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The Best LeBron Sidekick?

Dec 23, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) drives to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) defends during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 121-119 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 23, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) drives to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) defends during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 121-119 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This morning on reddit, user MakinItNashty posited the following question, that has likely run through the minds of many fans alike:

Which star player would be the best specifically to pair on the same team with LeBron?

My answer on the thread was largely nonscientific, that three things come to mind in finding the best LeBron sidekick:

1) A good rebounder, as LeBron has to rebound far more than he should for an amazing scorer.
2) A good rim protector, as LeBron’s usefulness is suited more on the wings, though he may be somewhat able to guard Kendrick Perkins.
3) A good shooter, specifically a catch-and-shooter, which of course was greatly successful in Miami’s offense on LeBron’s drive and kicks.

While I could have dove in specifically to measure how each of these impacts a Lebron-style-offense, I decided to run with this hypothesis alone. That is: Which players are the best at rebounding, rim protecting, and catch-and-shooting?

For the answer, I looked at NBA.com’s SportVU tracking for six statistics last season:

1) Catch and Shoot FGA per game
2) Catch and Shoot eFG%
3) Opponent FGA at Rim per game
4) Opponent FG% at Rim
5) Rebounds per Chance %
6) Rebound Opportunities per game

To give these all equal weight, I converted them to standardized numbers and percentiles (like you might get on standardized testing scores), and averaged all 6. One qualifier: Opponent FG% is weighted inversely. That is, I took the percentile and subtracted it from 100%. This assumes that having many FG attempts at rim at a low percentage is a good thing, though there are certainly more robust ways to measure rim protection. For quick evidence that this method might work, I averaged low opponent FG% percentile and high FG attempts at rim percentile last season for each player (let’s call this Simple Rim Rating), and compared to defensive Real Plus-Minus. The top four were Hibbert, R. Lopez, Ibaka, and Bogut, and this had a 37% correlation to defensive RPM.

simple rim rating

After averaging all 6 percentiles, here are the top 10 players (minimum 750 minutes).

AVERAGE PERCENTILE (minimum 750 minutes)
Player Catch and Shoot FGA per game Catch and Shoot eFG% Opp. FGA at Rim Per Game 1 – Opp. FG% at Rim Rebs / Opportunities Reb. Opportunities per game Avg.
Al Horford 98% 66% 98% 62% 82% 95% 83%
Serge Ibaka 98% 63% 100% 72% 63% 98% 82%
Kevin Love 100% 76% 100% 36% 78% 100% 82%
LaMarcus Aldridge 100% 54% 98% 57% 79% 100% 81%
Carmelo Anthony 99% 80% 64% 57% 90% 91% 80%
Al Jefferson 97% 47% 100% 49% 78% 100% 79%
Dirk Nowitzki 100% 76% 97% 49% 61% 85% 78%
Chris Bosh 99% 65% 98% 50% 64% 88% 77%
Nicolas Batum 94% 76% 66% 59% 75% 91% 77%
Tim Duncan 85% 37% 100% 63% 77% 99% 77%

Some obvious things here:

1) There are few good rim protectors who also catch and shoot very well. Only five players are in at least the 60th percentile for the first four categories: Horford/Ibaka/Paul Pierce/David West/and Marvin Williams.

2) Kevin Love is in the 100th percentile for catch-and-shoot opportunities per game (at 6.3, 5th in the league), opponent FGA at rim per game (at 9.1, 10th in the league) , and rebound opportunities per game (18.9, 2nd in the league), which could translate nicely into the new-era-Cavs. His low rim protection FG% is counterbalanced by the fact that he had to face far too many players down low for a 6’10” guy who isn’t a true center.

3) On paper, Al Horford looks like a beautiful companion for LeBron’s style. Only 10 players listed as a Center on ESPN.com are in the top 50th percentile for Catch-and-Shoot attempts per game, and Horford’s effective FG% of 51.6% is the highest of them all. Don’t hold your breath on any All-Star-Game interaction between the two, but with Horford recovered from his injury last season, playing at MSG in February isn’t entirely out of the question for him.

Stretch fours and shooting bigs seem to fit LeBron’s style well, and if Kevin Love can stay out of LeBron’s territory, we’re likely to see an insane offense in Cleveland next season.

Nathan Walker