By William Ezekowitz
Anyone who has watched the Finals for even a couple minutes knows that LeBron James is shooting a lot. His 41% usage rate is the stuff of NBA Finals legends. He’s even missed more shots (79) than anyone else in the series has taken, besides Steph Curry, who has taken 80, according to Basketball Reference. Surely, this is bad. According to conventional wisdom, LeBron needs to either be more efficient, or shoot less (or a combination of both) in order for the Cavs to win two more games. But while all these missed shots are not good for the Cavs, they might not be as bad as you think.
Kirk Goldsberry first coined the term Kobe Assist in 2012 to describe the phenomenon of when a player’s shot immediately turns into a putback, with the thinking being that if the shooter draws a crowd from the defense, there will be more space for other players on offense to get the rebound and put it back in. Unsurprisingly, in 2012 this was something Kobe Bryant excelled at. For the Cavs and Lebron, the Kobe Assist might just be a savior.
According to ESPN.com box score data, of LeBron’s 79 misses, the Cavs have gotten the offensive rebound 34 times, for an offensive rebounding rate of 43%. This is absurd. The NBA average this year was around 25% per NBA.com, and, even though LeBron has taken a third of the Cavs’ shots, the Cavs’ offensive rebounding rate for the Finals is still only 26.2%. Furthermore, according to Goldsberry’s article, the Lakers only got the rebound on 34% of Kobe’s misses.
When LeBron has shot this series, the ball has gone in the basket 39% of the time and missed 61% of the time. But, accounting for the 43% offensive rebounding rate, 26% of the time LeBron shoots, the Cavs get an offensive rebound. A lot has been made this series of the Cavs playing a slower brand of isolation basketball and frustrating the Warriors’ attempts to get out on the break. When those two numbers are added together, we find that only 35% of LeBron’s shots end in a Warriors defensive rebound, making a LeBron isolation an incredibly useful tool in slowing the Warriors down.
But the Cavs still have to do something when they gain possession on the offensive glass. They have immediately put the ball back in the basket for a conventional Kobe Assist 7 times this series, meaning 8.8% of LeBron’s misses are Kobe Assists. By comparison, 2012 Kobe earned a Kobe Assist on 15% of his misses, according to Goldsberry. We should, however take this comparison with a grain of salt. First, 7 is a very small number, and we don’t want to make broad claims off of such a small sample size; furthermore, the Warriors are committing 16% more fouls in the Finals than they did during the regular season, and you only get credit for Kobe Assist on a made basket, but there have been a couple instances of Mozgov or Thompson being fouled before they can complete a shot on the putback. So While LeBron’s Kobe Assist numbers are low, the Cavs are getting an inordinate amount of offensive rebounds from his shots, and anyone watching the game can see that good things happen for the Cavs when Thompson or Mozgov snare an offensive board.
As a closing note, it is very noteworthy that in Game 4, when the Warriors went small, the Cavs rebounded over 50% of LeBron’s misses and gave him 4 Kobe Assists. Obviously, many other things went wrong for the Cavs in Game 4, but crashing the boards on LeBron’s misses went very well. If the Warriors stay small, look for the Cavs’ series rebounding rate on LeBron’s misses to rise even further, and for his Kobe Assist numbers to go up too. So if you’re reading this, LeBron, keep shooting (and maybe throw HSAC a RT)! Or maybe even shoot more! It might be the only chance you have.