At the Barclays Center on Monday night, LeBron James delivered a performance that was, at worst, just a tick shy of iconic.
James was tremendous; a slashing, attacking, 6’9” 250-pound mutant force who, through his sheer physicality, turned the restricted area into his own private playground. He hit 11-of-12 shots from the zone (h/t to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann) and, when all was said and done, blitzed the poor Brooklyn Nets for 49 points.
"In Boston, you knew right away, this was a special night," Battier told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick. "Tonight, you didn't really realize he had 35 until you looked up and, oh my gosh.”
And yet, for all those “goshes,” the Heat won by six points. The question was begged: For all his greatness, have the Heat been too reliant on LeBron this postseason?
The Heat clearly have more than enough firepower to emerge from the East—after Monday’s win, Miami is 7-1 in the postseason, during which it leads all participants in offensive efficiency, true shooting percentage and point differential and has committed the fewest turnovers per game in the bunch, according to NBA.com—but the NBA Finals might be a different story.
John Schuhmann, writing after Monday’s game, sketched out the broad contours of the concern. That being, when the Heat run into one of the titans from out West, LeBron might not be enough:
Though James played more than 43 minutes at a level that no one else in the world can reach, his team barely won on Monday. The Nets are one of the teams in this league that matches up best with the Heat, but those West teams have more weapons, and the Spurs and Clippers have the requisite ball movement and shooting to beat the Miami defense.
The suggestion is that the Heat are leaning more heavily on James than ever before this postseason, and that this reliance comes at their own peril. The thing is, it’s hard to find support for this in the numbers.
While LeBron is certainly carrying the Heat in these playoffs—i.e., he’s their best player by a significant margin—his statistics are very similar to what he’s offered the last two postseasons. Not much has changed.
Let’s start with possessions. LeBron’s usage rate, according to Basketball-Reference, is 31.5 so far in the 2014 playoffs. This is up 2.3 percentage points from the burden he bore last postseason but is actually considerably below the 33.4 percent figure he posted in 2012. It’s also almost exactly LeBron’s career postseason usage rate of 31.4. So no change there.
If we shift over to total contributions—measured here by win shares—it also doesn’t look like a great deal is different. So far in the 2014 postseason, LeBron has produced 2.3 of Miami’s 6.3 total win shares—good for 36.5 percent of the team’s output. In 2013, that figure was 30.6 percent and in 2012 it was 32.4.
Given that we’re only talking about eight games here, this isn’t a huge difference. Furthermore, what difference is there is attributable not to the decline of the rest of the Heat, but how simply awesome James has been.
According to Basketball-Reference, LeBron has posted a win shares per 48 minutes of .343 so far in these playoffs. That not only leads the NBA but is the highest postseason figure James has posted since joining Miami, and the second-highest of his career.
So is LeBron James carrying the Heat? Of course! But that’s not exactly a new development.
Miami is a team blessed with a panoply of tremendous component parts. Three superstars. A supporting cast packed with cagey veterans who have been there before, doubled back to visit again, then stopped back a few more times over the years to show the place off to their kids.
And, in head coach Erik Spoelstra, they have one of the savviest and most progressive thinkers in the sport.
But this team’s success is about LeBron James. It has been since the moment he arrived in South Beach and, irrespective of how many rings he earns in the interim, it likely will be until the moment he leaves.
The Heat are reliant on LeBron, sure, but you couldn’t pick a better player to lean on.