LeBron James is capable of jealousy.
The Miami Heat superstar is averaging 26 points per game, leaving him behind only Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony in the race for the scoring title. But it's not enough, because he's doing so on only 16.1 shots per game.
As he told ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, "I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he's like 16-for-32 (from the field) and then 14-for-34. ... Man."
Can you imagine what James could do on 30 shots each game?
I can, and we'll get to that later, but it's not the main question. The Oklahoma City Thunder need Durant to fire away with reckless abandon so that he can carry the offense, but do the Heat need the same from LeBron?
Would it actually be better if he shot more?
The Case for Firing Away
LeBron's efficiency is almost too high.
It's not like he's a modern-day version of Icarus, getting too close to perfection before he inevitably splashes down with a major slump. The reigning MVP is this good, and it's well within the realm of realistic possibilities that he continues forcing his field-goal percentage to hover right around 60.
But he could stand to take more chances.
KD: 29.2 ppg (1st in NBA), 19.2 attempts (3rd), 48.8% FG (35th). LeBron: 26.0 ppg (3rd), 16.1 attempts (18th), 59.1% FG (3rd).— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) January 14, 2014
The numbers have changed since The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater tweeted that. Durant dropped 37 points in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he did so while firing away 28 times.
But you don't have to compare LeBron to Durant if you want to see how much of an outlier the Miami superstar has become. Take a look at how his effective field-goal percentage (combining three-point and two-point efficiency) compares to the rest of the league's top 20 scoring machines:
It's clear that LeBron can't be matched in the current NBA landscape, so let's turn to historical comparisons.
According to Basketball-Reference, 316 players in basketball history have averaged at least 25 points per game while qualifying for a scoring title, including those who are on pace to do so this season. Of those 316, only five have posted an effective field-goal percentage on the right side of 60:
- LeBron James (2012-13): 26.8 points per game, 60.3 effective field-goal percentage
- Kevin McHale (1986-87): 26.1 points per game, 60.4 effective field-goal percentage
- Charles Barkley (1987-88): 28.3 points per game, 60.4 effective field-goal percentage
- Charles Barkley (1989-90): 25.2 points per game, 60.8 effective field-goal percentage
- LeBron James (2013-14): 26.0 points per game, 63.5 effective field-goal percentage
Even among every single player who has ever suited up on an NBA court, no one can match what LeBron has been doing this year.
He's an outlier even among the greatest scorers of all time, and the 2.7 percent gap between him and Chuck's most efficient season on the list is as large as the space between 2012-13 LeBron and 1998-99 Shaquille O'Neal, who has the No. 16 effective field-goal percentage among eligible players.
There's typically a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, but the world's best player is currently shattering that relationship.
And that means that he could easily justify shooting more. If he started forcing up a few more attempts, he'd still be one of the most efficient scorers in basketball, and you could easily argue that taking 30 shots a game wouldn't push him down below the rest of the league's leading scorers in terms of efficiency.
How many points would he average on 30 shots each contest? Forty? Could he get to 50?
Right now, LeBron is averaging 1.615 points per shot attempt. Compare that to Kevin Durant, who is scoring 1.536 points each time he lets it fly. Even DeMar DeRozan, who had the lowest efficiency on that chart up above, puts up 1.203 points per shot.
If LeBron maintained his current level of points-per-shot efficiency, he'd average 48.5 points per game. If he slipped to Durant levels—you know you're good when you "slip" to Durant levels of efficiency—he'd score 46.1 points per game on 30 shots. If he fell all the way to DeRozan, he'd still average 36.1 points per game.
In fact, to average exactly 40 on 30 shots, he'd be scoring 1.333 points per shot, which seems far too low a mark.
Forty is almost a foregone conclusion. Fifty is clearly too much, as he'd have to get even more efficient than the current version of himself.
But it's not entirely unreasonable to think he could score 45 points per game with ease. There's a large gap between LeBron and Durant, and even closing that gap still leaves him at 46.1, again assuming that he's firing away 30 times during the average contest.
Who wouldn't like to see that?
The Case for Showing Restraint
Well, the Heat might not like to see LeBron shoot so much.
During the 2013-14 season, he's averaged 25.8 points per game in victories and 26.4 in losses. And this is no fluke, as he scored 1.1 more points per contest in 2012-13 defeats and 0.1 more during unsuccessful outings in the 2011-12 season.
Miami simply isn't set up to allow LeBron the freedom to hoist up shots with reckless abandon.
If you recall, I wrote the following tidbit during the case for him shooting more: "If he started forcing up a few more attempts, he'd still be one of the most efficient scorers in basketball..."
There's a key word there: "forcing."
LeBron isn't just a basketball player; he's a robot sent from the future programmed to make the best decision possible on every single play. That's why he doesn't mind passing up a game-winning attempt if a teammate is open or turn down an open shot if he sees the easier look that passing will create.
As B/R's Zach Buckley wrote, "James' selflessness is what separates himself from his NBA peers. It's what keeps the Miami Heat sitting on top of the basketball world. It's not something that lends itself to unabashed chucking."
To ask LeBron to shoot more is akin to asking him not to play the best possible brand of basketball. And not only would that throw him off rhythm, but it would mess with the entire Heat offense. This is a team that scores points because it understands the basketball moves faster than any human, and it acts accordingly.
Erik Spoelstra's systems are based on ball movement, and letting LeBron play hero ball counters everything that he's trying to do. Take these two plays against the Denver Nuggets during Miami's last game of 2013 as examples.
Here, LeBron is in great position to have his way as a scorer.
He could easily fire away from beyond the arc, and that's something he's been great at during the 2013-14 season. For the second season in a row, he's hit more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
Then again, James also has enough space that he could drive and create for himself rather easily.
But he doesn't choose either option.
The corner three is the most efficient shot in basketball, and Shane Battier is standing wide open below the break to LeBron's right.
It's an easy swing pass, and the reigning MVP makes it.
Now, let's take a gander at one more play, this time from the fourth quarter rather than the game's opening minutes.
Does anyone doubt that LeBron could successfully post up Andre Miller?
Not only has he become one of the more efficient post-scorers in the NBA, but he has roughly eight feet and 300 pounds on the Denver point guard. Backing him down or spinning over his right shoulder and banking it home would probably both work.
But he doesn't choose either option.
The best basketball play is kicking the ball out to Ray Allen, so that's exactly what LeBron does. And Allen drills the three from the top of the key.
Miami's All-Star forward simply isn't trained to look for points whenever possible. He's such a great player because he wants to make the best play that he can, even if he doesn't get to add to his total in the scoring column. Hell, LeBron is perfectly fine making a play that will result in a hockey assist and fail to show up in the scoresheet entirely.
Should LeBron shoot more?
"I'm not much of a forced-shot guy," James said to Haberstroh (subscription required). "But there are games where I have it going, and then at the end of the game, I'm like, damn, I shot just 12-for-16? Why don't I get up at least six or seven more? I definitely notice it."
Why doesn't he?
Because doing so wouldn't allow him to make the best play possible.
That's more important than anything else, and it's exactly why it's in the Heat's best interest for him to keep being perfectly content without taking 30 shots.