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Some Fun with SportVU Speed Data: A Look at Lebron and Durant

Jan 29, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) is pressured by Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first half  at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 29, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) is pressured by Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

One of the major storylines during this last NBA season was that Lebron James was coasting. This could be seen in some of his stats such as his defensive RPM, which was his lowest since the 2007 season. However, another way to measure this would be to look at how his average speed changed during the course of the season (average speed being a proxy for a player’s intensity level). Theoretically, a player is going to start the season out going hard because they’re excited for the new season and they want to set the tone for a good year. However, when we get to January and February- the “dog days” of the NBA season- players are more likely to coast and less likely to put forth a consistent effort on a game-to-game basis. So in theory, we’d expect to see Lebron’s average speed per game decrease in this stretch of the season.

Let’s look at Lebron’s average speed per game over the course of the season and compare it with Kevin Durant, who no one is accusing of coasting.

average speed per game lebron and durant

We actually see that Lebron started the season out slower (bad pun intended) and that many of his fastest average game speeds came in the second half of the season. And we see the opposite is true for Durant, who started out with some of his highest average speeds. We can also see that by the second half of the season, Lebron and Durant were averaging roughly the same average speed. This can be seen in the following chart, which splits the first half of the season into the first 41 games and the second half into the remaining 41 games:

1st half 2nd half
Durant 3.94 3.78
Lebron 3.79 3.81

Next, let’s look at another chart that measures their average speed per game by the number of days of rest they had prior to the game. If Lebron was coasting, theoretically, he would be expending a lot less energy on back to backs to save his body. Was this true?

avg speed based on days of rest

Lebron does see a large increase in his average speed per game when he has an extra day of rest. However, given that we’re looking at only a pair of players, it’s tough to make any conclusions without knowing what the league average increase (or decrease, though that’s doubtful) in average speed per game is with an extra day of rest. What we can say is that Lebron’s average speed per game certainly benefited from an extra day of rest more than Durant’s did.

Of course, all of this is a fairly simple analysis at looking at whether Lebron coasted during the season. Theoretically, a player’s average speed would measure their intensity level but that’s certainly not a given. And furthermore, there’s no such analysis that backs this claim. But who cares — fun graphs right?

*A special thank you to Darryl Blackport for his invaluable work, scraping the SportVU boxscores off the NBA site so that we can see game-by-game data. None of this would be possible without his awesome work.

Krishna Narsu

  • backell

    One thought about something that could be skewing the data both ways. Durant was without Westbrook for much of the first part of the season. LeBron was with Wade for the bulk of the second half. Do the added responsibilities force each to be more active?