Paul Rabil vs. LeBron James

This post is part of a series geared toward generating hype for the upcoming MLL season. Non-lacrosse and non-MLL fans can get to know the league’s stars better through these comparisons to NBA, NFL and NHL players. Some analogies are based on playing styles and others are based on off-field personality, but none are based on spending habits. We aren’t quite at the point where MLL players can drop $5,000 each week at Cheesecake Factory, but we’ll get there someday.

I know. It seems too easy to compare the best lacrosse player in the world to the best basketball player in the world. The parallels run deeper than their dominance though. As I’ve said before, these analogies focus on styles of play rather than results. While you’re watching the game, ask yourself: “Who does this guy remind me of?”

Sure, John Grant Jr. looks like Kobe Bryant on a stat sheet. But does 6’0’’, 225 lb. John Grant Jr. resemble 6’6’’, 200 lb. Kobe Bryant on the field? NO! Kobe’s jab-step, fade-away, do-it-yourself offensive style looks nothing like Junior’s brute strength and fancy finishing.

[I’d even argue that this comparison is an insult to Junior in the record books. Kobe has only been “the guy” on two of his championship teams.]

Back to Rabil and LeBron – they are both incredibly gifted athletes. Expectations for each are sky-high – and because of that, these two both take a lot of criticism. Fans demand the best from them; and they demand the best from themselves. Both spend a ton of time in the muscle factory.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey Joe, you’re an idiot. All pro athletes work out!” Sure, they do. But very few athletes live the “Offseason is my season” motto like Rabil and LeBron. Follow them on twitter or Instagram. Their workouts make Gerard Butler look like Gumby.

Maturation

Experts love to throw around the word “efficiency” when talking about LeBron. It wasn’t always that way, though – look at LeBron’s field goal percentages from ’03-’08: 41.7%, 47.2%, 48%, 47.6%, 48.4%, 48.9%. Here are his numbers from ’09-’13: 50.3%, 51%, 53.1%, 56.5%, 58.4%.

A quick glance might lead you to believe he got better at shooting. Look deeper though, and you’ll see what really improved was his decision-making. LeBron took more than 1600 field goals in five of his first six seasons. He’s taken less than 1600 in each of his last four seasons. He’s not making more shots; he’s missing less shots.

Similarly, Rabil has improved his game over the years – although not his shooting percentages. In fact his shooting has dropped drastically. The first three years of his career were much better, in terms of percentages, than the last three years.

‘08-‘10 Rabil: 31 games, 78 goals, 281 shots, 28% shooting, 45% adj. shooting

‘11-‘13 Rabil: 39 games, 87 goals, 406 shots, 21% shooting, 32% adj. shooting

A quick glance at Rabil’s numbers would be equally misleading. You might jump to an irrational conclusion: “Rabil is getting worse!” or “Goalies have figured out Rabil!” Those claims are incorrect. They make no sense if you think about them. Credit Rabil’s lower percentages to the same cause of LeBron’s higher percentages: Volume.

It’s unrealistic to expect a player to increase his number of shots and maintain high shooting percentages. Giving a player a larger workload makes his job tougher. Losing players like Brad Ross and Max Quinzani has caused the Cannons to put a larger workload on Rabil. His shooting efficiency has been down because of it – but his overall efficiency is better than ever.

Playmaker Ability

Take the same two three-year splits we just looked at. Now, I’ll remove all shooting statistics. There’s one number you need to see – assists:

‘08-‘10 Rabil: 31 games, 29 assists, 0.94 assists per game

‘11-‘13 Rabil: 39 games, 75 assists, 1.92 assists per game

WOW! Rabil has more-than-doubled his assists per game! He is creating 0.98 extra goals per game by passing. If he had maintained his 28% shooting through ’11-’13, then he’d only be creating 0.66 extra goals per game. The gain from his playmaking improvements is much larger than the loss from his decreased shooting efficiency. [Obviously, his shooting efficiency and passing efficiency are not mutually exclusive. In a perfect world Rabil would shoot as well as he did from ’08-’10 and pass as well as he did from ’11-’13.]

Essentially, the ’11-’13 version of Paul Rabil is more efficient than the ’08-’10 version. His 111 miles-per-hour shot causes people to mislabel him as a shoot-first player. Like LeBron, however, Rabil is at the top of his game when he is a pass-first player. Here’s how LeBron described himself in an interview with Kirk Goldsberry:

“For me, the one-on-one guy I believe I can get around every time. But it’s always the second or third guy that I’m paying attention to, and I’m seeing plays before they happen.”

This quote can be also applied to Rabil. Anyone who has seen him play knows that he can beat the first man. The key to Rabil’s game is how that second or third guy plays him. Watch what happens here when the second guy, Rabil’s college roommate Matt Bocklet, commits:

Rabil finds a wide-open Mike Stone who buries with ease. Sometimes, however, that second guy doesn’t go. Here’s a 5-on-6 situation against New York. The Cannons are substituting, but Rabil isn’t really “double-teamed.” The play unfolds with Rabil winning two separate 1-on-1 battles and zero Lizards sliding.

Last season, LeBron James found the perfect balance between his passing and shooting during Miami’s 27-game winning-streak. We’ve seen how dominant LBJ is when all aspects of his game are clicking. We’ve yet to seen this from Rabil – but you can count on it happening soon.

[Alleged] Playoff Struggles

LeBron’s playoff struggles occurred in Cleveland. Regardless of what critics say, those teams weren’t strong enough to go any further than they did. Combine their lack of star-power with LeBron’s unselfishness, and you get an easy team to beat. Opposing defenses forced Booby Gibson, Mo Williams and Delonte West to beat them. Booby Gibson, Mo Williams and Delonte West can’t beat playoff teams. It’s science.

Rabil hasn’t had much playoff criticism, probably due to his collegiate success. He led Johns Hopkins to three National Championship games, including two wins. In the loss Rabil tallied six goals and one assist. The Major League Lacrosse postseason has been a different story for Rabil. In five playoff games, Rabil has shot 2-for-34. In four playoff appearances his team has had three first-round exits.

So, does he crumble under pressure? No. Like LeBron, I don’t understand any arguments against Rabil’s clutch play. Five games isn’t enough of a sample size to make a claim like that. Remember, Rabil had Kyle Hartzell or Brodie Merrill covering him for most of those games. Plus, he has six assists in his postseason career.

Both Rabil and LeBron are matchup nightmares for defenses. Their combination of speed and strength make it impossible for one defender to contain them. Defenses need to throw extra help at them at the expense of opening up passing lanes. As LeBron said, the second or third defender is the one that he watches.

More from this series:

Mike Sawyer versus Stephen Curry

John Grant Jr versus Zach Randolph

If you have any comparisons that you’d like to see featured, e-mail them to joekeegan21@gmail.com with the subject “MLL versus.”

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