February 22, 2010
Chink in the armor? Nitpicking the nearly perfect? Sure. That's the point. And in a team game, the nearly perfect isn't anywhere near a guarantee to even nearly bring you a title. LeBron's been the best for years, but he was swept out of the NBA Finals in 2007, lost to the eventual champs in seven in 2008 and felled by a better Magic team last year. It's a team game, and one can only do so much.
Which is why, in the midst of yet another season for the ages, LeBron should only do so much of one thing. Perimeter jumpers. Shooting 3-pointers. Long twos, too.
Vince Grzegorek dropped the bomb last week, and it was much appreciated. "Does LeBron Take Too Many 3's?" The answer seems rather obvious. James shoots about 35 percent from long range, almost exactly the league average, yet he attempts 5.2 3-pointers a game. I recognize that in 2010, 5.2 3-pointers is closer to the norm than my 1997-ized instincts would usually tolerate, but it's still a goodly amount.
Making 35 percent of your 5.2 3-pointers a game means you're creating just a little over one point per possession. This year, 312 points for every 298 possessions. That's not what you want. The Detroit Pistons, the NBA's 25th-worst offense, score at about the same rate: 103.7 points per 100 possessions. Even as an aside, five possessions per game among the dozens that LeBron uses up, this still hurts the overall picture.
Because you only get so many looks per game. The Cavs average 91 possessions per contest, and while five out of 91 might not seem like much (especially considering that that LeBron does right for a huge chunk of those other possessions), it's still enough to hurt. And that's not even considering the scads of long 2-pointers LeBron takes.
About 5.2 a game, same as the 3-pointers, at about the success rate you'd imagine (exactly 40 percent). Considering how infrequent it is that LeBron would get fouled on those shots, that's about four points scored per every five possessions. That's ... that's not good.
That's 10 points scored, on average, in these 10 possessions. That's over 10 shots a game this guy takes that aren't going to pay off for much. Is hitting 35 percent of your 3-pointers average? Sure. Is hitting 40 percent of your long twos average? Of course. But it's LeBron James(notes). Everything about him screams "farther away from average than anyone we've ever seen." And we wouldn't have a problem with this if he were taking fewer than 10.4 of these shots per game.
And though it's just one game, look at what happened in Orlando Sunday. James leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, a remarkable feat considering how many blowouts the Cavaliers participate in, and yet he managed just three points in nearly nine fourth-quarter minutes against the Magic. Three assists, sure, and one of his drives resulted in a foul that wasn't called, but beyond that James is completely to blame for relying on the long jumper too many times. There's just no need, not when you're that good.
This is why Dwyane Wade(notes) is nearly as effective as James and Kobe Bryant(notes), despite the relative paucity of highlight-reel moments. Wade essentially drove his way to a title in 2006, and when he's healthy, he has a pretty awful team playing pretty average basketball down in Miami.
Why? He plays ugly. I'm not going to give you some "pull-up-yer-bootstraps" talk, but Wade finds a way to get to the line, he finds a way to succeed despite not having the best jumper around. And, as Heat fans will tell you, he's often at his worst when he's settling for that 21-footer on the left side of the court. Kobe's the same way. He can fade his way to 81 points, but (and this has become less of an issue this season), too often he's relied on the long jumper.
It's just not good basketball. And I don't want to hear you tell me that it has to be put in place "because it sets up other shots."
Really? Over 10 of these attempts a game, these eventual misses, help with his other 9.7 attempts per contest? You miss this much to "make" later? Stop it.
We all know what it's like to be backing off someone in anticipation of the drive, while still wondering if we've given our man too much room. It's a legitimate fear, and LeBron's long-range stroke helps his drive somewhat. But most of you are fans of teams other than the Cleveland Cavaliers. How do you feel when LeBron pulls up for a three against your favorite team? Are you relieved? You should be.
I've had a history with this. Back in my SI.com days, I wrote a piece after LeBron's Cavaliers went up 3-2 in a second-round series against the Pistons in 2006. I pointed out that, yes, James has been playing fantastic, but the Pistons are going to win the next two games if James continues to rely on the outside shot as much as he does. I was roundly roasted and, of course, the guy missed eight of his nine 3-pointers over the next two games while Detroit took the series.
He's also destroyed teams behind the arc, tossing in shot after shot as we shake our heads in wonderment. He's the best player in the NBA, the easy MVP by Christmas and we're clearly grateful to be in a position to get paid to observe his gifts.
But even with a supporting cast as good as he currently has, James still has to play perfect basketball. Thirty points, 8.4 assists, 7.1 rebounds, a block, 1.7 steals, 50 percent shooting, a 32 PER -- this is some legendary stuff. It's still, in a team game that sees 10 on the floor having an impact, not enough. If your team is a knockout, you'll win. James' team is a near-knockout, it's very good, but it's still not great enough to where he can use half his shots this way. He has to drive more. He has to play ugly.
Easy for me to say, in front of the laptop. Put it on the floor, LeBron. Jump right into Dwight Howard(notes). Let them slap the crap out of you. Willingly put your body on the line time and again to win a game in February. Come on.
That said, James has set the standard. He wears No. 23 for a reason. And while Michael Jordan got a little perimeter happy at times, he took the blows in Orlando in February. I watched it. And if you want to be thought of in the same way, and if you want the same results at the end of June, this is how you're going to have to work.
Shooting 5.2 3-pointers per game and 5.2 long 2-pointers. It's too much, LeBron. It's too much.