Finding the perfect mate
Which superstar shines brightest next to King James? "LeBron Rating" reveals all.
By John Hollinger
The conference finals are under way, but let's be honest: The biggest story in the NBA is LeBron James' upcoming free-agency tour. Nothing less than the future of the league is at stake. OK, that might be a bit extreme, but you can argue that a player of his stature has never been available at such a young age. With that in mind, Insider brings you LeBron Week, a five-part look at every aspect of James' decision. First up, John Hollinger examines the best possible sidekick for LeBron.
LeBron James hits free agency in six weeks, and we've read a lot of tea leaves about which landing spots would work best for him. But today, it's time to turn the analysis on its head: Which players would benefit most from teaming up with LeBron?
For the purposes of brevity and sanity, I'm restricting the debate to star players who could plausibly team up with LeBron next year. Sure, Kobe Bryant would make a great teammate for King James, but I don't see that one as being terribly realistic.
Instead, let's look at what, statistically, might make a player a good fit with LeBron and then work backward to determine which ones possess the most positive attributes.
In order, here are the most important criteria:
1. He will not hog the ball. LeBron ranked second in the NBA last year with a 32.2 usage rate, which doesn't leave a ton of possessions for another ball-hungry player. The fact is, LeBron's teammates will be playing off the ball most of the time, and anyone doing his own thing is just taking the ball out of LeBron's hands.
Additionally, James' strength and stamina enable him to play 40 minutes 80 times per season, so there are relatively few opportunities for a ball-needy player to operate while LeBron is on the bench. This is one reason why many question how a LeBron-Dwyane Wade partnership would work -- Wade led the league in usage rate last year.
2. He will space the floor. The ideal James teammate will play on the outside, not on the inside, because that creates maximum space for James to complete his freight train drives to the rim. The best complements are players who both take and make a large percentage of their shots from the perimeter. To rate this for our purposes, I used a player's shooting percentage on long 2-pointers this season, courtesy of NBA.com.
3. He will finish what he starts. A high-usage player is going to have trouble pairing with LeBron, but a high-efficiency player should thrive. We're looking for players with a high true shooting percentage -- a player's shooting percentage adjusted for 3-pointers and free throws -- since those players can take best advantage of the shot opportunities LeBron creates for them.
4. He will crash the boards. Wherever he goes, James is likely to lead the team in shot attempts ... and in misses. That's why an Anderson Varejao-type who crashes the boards can be so successful as one of his teammates. While few star players fit this profile, there are a couple who supplement their scoring with offensive boards, and they'd make better complements for James.
So we have four key metrics we're looking at for in an ideal James teammate -- low usage rate, high TS%, high offensive rebound rate and strong outside shooting numbers. The "low usage" requirement is relative, as every star will be above the league average in that category; similarly, the bar for offensive rebound rate needs to be set low, since most stars are taking the shots, not collecting the misses. Nonetheless, this at least provides some guidelines for our star search.
Using this data, I created a "LeBron Rating" for each player by taking three-fourths of the player's true shooting percentage, subtracting half his usage rate, adding his offensive rebound rate and subtracting twice his turnover rate.
From that, we get results that neatly split the top dogs on the league's primary LeBron contenders into five groups:
Potential LeBron teammates: a comparison
Player Usg TS% TO Off. Reb. Long 2% LeBron Rating
Chris Bosh 25.9 59.2 9.6 9.9 46.3 71.7
Dirk Nowitzki 26.1 57.8 7.0 3.1 47.2 69.3
David Lee 22.2 58.4 10.0 8.4 43.9 68.6
Amare Stoudemire 24.4 61.5 11.6 9.7 41.0 66.6
Carlos Boozer 23.1 59.9 12.3 8.2 45.2 65.9
Joe Johnson 25.3 53.8 7.2 3.0 42.1 61.3
Rudy Gay 21.0 53.5 9.5 4.2 40.8 58.8
Derrick Rose 26.3 53.2 9.8 2.6 44.3 56.3
Dwyane Wade 33.2 56.2 9.8 4.5 35.8 51.4
Devin Harris 25.2 51.2 10.9 1.2 39.1 47.3
Baron Davis 24.7 50.1 10.8 2.4 36.0 45.6
The perfect companion: Chris Bosh
Bosh hits every check mark on the list above. He's an outstanding midrange shooter who would provide a fearsome weapon on the pick-and-pop, something James has never really had in Cleveland. His offensive rebound rate (9.9 percent) was in the top third of power forwards, which is amazing considering how often he played outside. His turnover rate was in the bottom third and his TS% (59.2) was outstanding.
Near-perfect companions: Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire, David Lee, Carlos Boozer
The lesson here: Pairing LeBron with a floor-spacing 4 can be really, really effective. We'll start with Nowitzki, the gold standard in this category. Dallas doesn't have the cap space to pursue LeBron, but that doesn't mean they won't try like the dickens with some combo of Erick Dampier's nonguaranteed deal, talented prospect Rodrigue Beaubois and any other goodies ($3 million and a future first-rounder, for instance) they can muster.
If they pulled it off, Dirk and LeBron would make a fearsome pair. Nowitzki doesn't rebound like Bosh does but is an even better outside shooter; and, as with Bosh, Nowitzki has both a low turnover rate and a high TS%.
Stoudemire isn't as good an outside shooter, but he's solid from midrange and otherwise possesses similar qualities as Bosh -- a stellar TS% (61.5), a strong offensive rebound rate and a fairly low rate of turnovers.
Lee and Boozer are birds of a feather when it comes to playing with LeBron -- they both can stick a midrange jumper but their primary value comes in slamming home offensive rebounds and making hard dives to the basket after they set screens. Boozer (59.9) and Lee (58.4) both had strong TS% and low turnover rates, and are good offensive rebounders; one worry, however, is that neither can defend a twig.
Now we're forcing things a bit: Rudy Gay, Joe Johnson, Derrick Rose
On the perimeter, Johnson and Gay would each provide James with a huge tag-team partner on the wing; this might be less than ideal defensively against quicker 2s but would be pretty fearsome on offense. However, both players are more comfortable playing with the ball and neither is a high-percentage sniper; Johnson (53.8) and Gay (53.2) had middling TS% stats and only average offensive rebound rates. While both numbers might increase in a subordinate role, it's not the killer combo that the four power forwards above provide.
Similarly, Rose's game is hardly a perfect match for James. He wants the ball in his hands (second among point guards in usage rate), and while he's a very good midrange shooter, he doesn't have the catch-and-shoot, long-range game that would help space the floor for LeBron when he's off the ball. While Rose is likely to improve in the coming years, and would form a devastating running mate in transition, the combo isn't ideal.
Whole less than sum of its parts: Dwyane Wade, Devin Harris
Let's get this straight: LeBron with Wade would be awesome together because of their overwhelming talent. But it's naive to think that pairing the two stars wouldn't subtract from the output of each. Wade had the league's highest usage rate this past season, is a limited jump shooter and is relatively turnover prone. Playing off the ball, he'd be far less useful than a Bosh or a Nowitzki.
Harris has a similar issue -- he's a straight dribble-driver who doesn't have a role to play off the ball. Like Rose and Wade, he's at his best when he can be the one at the top of the key handling the ball and slashing through defenses. As a catch-and-shoot weapon, he's mediocre at best.
The worst: Baron Davis
The Los Angeles Clippers want to sell James on the quality of the four players they already have in place, but the best of the bunch (Davis) could hardly be less suited to playing with him. A stubborn ball-dominator who shoots erratically, Davis' TS% (50.1) was among the worst of NBA stars. Spotting up on the weak side from James, he'd be more than happy to hoist 3s and, unfortunately, that's a problem, since he converts so few of them.
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