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LeBron Plays A Little Worse Against His Friends

With his four MVP awards and three NBA championships — the most recent of which capped a come-from-behind story for the ages and earned Cleveland its first major pro sports title in 52 years — LeBron James has set himself apart as the greatest player of his generation.

But even as James has cemented his legacy as one of the best ever, one thing has bedeviled him in recent years: He’s often struggled, despite expending more energy than usual, when playing against his friends.

Over the previous five seasons, James has shot beneath his lofty standards when squaring off against New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony — his buddy, who he’ll face tonight at Madison Square Garden — and Los Angeles Clippers floor general Chris Paul.

In four of the past five seasons — going back to 2011-12, which was Anthony’s first full campaign with the Knicks and Paul’s first season with the Clippers — James has posted worse-than-average (for him) true shooting percentages against the Knicks and Clippers when Anthony and Paul were on the court, according to data from NBA.com. Simultaneously, in four of the past five seasons, his usage rate has been higher — meaning he’s been responsible for a greater-than-average share of Cleveland’s offense, in terms of shot attempts and turnovers — against the Knicks when Anthony has been on the floor. (He’s somehow turned the ball over against the Knicks about 11 percent more than average over that span, despite New York fielding one of the NBA’s worst defenses.)1

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The 31-year-old’s statistics have been more favorable against fellow friend Dwyane Wade in the two full seasons since James left Miami to return to Cleveland. But even so, there have been challenges: Despite his high usage rates and enormous talent advantages, James has posted just a 2-4 mark against Wade since leaving the Heat in 2014.

It’s hard to know exactly why James’s performances are below his standard when he’s playing against his friends — ones he’s so close with that he’s said he’d like to team up with them before they all retire — but there are a couple theories worth considering.

One possibility, especially in relation to his showings against the Knicks, is the timing of these games. This season marked the fourth time in five years that the league’s schedule-makers have pitted James against New York during his team’s first five games of the season, meaning he may still be rusty at such meetings.

That might partly explain why his shooting — and perhaps even more so his ball handling, as he adjusts to new teammates — might be off against the Knicks compared to other opponents. (LeBron was understandably jittery during the 2014-15 opener — his first game back with the Cavs after a four-year absence — in which he shot 5-for-15 and committed eight turnovers in a losing effort.)

Separately, there may be something to the idea that James plays harder, or at least differently, against teams from big markets; if that’s the case, it could affect his statistics against his three closest NBA friends, who happen to play in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation’s three largest cities.

James has made no secret of the fact that he most enjoys playing games in major markets, even saying at one point that he’d readily play all 82 games at Madison Square Garden if he could. But that excitement might work against James in some situations.

His free-throw percentage splits against the Knicks, Clippers and Lakers — and in the high-profile, nationally televised Christmas Day games each of the past three years — have often been suspiciously low in recent seasons, an indication that he may be overthinking things at the line. (James, a 74.4 percent free-throw shooter for his career, has said in the past that he believes free-throw success is more mental than physical.)2

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To be clear, none of this is to suggest that James shrinks into a random role player when facing certain opponents. While he’s had less statistical success than he’s used to against Anthony and the Knicks in recent years, he’s still generally shown himself to be the best player on the court in those matchups. He posted a breezy triple-double on opening night in a blowout win against New York back in October.

And aside from the fact that he owns the third-highest career scoring average at Madison Square Garden (28.5), trailing only Michael Jordan (31.8) and Kobe Bryant (29.9), James and his teams have generally taken care of business (11-3 against Anthony, 6-3 against Paul over the past five-plus years), even if the superstar has been a bit less efficient than usual.

It’s also fair to award some credit to the defenses that limit James when he’s playing across from one of his closer friends. The Clippers, who currently boast the top defense in the league and have ranked among the top 10 on that end in three out of the past four seasons, have often been able to force James into somewhat rushed looks, since they have rim protector DeAndre Jordan lurking in the paint.

The Knicks, by contrast, have perennially ranked as one of the NBA’s worst defenses in recent years. But Anthony, who’s generally drawn the assignment of covering James, almost always shows more effort than usual when defending his friend.

While we’ve gotten a sense of how and why LeBron’s performed a bit less effectively as an individual when playing against his friends in recent seasons, it may be more interesting to analyze how he does when he’s particularly motivated by something or someone.

James quickly and historically turned the tide in the last three games of the Finals after Klay Thompson essentially questioned his manhood during a press conference. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be that shocking if on Wednesday James draws motivation from what he felt were inappropriate comments made by Knicks president Phil Jackson about his business partners.

With the Knicks playing as well as anyone in the East and the Cavs struggling lately, Wednesday’s game already had enough intrigue on its own. But knowing the history of how James fares against his friend — and seeing if that changes now that he may have lost respect for Jackson — might only heighten the drama.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. James’s usage rate was also higher than usual against Paul in Paul’s first two years against the Clippers, but since then it’s been lower.

  2. He shot free throws well against the Bulls in four of the last five years, but it will be interesting to see if that changes now that Wade is on the team.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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