On the surface, the answer seems very clear. The depleted Cleveland Cavaliers are up 2-1 against one of the greatest regular-season teams in NBA history, the Golden State Warriors. Who cares if James is missing more than 20 shots per game? The Cavs are winning without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Whatever it takes, right?
But that kind of "efficiency-be-damned" thinking also seems dangerously reductive. The implication is that missing shots is the key to winning basketball. If that were true, Joe from down the street who has never picked up a basketball would go No. 1 in this year's draft. At some point, missing a ton of shots -- no matter who it's coming from or how many MVP awards he has won -- is unhealthy basketball.
The question is whether we've reached that tipping point. In this series, James has missed more shots than any other player has even taken during these NBA Finals. Think about that for a moment. James has misfired on 64 of his 107 field goal attempts. By comparison, Stephen Curry, the league MVP, has taken 63 field goal attempts, period.
Is this a sustainable winning formula for the Cavs?
Even James struggles with the answer, suggesting this isn't really the style of ball that suits him.
"One hundred and seven shots, that's out of my character," James told Dwyane Wade on ESPN after Tuesday's win. "But I have no choice. It's not like I'm going out there and casting shots or pulling up in transition and throwing things up there. I'm just trying to put pressure on the defense.
"I don't like to shoot this much. We talk about it all the time. We want to shot 50 percent, 50 percent, 50 percent. I'm so far away from 50 percent."
The 40-shot dilemma isn't a new one. Larry Brown faced similar criticism in the 2001 Finals with Allen Iverson going against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, a team that swept all three opponents en route to the Finals. To this day, Brown maintains that Iverson's high-volume shooting was a winning formula.
James' Iverson act
Iverson's 2001 run was one for the ages. In Game 1 of that series, Iverson scored 48 points on a jaw-dropping 41 field goal attempts and won in dramatic fashion, stepping over then-Laker and now Cavs assistant coach Tyronn Lue along the way to victory.
"When I had Allen [Iverson], my best way to win was for him to shoot 40 times a game," Brown told ESPN.com. "A lot of people might say some of Allen's shots weren't great shots. Well, the ability for him to shoot the ball so many times was, I think, underrated."
James is currently shooting 40.2 percent from the floor on 35.7 field goal attempts per game in the Finals. In the first three games of the 2001 Finals, Iverson shot 40 percent on 33.3 attempts per night -- almost identical numbers.
To Brown, Iverson received undue criticism for his shot volume.
"I used to get upset when [then New York Knicks coach Jeff] Van Gundy called it the Allen Rule," Brown said. "They always hoped that Allen made his first two 3s so maybe he'd start thinking he'd be more inclined to shoot outside shots. But I never thought about it that way."
"Like James, Iverson put so much pressure on the defense and just never got fatigued. And the bigs -- Dikembe Mutombo and Tyrone Hill -- were relentless on the boards just like [Timofey] Mozgov and [Tristan] Thompson." Jeff Van Gundy
Interestingly enough, the Allen Rule might have come into play in Game 1 of this year's Finals. James, who had struggled with his perimeter game all postseason long, made his first two jumpers of the game and seemingly became addicted to the long-range shot. He missed 20 of his next 36 shots, just four of which came at the rim. The Cavs lost in overtime as James' shot betrayed him.
Van Gundy doesn't recall coining the Allen Rule. But to him, the parallel to James' Cavs and Iverson's Sixers is undeniable.
"I couldn't agree more with that analogy," Van Gundy said. "Like James, Iverson put so much pressure on the defense and just never got fatigued. And the bigs -- Dikembe Mutombo and Tyrone Hill -- were relentless on the boards just like [Timofey] Mozgov and [Tristan] Thompson."
Missing shots is bad. But it doesn't hurt as bad if those misses can be recovered. The pressure on the defense that Van Gundy cites is an important byproduct of James and Iverson's high-volume shooting because it frees open teammates to crash the boards.
"I just knew based on the way Allen commanded so much attention, he made everyone around him better," Brown said. "The fact that Allen commanded so much attention, we were able to offensive rebound. His shots never surprised us."
The Sixers gobbled up 32.7 percent of their own misses in the 2001 playoffs, an offensive rebound rate that ranked second only to the monstrous Lakers. No team had a greater percentage of points coming from second-chance opportunities than Iverson's Sixers. They were built around Iverson misses.
Like the 2001 Sixers, the Cavs rank second among playoff teams in offensive rebound rate, behind only the Dallas Mavericks, who were ousted in the first round. In many ways, the Cavs are similarly built to take advantage of James' gravitational pull.
"Obviously, the body types couldn't be more different," Van Gundy said of Iverson and James. "But the pressure they put on your defense was similar."
Brown knew Iverson commanded attention, which he believed yielded more benefit than the box score suggested. Has James produced a similar effect?
I asked that question to Stats LLC, the company that installed fancy player-tracking cameras in all 29 arenas, and the resulting SportVU data can offer a glimpse into James' pull on the defense.
They've developed a metric called "team attention score," which measures defensive attention the ball handler is drawing among all five defenders. The higher the number, the more pull against the defense. Even though there have been just three games in the Finals, Stats LLC has observed more than 1,000 events for James both on and off the ball.
What do we find when we look into the data? As expected, James indeed has the highest team attention score among Cavs players, but what's more fascinating is that his 65.9 figure in this series is the highest he has generated against an opponent this postseason.
Even though the Warriors have opted to guard him with mostly single coverage, he's tilting the defense more than he has all postseason (by a smidge, according to this metric). This suggests that the high-volume shooting, which has reached career highs this series, is warping the defense despite the chunk of one-on-one coverage.
To see James' impact, look no further than Mozgov, who has made nine of his 13 field goals off of James' passes this series. He is shooting 9-of-12 off of dishes from James, but just 4-of-10 on feeds from all others.
To Cavs coach David Blatt, all the attention that James derives has justified his shot volume. After Game 3, Blatt had no idea that James missed 20 shots until I pointed it out to him at the postgame news conference.
"What you just said to me amazes me," Blatt said, double-checking the stat sheet in front of him. "I didn't even I didn't see [the 20 misses]. I didn't see him take a lot of bad shots at all. I thought he was great. I thought he controlled the game and helped his team to play the way that we wanted to play. And I'll take it every day."
As Blatt points out, game control is a critical layer to consider. Despite missing 60 percent of his shots in the series, James is milking the clock and shortening the game in the Cavs' favor. According to ESPN Stats & Info tracking, James has attempted nearly 50 percent of his field goal attempts with seven seconds or less remaining on the shot clock this series. In the Conference finals, that number was just 33 percent.
The result is the Cavs have slowed the series to a crawl, limiting the game to 93.7 possessions every 48 minutes. That pace factor more closely resembles Cavs' regular-season pace factor of 94.8 than the Warriors' 100.7 figure, which was the fastest rate in the league. Even if the offense has been borderline unwatchable at times, it has taken the Warriors out of their up-tempo rhythm.
James' high-volume shooting might have hidden value that goes beyond the missed field goal count. Because of the offensive rebounding potential and deceleration of the game, James' 64 misses aren't as damaging as it seems on the surface. Furthermore, James' 40.2 percent shooting doesn't seem so hurtful when you consider his teammates are shooting 39.2 percent in the series.
But the Cavaliers are winning not because of James' high-volume shooting. They're winning despite it, just like the defense-minded 2001 Philadelphia team.
"The Sixers didn't win a championship in 2001, but no one got more out of a team than Larry Brown did in that season," Van Gundy said. "It was a terrific accomplishment."
If the Cavs can pull this off, it'd be undoubtedly more impressive. The Cavs are up 2-1 in the series primarily because of their stout defense, holding the Warriors to just 99.7 points per 100 possessions in the series, which is down from the Dubs' previous playoff rate of 107.3 points, according to NBA.com.
Defense isn't sexy, but point totals are. James' scoring numbers jump off the page, but that has more to do with his shot frequency than his efficiency. There's no denying James has been a monster in this series, averaging nearly a triple-double while somehow playing 142 of the available 154 minutes. Iverson couldn't impact the game in the ways that James can.
But it'll be interesting to see how long James can shoot this poorly and get away with it. And it remains to be seen whether James' body can hold up logging this many minutes. For Iverson, his fairy-tale 2001 story ended in five games as the Lakers' offense snapped back into juggernaut status.
James might be far away from 50 percent shooting, but that might not matter if the Cavs' defense keeps neutralizing the Warriors' once-dominant attack.