LeBron James and the Heat defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the Staples Center last night, 99-90. LeBron had 39 points after shooting a hyper-efficient 17 for 25 from the field. The Heat have struggled this season, but James has not, shooting 55 percent from the floor and over 40 percent from beyond the arc. While it’s easy to rehash what LeBron is doing well on offense, it’s harder to find holes in his offensive game. An opponent’s ability to keep LeBron out of the restricted area is easier in theory than it is in games, but that’s the only way you’re going to slow down the reigning MVP and world’s greatest basketball player.
Kevin Durant, on the other hand, doesn’t need to get to the hoop to drop buckets. He’s a better, more multifaceted offensive player as a result, and that’s why he’s a better option if you need a bucket at the end of a game.
Durant is having an incredible offensive season for an Oklahoma City team that has the best record in the league and the highest scoring offense (despite the loss of James Harden), averaging 110.6 points per 100 possessions; Miami is second at 109.3. While Durant is a threat all over the court, LeBron still has holes in his offensive game. He’s been successful because he’s just become so disciplined in his shot selection, it’s covered up the midrange inaccuracy that still plagues him (although to a lesser degree than before). This should not be confused with LeBron’s ability to hit from deep, particularly from the right side of the court, but once LeBron’s caught between looks past the arc and at the basket–something that’s not been happening very much this year–he’s struggled, at least as much as someone with the gaudy numbers of LeBron can struggle. Conversely, aside from a perplexing lack of left corner three-pointers — Durant’s only attempted one all season — he’s shooting better than the league average seemingly everywhere on the floor, and that’s why he’s more dangerous on the offensive end than his foil in last year’s NBA Finals.
Last night against L.A.’s porous transition defense, LeBron was a perfect 15 of 15 when attempting shots at the rim. That means he was 2 of 10 everywhere else, which included 1 of 2 beyond the arc, and 1 of 8 between the bucket and the three-point arc. For the season, he’s shooting 72.2 percent at the basket, which is over 15 percentage points better than the league average (all stats not attributed, come via NBA.com).
Part of the reason for his astronomical shooting percentage, at least for a guard who’s hovering just below a 30 percent usage rate, is that he’s attempted more than 45 percent of his shots at the rim. Equally as efficient is LeBron’s accuracy from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 40 percent on the season from long range, going 50 for 125 so far this season. Those 125 shots represent over 17 percent of his total shots this season, so it’s not like he’s just shooting fewer three-pointers, like he did last season (last season he averaged 2.4 per game; this season it’s back up to 3.3, per hoopdata). LeBron’s mixing his drives and his jumpers, so that around 63 percent of all LeBron’s attempts happen behind the three-point line or right at the rim. That’s incredibly methodical and a large reason for his offensive efficiency this season; eliminating midrange jumpers — the least efficient shot in basketball — will do that.
Durant, on the other hand, has attempted a little more than 36 percent of his shots at the rim, while still shooting close to 10 percent over the average from that distance. Maybe he’s not as unstoppable as LeBron once he gets to the rim, but he’s close. He’s also shooting better from long range than LeBron, and he’s not limited to one particular side of the floor, either. LeBron’s shooting from beyond the arc drops below the league average from the left side to the area at the top of the key. Durant is above the league average everywhere beyond the arc except the short corner three on the left side already mentioned (the majority of OKC’s offensive sets keep him away from that area, but we’re guessing that percentage would be significantly higher if he got more looks). So, despite not being quite as accurate as LeBron while at the rim, Durant is a better three-point shooter while actually averaging more shots from that distance.
That leaves us with the midrange game. Now keep in mind, this is the least efficient place to take a shot on the court, since shots (theoretically) become harder the farther out you get from the rim. Without the additional point behind the arc, it’s not a big enough payoff to take a long-range two (take note Michael Beasley).