The Next Jordan?

Posted on June 7, 2007 by

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Last season the “next Jordan” was Dwyane Wade. And as Henry Abbott reports, LeBron James was considered the first cut for Team USA. A few months later, LeBron has fully assumed both the mantle of King James and the “next Jordan”. Has anything changed besides popular perception?

Let’s start with Wade. Flash produced 18.2 wins in 2005-06 and his Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] was 0.301. Wade was hurt in 2006-07, so his wins production fell to 11.7. But his WP48 was 0.291, which is not much different from what he did when he was the “next Jordan.”

As I noted during last year’s final, although Wade is quite good, he still doesn’t compare to Jordan. Is it a different story when we look at LeBron?

Table One: The Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005-06 and 2006-07

The above table reports what the Cavaliers did in 2005-06 and 2006-07. In both seasons this team won 50 regular season games, although in terms of Wins Produced (and of course efficiency differential), the Cavaliers were a little bit better this season. LeBron, though, was actually a bit better two years ago. In 2005-06 he produced 20.4 wins with a 0.292 WP48. This season he produced 17.4 wins with a WP48 of 0.262. In both seasons he was amazing (although not Jordanesque), but he was a bit more amazing in 2005-06.

Still, his team was eliminated in the second round in 2006 and this year he is in the NBA Finals. Consequently, the perception of King James has changed. It’s important to remember that the Cavaliers in the 2007 playoffs have played a Wizards team without Gilbert Arenas, a Nets team that only won half its regular season games, and a Pistons team that was not quite as good as it was in 2005-06. In other words, the Cavs may have progressed further because its competition was weaker, not because this team was any better.

Nevertheless, the Cavs are in the NBA Finals where it will face the San Antonio Spurs. Like the Cavs, the Spurs are not much different from what they were in 2005-06.

Table One: The San Antonio Spurs in 2005-06 and 2006-07

Unfortunately for Cleveland, the Spurs were very good two years ago and a bit better in 2006-07 (interestingly, the team’s Wins Produced and actual wins kind of flip-flopped the past two years). And that means the Spurs are the best team LeBron has ever faced in the playoffs.

Yes, as the media notes, the Cavs have the “next Jordan” in King James. The Spurs, though, have Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental was even better than James in 2006-07, producing 20.1 wins. In fact, Duncan’s career Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] stands at 0.333, which is a mark that James has never hit. LeBron’s best WP48 was 0.307 in 2004-05 (which means his productivity has declined a bit the past two seasons).

Not only do the Spurs have the better star, they also have the better supporting cast. LeBron’s teammates produced 33.9 wins and posted a WP48 of 0.097 this past season. Given that an average WP48 is 0.100, LeBron’s teammates are on average, about average. Duncan’s teammates offered 43.4 wins and a WP48 of 0.122. So as I noted a few days ago in my discussion of Garnett and Duncan, the Big Fundamental also gets to play with better teammates than King James.

Of course, people might say that the playoffs are not the regular season. LeBron has shown that he can raise his game when the competition is at its toughest. When we look at what the Spurs and Cavalier players have done in the post-season, we do see evidence that LeBron has played better in the 2007 playoffs.

Table One: The Spurs and Cavs in the 2007 NBA Playoffs (thus far)

Again, though, his playoff opponents have been relatively weak. And even with his improved play, he is still only playing about as well as Tim Duncan.

My plan is to offer commentary on each Finals game. Part of this discussion will review the prevalence of the prime-time playoff performer (and whether or not King James has any special post-season ability). Those who have read The Wages of Wins already know how prevalent this phenomenon is in the NBA. For those who have not read the book… isn’t it about time to order a copy? While you do, I am going to run home and watch game one. After all I have said about this game, I am sure LeBron scores 75 points tonight and the Cavs win by about 50.

– DJ