo.com.

Of all 87 players who have logged at least 100 minutes worth of clutch time, Kyrie Irving leads the league in points scored (subscription required) per 48 minutes (55), LeBron himself in assists (15.2) and Kenneth Faried in rebounds (20.7).

These showings throughout Miami's winning streak would put him in the top five of every category at least and are unprecedented, even for LeBron.

We all know that as good as James has always been, he's even better now, clutch performances included. He's taken what was often considered his greatest weakness, transformed it into a strength and left us speechless.

LeBron's most recent clutch exploits.

It is James who has led the Heat from start to finish. 

Is this the most "clutch" LeBron James has ever been?

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It is he who ensured they forced their way further into the record books by hitting a game-winning shot against the Boston Celtics

He who has taken what was once an image-crippling stigma and converted it into fuel for his team's fire.

And look at where he and the Heat sit today—atop the Eastern Conference and the league, the second-longest winning streak in NBA history in hand and staring down the barrel of another championship run.

It's just been that kind of season for the Heat and James. 

LeBron has just been that kind of dominant.

Or, as his clutch performances tell us, he's been that kind of different.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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