Lies, damned lies and statistics: The confusing analytics of the NBA's 3-point obsession

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NBC Sports

Lies, damned lies and statistics: The confusing analytics of the NBA's 3-point obsession

Let's say you're an NBA coach after a loss. You plop down in your office chair. You're stewing. You're sweaty. Your vocal chords feel like someone gently massaged them with a cheese grater.  

An intern hands you the final box score. You look down and can't wait to find out: What cost you the win? 

What column do you look at first? What column should you look at first?

If you ask Gregg Popovich, it's the 3-pointers-made column. That's the only one worth looking at these days in a 3-obsessed league.

Last week, ahead of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against Chicago Bulls, Popovich was asked about the 3-point shot in the NBA, a topic which has long been fertile ground for a good quote from Pop. The 69-year-old has hated the advent of the 3-point shot for years and this was not the first time he’s ranted about the 3-ball.

“These days there’s such an emphasis on the 3 because it’s proven to be analytically correct,” Popovich offered Monday with what appeared to be a sneer. “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition (defense) was involved. You don’t even care. That’s how much an impact the 3 shot has and it’s evidenced by how everybody plays.”

Pop wasn’t done.

“I hate it, but I always have,” Popovich said even as he’s adjusted over the years. “I’ve hated the 3 for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time (and say) if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the 3, they’ll really like the 4. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

(Stephen Curry chimed in on Instagram with a “Nope!”)

This is a classic Pop rant. Funny. Ornery. Critical. But accurate?

He's exaggerating a bit to make a point, but on the surface, Popovich seems like he’s onto something. The 3-point shot has become more and more popular in today’s NBA. This season, the average NBA team shoots roughly 31 3-point attempts, about two more than last season and a whopping 13 more than the 2009-10 season. In some ways, it has taken over the sport. 

But is the 3-point column really that predictive? If you're a coach and you want to see what won you the game, should your eyes dart to the 3-point column on the stat sheet first?

Well, let's actually do the work. I have researched every NBA game played this season through Sunday’s games (all 342!) and looked at which stats aligned with the win column most often. In other words, which battle tended to win the war of a basketball game?

With that in mind, the most important stat on the traditional box score is ... field-goal percentage! Basketball purists, rejoice! If you shoot better from the floor than your opponent, you’re probably going to win the game. In fact, teams this season are 246-69 (.781) when they win the FG% column.

OK, maybe that's a little obvious. It’s a make-or-miss league, just as Jeff Van Gundy loves to say. 

Now, with all the 3s in today’s game, you look at the 3-pointers-made column, right?

Actually, still no. Old-school coaches might want to sit down for this: The team that won the defensive rebound battle is the next-most likely to win, going 225-71 (.760) this season. Don't believe it? Look at the league's top defensive rebound teams: Milwaukee, Philly, Portland, L.A. Clippers, -- yeah, they're really good this season! 

That area of the game probably keeps Wizards coach Scott Brooks up at night. Washington is 4-1 when they win the defensive-boards column, but 6-13 when they don’t

All right, 3-pointers have to be the next most pivotal category in the box score, right? Nope. Plain ol' field goals made is still more important than the 3-ball. The team that reigned supreme in the field goals column went 225-72 (.758), regardless of where they took them.

We can keep going. Turns out that assists (.699), rebounds (.690) and 2-point field goal percentage (.689) are still more tied to the win column than 3-pointers made. We’re seeing that maybe the 3-point shot isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Finally, further down the list, boom, we have 3-pointers made at a .640 win percentage, just barely ahead of 2FG (.628).

Here's the W-L record of teams that "won" the stat in the box score.

Huh. So, Pop is right in some sense. The "winner" of the 3-point column is more correlated with wins than turnovers, blocks and steals. But not rebounding, especially cleaning up the defensive glass. 

Even though teams are launching the deep ball more than ever, knocking down more 3s than your opponent doesn't guarantee victory. In fact, you lose 36 percent of the time with that 3-point edge. Even if you win the 3-point percentage column, you still lose 25 percent of your games, hardly a knockout punch.

You don't have to tell Mike D'Antoni twice about this phenomenon. If Pop's theory were true, the Rockets would be good this season. Newsflash: They aren't. If 3s made truly determined wins, then the Rockets would be 18-3-2 this season. They're 11-12. Earlier this season, they made 10 more 3-pointers than the Clippers and still caught an L.

How about the Bucks? The surprise team of the season, Milwaukee is 16-7 while firing up 3s at a Rockets-like rate. If the 3-point column dictated wins and losses, they’d be 14-8-1. It’s only two more wins, but this shows there’s more to their hot start than just the 3-ball. Their star player and offensive focal point, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is a terrible 3-point shooter, but the Bucks are amazing this season more so because they're the NBA's leader in 2FG% and layups -- and they dominate the boards. They're so dang good because they own the paint like a 90s throwback.

* * *

I asked the trusty Basketball-Reference gurus to run some numbers for me, and what they found was interesting. The team that wins the 3FGM column over the last decade has a win percentage of .648 in those games. This season, that win percentage is .640  and has been in decline as 3-point attempts have gone way up.

In fact, the 3-point column is essentially no more predictive than it was a decade ago (.638 in 2008-09). Aside from a blip in 2016-17, teams that won the 3-point column have hovered around .640 pretty consistently since 2004-05, when rule changes allowed more freedom of movement for guards (Hey, Mike D'Antoni!).

 

So what's Pop's rant really about?

It seems to be more about aesthetics, along with a hint of bitterness toward the fact that he's not using 3s to his advantage (NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman wrote about this). Popovich doesn't seem to like the drive-and-kick flow of the game, which feels like an issue of taste rather than a contention of competition. Business in the NBA is booming and it's hard to imagine a global obsession over Steph Curry without the advent of the 3-point line. 

The game isn't dominated by guys who were born super tall -- there’s no Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan in today’s game (not yet, Joel Embiid). Now, the NBA’s best players are smaller guys -- Curry, Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard -- who have mastered the skill of making baskets from really far away and away from a web of defenders.

There’s more data than ever in sports and the lessons from that data-mining has made its way onto the playing field where scoring has reached heights unseen. NFL coaches are going for it on fourth down more and throwing for more yards than ever. In Major League Baseball, strikeouts and home runs are soaring as part of the true-outcome seachange. If Pop hates 3-pointers, he'd really hate the home run ball. The team that wins the 3-point battle wins 64 percent of the time but according to the Sports Reference folks, the team that wins the homer battle wins a whopping 77 percent of the time. 

In the end, it's not only good for winning, it's good for business. As Greg Maddux told Tom Glavine: Chicks dig the long ball.

'There are only so many bullets' -- Rui Hachimura's unique NBA journey and the dangers of AAU

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NBC Sports

'There are only so many bullets' -- Rui Hachimura's unique NBA journey and the dangers of AAU

Rui Hachimura sat down in front of a sea of cameras and microphones at WinTrust Arena and scooted up his chair. The 22-year-old smiled and looked over his left shoulder to a group of Japanese reporters.

“Kon’nichiwa,” the rookie said, greeting his fellow countrymen.

It was the Rising Stars’ media availability at All-Star Weekend in Chicago and dozens of reporters wanted to hear the rookie speak. An American reporter tried to sneak in a question.

“Let’s do Japanese, no English,” Hachimura told him with a laugh. 

For the next 15 minutes, Hachimura broke new ground. It’s the first time a Japanese-born player participated in the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, and, despite his unique background, Hachimura proved he belonged all the same, shining as part of Team World in the Rising Stars game and completing more dunks (6) than the NBA’s hottest box-office item, Zion Williamson (5).

Hachimura’s star-turn is remarkable considering he didn’t play basketball until 2012, when he was 14 years old. Then again, this year’s All-Star Weekend was, on some level, proof that you don’t have to be a basketball lifer to ascend to the top of the sport. Pascal Siakam didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16 years old. Like Siakam, Joel Embiid was devoted to soccer until he picked up a basketball at the age of 15. 

For Hachimura, growing up in a baseball-obsessed country of Japan, it seemed almost destined that he would spend his life on a diamond instead of a hardcourt. Even his first name, Rui, given to him by baseball-loving grandfather, translates to “base” in Japanese. Hachimura jokes that he switched to basketball because no one could catch his fastball. A late growth spurt that stretched him to 6-foot-8 ensured that Hachimura would play hoops for good.

He quickly rose the basketball ranks in Japan, flourishing in international competition on Japan’s FIBA U17 and U19 national teams and drawing the attention of college recruiters in America. Just three years after landing at Gonzaga University amid eligibility issues over his poor command of the English language, Hachimura was named a finalist for Naismith Player of the Year. A few months later, the Washington Wizards shocked the league and made Hachimura the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

To some, the fact that Hachimura wasn’t schooled in basketball his entire life was a disadvantage. How could he possibly catch up with the world’s greats? But it was Hachimura’s lack of miles on the hardwood that caught the basketball world’s attention.

* * *

Marcus Elliott is a Harvard-trained physician who founded P3 Peak Performance facility, an industry-leading sports science hub in Santa Barbara, CA. Elliott and his team have assessed and studied the biomechanics and injury risk profiles of hundreds of NBA players and hundreds of other athletes at the youth, collegiate, Olympic and pro levels. 

Elliott’s P3 partnerships extend all the way around the globe, even in Japan. Elliott tries to visit on a yearly basis, equally drawn to the Japanese work ethic and its cuisine. He refers to Japan as “a 10,000-hour culture” with an emphasis on discipline and repetition. In high school, Hachimura played for legendary head coach Hisao Sato at Meisei High School and also for Japan’s junior national team, led by German head coach Torston Loibl. Loibl says Meisei workloads are the stuff of lore, practicing four hours a day “at minimum.” Loibl estimates that players from Hachimura’s high school would log over 300 practices a year.

“In high school, I practiced almost all day,” Hachimura says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know what to do. In college, I was more efficient.”

The demanding Meisei practice schedule didn’t phase Hachimura. Loibl was always struck by Hachimura’s positivity and work ethic. He remembers the night before the U17 World Cup, when Hachimura and two teammates knocked on his hotel door at midnight before a big game. Loibl awoke in a panic and hurried to open the door, only to find Hachimura smiling and asking to go over the game plan one more time.

“I love Rui’s mentality,” Loibl says. “He is very focused, works hard and always wants to get better. When (players) have gone through the Japanese system, everything else feels like vacation.”

Japanese basketball culture isn’t new to Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. Sheppard was part of the Phoenix Suns’ organization when they brought in Japanese prospect Yuta Tabuse for Summer League and a short period of the 2004-05 season. 

“I don’t think they had pitch counts in Japan,” Sheppard jokes. “(Hachimura’s training) was difficult -- I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult -- but I still wouldn’t put it up against any AAU schedule.”

The difference is in the type of training. Japanese prospects like Hachimura faced long hours of practice, but the schedule was light on games and globe-trotting travel. 

“I didn't play as many games as the American players did,” Hachimura says.

While AAU athletes fly around the country for tournaments, Hachimura mostly stayed inside Japanese borders. By sheer land mass, Japan is smaller than the state of California.

“The AAU travel schedule, it’s crazy,” Elliott says. “That by itself is super hard on the body. Japan is a few small islands. Even if (Japanese prospects are) playing a lot of games, it’s hard to make a case that it’s going to be as ballistic as it is here playing against the best kids in the country over and over and over.”

In Hachimura’s short time in the Japanese system, Sheppard found a basketball culture that prioritized coaching and personal growth above all else. The games were almost secondary. Out of that, Hachimura’s NBA future was honed.

“It was really refreshing to see,” Sheppard says. “They do care about their kids. It isn’t anywhere near what an AAU season would be.”

The fact that Hachimura wasn’t a basketball lifer, not playing the game until he was 14 years old, was considered a feature, not a bug.

Says Elliott: “That’s got to be an asset. That’s got to be a positive.”

* * *

The Wizards didn’t bring Hachimura in for a formal workout ahead of last June’s draft for fear of other teams picking up on the scent. The front office, led by the newly-promoted Sheppard, had done their homework. They loved his size and impressive feel for the game. Oddly enough, that he played baseball for most of his life appealed to basketball scouts like Sheppard. 

“With Rui, the miles were very attractive to us,” Sheppard says. “Very low compared to a normal kid his age if he was an elite player coming up through the (American) grassroots system.”

Sheppard has been scouting NBA prospects all over the world for over two decades and had grown increasingly worried about what he was seeing in American gyms. Elite prospects in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) system would play over a hundred games a year, putting excessive wear-and-tear on their bodies. An in-depth ESPN two-part series this past summer put a spotlight on the corrosive American youth basketball culture and the injury “epidemic” that followed prospects into the NBA.

Cautionary tales of the AAU ranks are numerous around the NBA. Though the AAU system helped bring many players the exposure that took them to elite college programs and later the professional ranks, those same players marvel in hindsight at the workload they faced as youngsters.

Wizards forward Troy Brown Jr. recalls playing in AAU tournaments as early as eight years old. By the time he was in eighth grade, he had quit other sports to play basketball year-round and was playing up to four games in a day. Sometimes, that also meant playing in multiple tournaments and age groups at the same time.

"I played like 24/7," Brown said. "I feel like at the beginning of it, it’s really fun. But when it gets down to winning games and trying to get to the championship and stuff like that, it definitely wears on you mentally. At the end of the day, you’re younger and you’re not really worried about load management. You just love basketball. You just play."

Wizards center Thomas Bryant noted how long drives and the money parents put up for their kids to play in tournaments can add a different type of pressure. His hardest time in AAU was a tournament in Albany, NY, where he played four games in one day. 

In between games, he was wearing down, but had to keep going.

"My mom was upset because I was tired. She was like 'I didn't drive all this way for you to be tired, you better go out there and win this championship.' Luckily, we did," he said. 

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has been in the NBA since 1987; first as a player for ten years, now as a coach in his 11th season. His coaching career alone has spanned a generation of NBA players from Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant to Hachimura.

Brooks has also been around long enough to notice how the rise of AAU has changed the NBA. That includes seeing a rise in the amount of players who are more used to playing an isolation game than within a team system, something Kobe Bryant railed against for years.

"A lot of these programs play 60 games in a summer and four games in a day,” Brooks said. “Two things; the wear-and-tear on the body and the win-losses don’t really mean as much. If you lose a game at 10 a.m. it’s ‘Hey, don’t worry we’re going to come back at 12:30 [p.m.].’ If you lose that game [it’s the same thing], so there’s no value in playing for the win because you’ve got a game in two hours. When you grow up in that, then it becomes [meaningless].

"Good players and good teams, the losses hurt. You can’t live in it and dwell in it, but you’ve gotta learn from it. It has to hurt and then you move on.”

While some might look at Brooks’ comments as the complaints of a long-time NBA coach, it’s much more than that for the basketball lifer and father of two. 

"I think it’s too much,” Brooks said of the AAU workload. “I know I wouldn’t put my kids in that situation to play that many games at that young an age where their body is still growing.”

* * *

Elliott can’t get the image out of his head. 

When asked about Hachimura’s road to the NBA, Elliott brings up a scene from a little over two years ago in his P3 gym. It was then that Elliott stood in a room with Zion Williamson and eight other top American high school players as part of a P3 initiative called BluePrint Camp. The point of the camp was to educate the teenage phenoms on how to take care of their bodies and to help identify minor biomechanical issues that could become major ones down the line. He opened with a question.

“Raise your hand if you have something that’s hurting you right now,” Elliott said.

He didn’t know what he’d find. In an NBA locker room, Elliott estimates he’ll see about 40 percent of the hands go up as the wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule takes its toll. But in this room full of teenage phenoms, it was a different story.

“Everyone raised their hand,” Elliotts says. “Every one of them. I was like, ‘Wow.’ These young AAU players, at an elite level, almost all of them have something hurting.”

Though it’s unclear how much can be attributed to AAU scheduling, the top of the most recent draft class has already had its injury issues. Williamson has missed 45 of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 55 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Williamson’s former AAU teammate, Ja Morant, selected second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, needed offseason knee surgery that forced the 20-year-old to start the season on a load-management regimen. The No. 3 overall pick, R.J. Barrett, a Canadian prodigy who traveled around North America playing in AAU tournaments before he even entered sixth grade, recently missed nearly three weeks with an ankle injury.

In Elliott’s eyes, avoiding the AAU circuit is no small thing when projecting an NBA player’s career.

“I think Rui’s in a much better place because of it,” Elliott says. “It’s a real story.”

* * *

The thrilling impromptu dunk competition between Williamson, Morant and others at the end of the Rising Stars caused an emotional tug-of-war for several executives around the league. Have a blast, dunk all you want, this is an entertainment product for the fans, after all. But on the other side, insiders also winced with every thunderous dunk attempt. One bad takeoff or landing could jeopardize a career or franchise.

The NBA has grown increasingly cognizant of the wear-and-tear that comes with NBA basketball and have gone to extensive measures to monitor the pounding. When Hachimura started playing basketball full-time in 2012, the title-contending Miami Heat had just begun using a gadget called VERT in practice, a fancy piece of wearable technology that tracked the number of jumps exerted by a player. With an aging core, the coaching staff wanted to keep unnecessary dunks to a minimum.

It remains to be seen whether Hachimura’s road less traveled will pay off down the line. He missed 23 games this season after suffering an accidental kick below the belt that later required a surgical procedure. The good news is that he hasn’t missed a game yet due to a wear-and-tear injury. 

“There are only so many bullets in a six-gun,” Elliott says. “You only have much cartilage in your knees. If you use 30 percent of it playing youth basketball, you have less to draw from when you try to go make a career of this thing.”

On Friday, the crowd roared as Williamson, Morant, Barrett and Hachimura’s college teammate, Brandon Clarke, attempted gravity-bending dunk after dunk. But one person who was notably absent from that dunk competition. Hachimura was on the court, but he was passing the ball off and barely crossing halfcourt as the others did basketball Cirque de Soleil. Hachimura seemed to be perfectly happy as an onlooker. He might as well have been on a baseball field in Japan.

Chase Hughes is a reporter covering the Wizards for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter (@ChaseHughesNBCS). Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

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NBC Sports

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

Two summers ago, LeBron James made his choice. By agreeing to sign with the middling Los Angeles Lakers, James was going to try to climb another mountain. 

LeBron knew he would be stepping into the shadow of the beloved Kobe Bryant and trying to rescue the franchise from something it had not known in some time, mediocrity. 

James knew it was a tall task. Those in his inner circle warned him that this would be the biggest challenge of his illustrious NBA career -- even more ambitious than bringing a title to the city of Cleveland, more difficult than winning back-to-back titles in Miami after the 2011 Finals debacle, a longer longshot than passing his idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. 

Before James came to the rescue, the shine had worn off the Lakers. Free agent after free agent passed. The rebuild wasn’t working. No team in the NBA had lost more games in its previous five seasons than the Los Angeles Lakers. In some eyes, rescuing the Lakers would go down as perhaps LeBron’s greatest basketball achievement.

But this? James did not sign up for this. No human being should be expected to shoulder the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other seven who perished in the tragic helicopter crash last month. No one can bottle up all that grief, soak up all those tears and absorb the anger for a world in mourning. 


 

But here we are. The “Win It For Kobe” movement seems to be taking hold both locally and nationally and it makes me extremely uneasy.

A tragedy like the one in Calabasas shouldn’t be minimized by the bounces of an orange ball. Beyond that very obvious thing, it’s clear we’re putting LeBron James in an unfair, no-win situation. If the Lakers win the title, it will, for many, be remembered as Kobe willing it from the heavens. If the Lakers lose, it will likely be seen as LeBron, once again, proving he could never be Kobe. It all feels like a trap.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope fans will understand that an early postseason exit from James, Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel in his first year as the Lakers’ head coach shouldn’t be construed as some sort of failure to honor Bryant’s death. Basketball can’t be that serious, right? But I also saw what James’ hometown fans wrote on poster boards when he returned to Cleveland from the Miami Heat.

Sports so often give adults a reason to believe in fairy tales, that perhaps Kobe is up there pushing the Lakers along this championship quest. LeBron himself has leaned into it, for sure. When LeBron leaped into a double-pump reverse dunk in Staples Center last week, it was one of the sensational plays of the season, captured in this iconic image by the great NBA photographer Andrew D. Bernstein.

But hours later, the Lakers took it to another level and posted a jaw-dropping video of Kobe Bryant doing the same dunk on the same hoop 19 years ago, a clip that generated over 25 million views.

LeBron would later admit he didn’t do it as a tribute. It was just a remarkable coincidence. LeBron could have left it there, but instead:

“Ever see the movie ‘The 6th Man’?” LeBron told ESPN. “Kobe came down, put himself in my body and gave me that dunk on that break.”

Believing in this sort of thing can be comforting on some level. Everyone grieves and heals differently. In the aftermath of the unthinkable in Calabasas, LeBron has mostly been a figure of strength. Just before the Lakers’ first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death, James went off script and delivered a moving speech in front of a grieving crowd all adorned in Bryant’s jersey. Much of the millions watching at home wept (I know I did, thinking about my own daughters).

Speaking to executives and coaches around the league before that game, the overriding feeling was there was no way that the Lakers wouldn’t win that game. The stars would align and the Lakers would triumph in an emotional tribute to Bryant.

Reality had other plans. The Lakers lost by eight. Damian Lillard dazzled his way to 48 points and turned that fairy tale inside out. It was a sobering reminder that James and Davis aren’t superheroes. The Lakers are still a basketball team with weaknesses that can be exploited.

We should be ready for more nights like that. The cold, hard truth is that the Lakers aren’t likely to win the championship in June.

At least that’s what the sharp money says. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com projections has the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks tied at 19 percent chance of winning the championship, with the LA Clippers trailing just behind at 18 percent odds to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Even if the Lakers go on a run and nudge themselves into the lead by the end of the regular season, being the favorite doesn’t mean it’s likely. The flipside of 19 percent means that there’s an 81 percent chance that a team other than the one dressed in purple and gold will win it all. The Lakers’ championship probability is roughly the same as Laker sharpshooter Danny Green missing a free throw (Green is a career 81 percent shooter at the charity stripe). Again, not great odds.

In some ways, LeBron is a victim of his own success. Thanks to his play in his 17th season, the Lakers are way ahead of schedule. The preseason over/under on the Lakers stood at 50.5 wins. They’re on pace to win 63. So much of it is due to LeBron’s brilliance, as it was on full display in Wednesday’s overtime win against Denver (32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds was LeBron’s line). 

But if you look deeper, you’ll see the full extent of LeBron’s impact. The Lakers are a baffling minus-55 this season when Anthony Davis is playing but James is on the bench. The other side of that coin is just as telling: The Lakers are plus-166 when James is playing and Davis is on the bench, per PBPstats.com.

Without LeBron, where would the Lakers be right now? This gives you a hint: Over the last two seasons, the Lakers have been outscored by 201 points in the 2,765 minutes with James on the bench, or getting beat by 3.5 points every 48 minutes. That’s the same differential as the this season’s Minnesota Timberwolves, who are 16-27.

LeBron is doing what he set out to do: resurrect the Lakers into championship contenders. The on-off numbers illustrate the kind of impact he’s had on the organization; how much the 35-year-old means to their success. Three years after firing their front office two days ahead of the trade deadline and being the laughing stock of the NBA (hello, Knicks!), the Lakers are now 41-12 and blazing to the West’s No. 1 seed -- all because of LeBron. It’s hard to say otherwise.

But with the Lakers exceeding expectations, it feels like we’re building toward an inevitable letdown. The signs are there. The Lakers are 0-5 against the Clippers, Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers this season despite LeBron averaging 21.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists in those games. The Lakers’ struggles at the top have less to do with LeBron and more to do with the fact that Dwight Howard inked to a non-guaranteed contract is often the team’s third-best player.

So much can change between now and June. The Lakers, as it stands, are not likely to win it all. If they don’t, it almost certainly won’t be because of LeBron. They’re not there without him. 

If the Lakers do indeed fall short of the title, resist the urge to put Kobe’s death on LeBron or the Lakers. It’s not fair. How much can one man possibly do? LeBron is only human. If Kobe’s tragic death has taught us anything, it’s that humans can only control so much of their fate. This isn’t a mountain. This is a bottomless void. James shouldn’t be asked to fill it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.