He's got the scoring down, and he's shown he can get the assists. But new Miami Heat star LeBron James should fall short of the triple-double expectations because of his work on the boards. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Some observers in the NBA community contend that LeBron James stands a great chance of joining Oscar Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double over an entire NBA season. In the first installment of Holding Court, Evan Dunlap explains why anyone expecting LeBron to match The Big O will be disappointed.
After an amazing free-agent haul, the Miami Heat will draw plenty of attention, not just in NBA circles but from around the world this season. Among the many story lines to choose from: Can LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade coexist with but one basketball to share? Can any team match up with their projected crunch-time lineup featuring the 6-foot-8 James at point guard? Will the team challenge the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls' single-season victories record of 72, set during the 1995-96 NBA season?
On their own, James, Wade and Bosh would command a ton of ink, clicks and eyeballs. Together? Whoa, boy.
Expectations are understandably high for this team. Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy famously said the Heat "have a great shot" at topping the Bulls' 72-10 record. It only took one preseason game for Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! to dub the Heat James' team, while CBS's Greg Doyel believes "James has to [average a triple-double] this season, or he's an underachiever."
The first two points I can agree with, to an extent. But there's no way James will average a triple-double over the course of an entire season, a feat only Oscar Robertson has accomplished.
Scoring won't be a problem. James has averaged 27.8 points per game during his seven-year career, the highest mark among active players and third all-time. And though he's averaged only seven assists per game in his career, crossing the 10-assist barrier isn't out of the question, given how often he is expected to handle the ball in Miami's offense. He'll also have an improved roster around him, though it's worth noting that the two-month absence of Mike Miller, the league's most accurate shooter when left open, will make this task more challenging.
The biggest challenge for James' quest to join The Big O in NBA lore is rebounding. Yes, James has averaged seven rebounds a game in his career. But unlike assists, rebounds won't be any easier to come by in Miami. Some of his teammates are poor rebounders; as Tom Haberstroh helpfully pointed out via Twitter, starting center Joel Anthony's rebounding rate -- the estimated percentage of available rebounds a given player grabs during his time on the court -- was exactly equal to that of the average starting shooting guard last season. But Wade, Bosh and Miller all exceed positional averages with regard to rebounding, so James won't have more opportunities to eat glass than he did in Cleveland. If anything, he'll have fewer.
Another factor to consider is minutes. James' seven-board average comes in 40.3 minutes per game; he won't need to spend that much time on the court in Miami. Put another way, James has averaged one rebound for every 5.7 minutes played in his career. At that rate, James would need to play 57 minutes per game to reach a 10-rebound average.
Now, small forwards can hit the glass hard over portions of a season. Gerald Wallace of the Charlotte Bobcats did as much only last year, averaging an unreal 12.1 rebounds per game from October though December. Early that month, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus openly wondered if Wallace's improbable league-leading rebounding was the biggest statistical aberration in NBA history. He tailed off from January to the finish, averaging 8.8 boards in the 2010 portion of last season to finish with an on-the-nose 10-rebound average for the season.
But Wallace has historically bested James as a rebounder, averaging 7.3 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career, one full rebound better than James' total. He comes ahead in rebounding rate as well, with a career mark of 12.0 to James' 10.2. Thus, James would have to sustain a season-long dominance on the boards that not even a player with similar athletic gifts, one who's proven demonstrably superior to him in that facet of the game, could sustain for more than one-third of a season.
There will be nights when James sufficiently stuffs the stat sheet and gets a triple-double, adding to his career total of 28 in the regular season. Widening the scope, he has 102 career 10-rebound games. And if there's any player on Earth who can come close to posting a triple-double season, it's James.
But there's just no evidence to suggest he's a good enough rebounder to reach that mark, which means Doyel and legions of NBA fans may find themselves disappointed in James this season. That fact in and of itself illustrates LeBron's greatness: Even if he averages a 29/9/12 line, it won't be good enough for some of us.