The evolution of LeBron James
How James always stayed one step ahead of the defenses designed to stop him
LeBron James walked into the NBA able to hang 25 points on a good defense. I mean that literally: The first game he ever played as a pro, on Oct. 29, 2003, came against a Sacramento Kings team that had finished the previous season second in the league in defensive efficiency … and he scored 25 points.
It wasn’t the highest-scoring debut the NBA had ever seen; that record, like so many others, belongs to Wilt. But it was (and still is) the high-water mark for an 18-year-old — a “mesmerizing” performance, as The Associated Press put it, that featured “skills no teenager had ever displayed at this level” and more than lived up to the towering hype surrounding the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.
"I was just fortunate to get some shots, and they fell through,” James told reporters after the game. “Most of the moves I used in high school, I could use here."
It’s true: Much of what James put on display that first night in Sacramento, he’d already showcased at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, where he’d become one of the most decorated and highly touted prep players ever. LeBron had drawn comparisons to Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Magic Johnson as a sophomore; he was anointed Michael Jordan’s heir apparent, The Chosen One, before his senior year ... in high school.
He was, as Ian Thomsen wrote in his 2018 book, “The Soul of Basketball,” “the most gifted prospect the NBA scouts had ever seen … the anticipation for his greatness was almost universal.” It’s a long road from anticipation to actualization, though — and an even longer one from that first one-dribble baseline pull-up to the shot that moved James ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and into position as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
James entered the league able to score 25, yes, but he didn’t enter fully formed. Reaching this point took a step-by-step, year-over-year process that saw LeBron develop from an overwhelming physical talent into a precise, multifaceted craftsman — a process that, in some ways, traces the evolution of NBA offense over the past two decades.
LeBron opened his NBA account by running off a screen for a pull-up, but he wasn’t exactly playing like Rip Hamilton as a teenager. His game wasn’t built on the purportedly lost art of the midrange jumper; it was, and remains, predicated on a peerless gift for getting into the paint. According to Cleaning the Glass, shots at the rim or from “floater range” (outside the restricted area, but inside the foul line) accounted for 58% of James’ field-goal attempts as a rookie; have accounted for 59% of his attempts this season; and have made up between 47% and 66% of his shots in every season in between.
Even as an 18-year-old, James’ unprecedented combination of size, strength, speed and skill made him both a physical marvel and a marvel of physics — able to explode past perimeter defenders at the point of attack, accelerate through the crowd in the lane, stay on balance through contact without getting knocked off-course and dish out at least as much punishment as he took in the process.
“As big as he is, you got to hope he don’t just run you over and give you a concussion,” longtime NBA swingman Stephen Jackson said in Chris Ballard’s 2010 book, “The Art of a Beautiful Game.”
That strength, paired with James’ famously ambidextrous excellent finishing touch, has made him the premier interior scorer of the past two decades. James has shot 70% or better at the rim in 17 of his 20 seasons (including this one). He has led the league in points scored in the paint per game three times — 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16 — and has ranked in the top five in 13 seasons (including this one). The 17,778 points (and counting) that James has scored in the key alone would be good for 84th on the all-time scoring list, even if he’d never made a single outside shot or free throw.
“Once I work up a head of steam,” James said in “Basketball: A Love Story,” “there’s nobody who can stop me.”
What could stop him, though, was the sort of traffic jam that kept you from working up a head of steam in the first place.
Fixing a flaw
The early-2000s NBA scarcely resembled today’s spread-out, free-flowing ecosystem. Teams tended toward plodding play — the fastest-paced squad of 2003-04 (Jeff Bzdelik’s Nuggets) averaged fewer possessions per 48 minutes than this season’s slowest (J.B. Bickerstaff’s Cavaliers) — and rarely ventured out into the deep end of the pool. This season, 38.7% of teams’ field-goal attempts have come from behind the 3-point arc. In LeBron’s rookie season, it was just 18.7%.
The league he entered was a largely elbows-and-in enterprise — the sort of tight squeeze where, when you ran a pick-and-roll up top, you might reach the other side of the screen and see eight or nine bodies inside the arc, at least a handful of which were parked in the paint. Even the biggest, strongest and quickest slashers would struggle to consistently carve a path through all that congestion; in a related story, James took more than half of his attempts from midrange as a rookie and attempted more shots outside the paint than within it.
Those condensed coverages revealed one of the few flaws in young LeBron’s game: an inconsistent jumper. He shot just 33.2% from midrange as a rookie, and 29% from 3-point range — 72nd out of 74 players to launch at least 200 triples that season. (Another sign of how times have changed: 112 players have already attempted that many this season.)
“He’s a little streaky,” James’ high school coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary, Keith Dambrot, told SLAM editor-in-chief Ryan Jones in his 2003 biography, “King James: Believe the Hype.” “But I think if he spends a lot of time at it, he’ll be a great shooter. He does everything. He just needs to fine-tune.”
With time and repetition, James’ midrange and 3-point accuracy did improve over the next couple of seasons. And it’s not like the temperamental jumper blunted his impact: He’d go on to finish third in the league in scoring in each of the next two seasons, averaging 27.2 points per game as a sophomore and 31.4 a night in Year 3, making him the youngest player ever to average 30 for a full season. (Kevin Durant would take that honor four seasons later.)
But while his shot wasn’t broken — he made multiple 3-pointers in 81 games over those first three seasons — it also wasn’t reliable. That made it a potential liability that the best defenses could exploit when it mattered most. Like, for example, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs.
After LeBron had turned in a superhuman performance to oust the perennial power Pistons and make his first NBA Finals in just his fourth season, he found San Antonio waiting for him in the championship round. The Spurs could deploy physical irritant Bruce Bowen on James at the point of attack, with support from legendary back-line anchor Tim Duncan looming behind the play. Perhaps most importantly: A survey of Cleveland’s, um, shaky supporting cast led Coach Pop to deduce that if the Spurs could keep LeBron from marching to the rim to create good looks for himself or others, the Cavs wouldn’t be able to score.
"With that particular team, if LeBron was gonna shoot jump shots, that's fantastic for us," Bowen once told Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report. "Not that he couldn't, but if he is taking the majority of the shots, how are other guys gonna get involved?"
So, rather than chasing James over the top of the ball screens that Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Co. were setting and risk him getting downhill with that dangerous head of steam, the Spurs’ defenders just ducked under them. Sinking back to plug up the paint helped take away LeBron’s driving lanes; it also kept San Antonio out of rotation, allowing the off-ball defenders to stay close to their assignments, giving James fewer passing targets on the perimeter. The strategy effectively dared LeBron to beat the Spurs with his outside shot. He couldn’t: He shot just 9-of-55 (16.4%) outside the restricted area in that series, which San Antonio swept in four games.
"[They went] all the way under,” James told Skolnick. “Yeah. Yeah. All the way under. And from that point […] I knew I had to work on my game to get my jump shot better."
That next step began in earnest the following summer. From Ballard’s “The Art of a Beautiful Game:”
Just as Tiger Woods remade his swing at the height of his career, James spent the summer of 2008 quietly reconstructing his jumper, working with Cavs assistant and former NBA sharpshooter Chris Jent five days a week, for an hour and a half per session. Over that summer LeBron worked to develop what Jent described as a “calmer” shot. This meant better balance — when shooting on the move, James had to contend with the considerable momentum created by his weight — and keeping his shooting elbow locked at his side so that, as James put it, “The ball will go straight instead of veering off sometimes.”
The brick-by-brick rebuild focused first on finding the right form and then on developing more comfort from distance — from one-handed shots to one-dribble jumpers and free throws before extending out to midrange and beyond. Year over year, James’ percentages ticked up. By the final year of his first stint in Cleveland, he was up to 40% from midrange. By the time he won his first title in Miami in 2012, he was up to 38% from deep. And when he faced the Spurs again in the 2013 Finals, he felt fully prepared to beat that coverage if San Antonio dusted it off.
“If you go [under] my pick-and-roll now, I'm going to shoot. And I'm confident I'm going to make every last one of them,” he told reporters. “I'm a better player, and you can't dare me to do anything I don't want to do in 2013."
It’s not the enduring image of that classic series; Ray Allen from the corner in Game 6 will always hold that distinction. But it was James who dominated Game 7 to secure Miami’s second straight title, shooting 9-for-20 away from the rim, including 5-for-10 from long distance, and finishing things off with a 19-foot jumper with 27.9 seconds to go — a measure of revenge best served ice cold, after six long years in the freezer.
Two years before what James would later describe as his career’s “MJ moment,” though, came its lowest moment — a nadir precipitated by the way defenses had changed over time to deal with the mounting threat he represented, and one that would prompt an equally forceful response in his own evolution.
LeBron forced to adapt
The game’s most dominant scorers and playmakers have always led defenses to come up with countermeasures to quell them: full-court pressure and face-guarding, ball denial and blitzes, “The Jordan Rules” and Hack-a-Shaq, selling out to take away a strong hand so hard that you’re literally playing from behind, etc. The ascent of players like LeBron who could destroy defenses by scoring or passing out of the pick-and-roll led Big Three-era Celtics defensive coordinator Tom Thibodeau to deploy an aggressive strong-side zone — a scheme that, as Mike Prada details in his 2022 book “Spaced Out,” “called for the two defenders involved in any pick-and-roll to swarm the ball-handler while the other three defenders worked together to account for the other four offensive players.”
The goal: Keep James from having the time to dissect the coverage by either driving to the middle of the floor or working the ball to the weak side, and force him instead to either get rid of it or take pull-up jumpers with multiple bodies between him and the rim. Driven by all-time defensive menace Kevin Garnett, the gambit succeeded, short-circuiting James’ Cavaliers in the 2008 and 2010 playoffs.
Tactics were only part of that equation, though. In “The Soul of Basketball,” then-Celtics head coach Doc Rivers tells Thomsen about how he mimicked the Cavs’ extravagant pregame rituals for comedic effect in the Boston locker room before Game 1 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, before pivoting to a deathly serious message: “They want to have fun. Our job is to make this no fun. To make this f***ing war. To make this brutal — to make this s*** hard. To make it so hard that they give in.” Boston beat the Cavs in six games.
“Didn’t just beat ’em — broke ’em,” Garnett wrote in his 2021 autobiography, “KG: A to Z.” “That team didn’t have the talent to get past us. Wasn’t gonna happen [...] after the final buzzer sounded and we hugged it out on the court, I had whispered in [LeBron’s] ear, ‘Let this drive you.’”
It did drive James — all the way to Miami, and to a partnership with Dwyane Wade that provided precisely the auxiliary firepower necessary to overwhelm the overload coverages. When the Heat smoked the Celtics in five games in the 2011 conference semis, then did the same to the Thibodeau-coached Bulls in the conference finals, the King appeared to be well on his way to checkmating the league.
Until, that is, the Heat lost to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, with James scuffling through the worst postseason performance of his career — 17.8 points and 6.8 assists against four turnovers per game.
With assistant coach Dwane Casey leading the charge, Dallas blended defensive coverages in a hybrid scheme aimed at keeping LeBron uncomfortable and out of rhythm. The Mavericks toggled between man and zone looks; marshaled a number of defenders (Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson, Brian Cardinal) to body James, playing underneath him the way the “We Believe” Warriors did to Nowitzki; and always had Tyson Chandler lurking in help position behind the first line of defense.
The Mavs’ goal was the same as the Spurs’ and Celtics’: dissuade LeBron from taking the ball to the basket and force him to take jumpers. The result: James took nearly twice as many shots outside the restricted area (58) as inside it (32), shot just 20-for-58 (34.5%) on them and saw his offensive impact wane as the series wore on. The Heat offense cratered. The Mavericks won a championship. Casey, widely praised as the architect of the scheme that slowed the game’s best player, became the head coach of the Raptors.
There’s one news conference where James talked about this series that you probably remember — the one where he said it didn’t bother him that so many people were happy to see him fail because those people will wake up in the morning with the same real-life problems they had before they went to sleep. (Which, a dozen years down the line: still a pretty frosty way to high-hat your haters.) There’s another one, though, that you might’ve forgotten — one that took place seven years later, after a back-in-Cleveland LeBron had completely dominated Casey’s Raptors in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with, in the words of one YouTuber, a “barrage of insane jumpshots.”
LeBron James on improvement since 2011 Finals: "I wasn't that good of a player... I wasn't a complete basketball player. Dwane Casey drew up a gameplan to take away things I was good at & make me do things I wasn't very good at. He's part of the reason why I am who I am today." pic.twitter.com/lcOSKZoqpw
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 4, 2018
“I wasn’t that good of a player in that [2011 Finals] series. I wasn’t a complete basketball player,” James told reporters. “Dwane Casey drew up a game plan against me in that ’11 series in the Finals when I played Dallas to take away things I was very good at and tried to make me do things I wasn’t very good at.”
Part of James’ response to falling short in another Finals was to put in even more work on his jumper. Part of it, though, was realizing — as Jordan and Kobe had before him — that there was another aspect of his game that could help him break through those shell coverages.
“[The Mavericks] kept me out of transition and kept three guys in the paint, and I knew I needed to work on my post game to get closer to the basket," James later told Skolnick.
Luckily, he had the number of a guy who was pretty good in the post: Hakeem Olajuwon.
"Well, I knew he worked guys out that wanted to get better and I wanted to expand my game," James told reporters in 2016, just before passing Olajuwon to move into 10th place on the all-time scoring list.
So James dialed up “The Dream” after losing in the 2011 Finals and headed to Houston for “three days of instruction” — for which Hakeem reportedly did not charge him, which seems mighty generous. (Wonder what his hourly rate for regular folks is.)
“I told him he should use his leverage. Just muscle and seal against guards,” Olajuwon told Ballard, saying that James started building his low-post move-set from the ground up but made massive progress in those three days. “It was a joy to work with guys like that, who are already great on their own and want to add to their game.”
James promptly put Olajuwon’s teachings to work, establishing deep position and using his strength, speed, newly refined footwork and array of counter-moves to repeatedly get to the paint for high-percentage looks:
The migration to the block and Hakeem’s tutelage paid immediate dividends. A more comfortable and sharper LeBron shot a career-high 75.8% within 3 feet of the basket in 2011-12, and 48.4% between 3 feet and 10 feet, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And his increased individual efficiency was only compounded by the damage he could do passing out of the post.
“It just creates so many matchup problems,” James told ESPN’s Chris Broussard in 2013. “Teams can't play me one-on-one down there, so when a double-team comes, with me being as tall as I am and with my basketball IQ, I'm able to find guys uncovered. So it's a dynamic for our team that not many teams have.”
And it’s one that proved particularly devastating for defenses, thanks to another Miami response to the 2011 Finals loss.
Casey’s game plan to slow down LeBron hinged on a bet that Miami didn’t have enough outside shooting to punish zone coverage. It paid off. The Heat shot just 45-for-130 (34.6%) from deep in the series, with Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller the only members of Miami’s rotation to make more than one-third of their 3s; overall, they scored 5.3 fewer points per 100 possessions against Dallas than they had during the regular season. And after the loss, while LeBron sought redemption on the low block, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra found inspiration in Oregon football.
Watching Chip Kelly’s Ducks play a spread offense at light speed and run roughshod over hapless Pac-12 defenses led Spoelstra to start thinking about how he could crank up Miami’s tempo, create wider driving lanes in the half-court and better leverage the talent and athleticism advantage that came with employing James, Wade and Chris Bosh. That led to a multi-year overhaul of Miami’s plan of attack (faster pace and more 3-pointers, particularly from the corners), approach to roster-building (signing sharpshooters Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and lineup construction (in LeBron’s first season in Miami, the starting centers were Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier; by the end of Year 2, it was Bosh).
By borrowing from Kelly, small-ball progenitors like Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni, and four-out attacks like the one Stan Van Gundy ran in Orlando, Spoelstra crafted an offense that would finish sixth, first and third in offensive efficiency in the three seasons following the Finals loss, and would go on to win back-to-back championships.
He also sort of inadvertently chose the form of the Heat’s eventual destroyer. When the Spurs bounced back from that crushing 2013 Finals defeat to obliterate the Heat in 2014, they did so in part by starting Boris Diaw as a floor-spacing, playmaking power forward who, in Miller’s words, “[gave] them the ability to be big and small at the same time” — and helped primed the pump for the 3-point insurgency that would soon completely reshape the league.
This sort of tactical parry-and-thrust has played out multiple times with James and his teams over the years. Frank Vogel’s early 2010s Pacers used their collective length to play suffocating drop pick-and-roll coverage, with 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, the patron saint of verticality, as the last line of defense keeping James away from the rim. So LeBron worked on his floater, and Miami went small and spaced the floor, and suddenly Indiana was damned whether it kept Hibbert on the floor or took him off it.
The dynastic Warriors ushered in a defensive revolution by switching screens to stay out of rotation. So LeBron responded by generating the switch he wanted, having his guards set picks for him to force the smallest Warrior, Stephen Curry, to defend ball screens so he could try to punish Steph on defense. (Which, in turn, required Golden State to come up with new plans to stifle switch-hunting. The saga continues; Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang.)
Adding the 3-pointer
As the game has changed — whether because of, in response to, or simply around LeBron — he has changed with it. While the “Moreyball” analytics movement took root, making “efficiency” a watchword across the league, James competed with Wade to see who could generate and convert the highest-quality looks; the result was a years-long decline for LeBron in long 2s and a sharp spike in shots at the rim. As 3-point attempt rates soared, James put in the work to keep pace, turning himself into a legitimate long-range threat: He’s shooting 35.4% from deep over the past dozen seasons, and has vaulted into the top 10 in league history in 3-point attempts and makes.
“I felt that [in 2016], LeBron was dramatically better than the year before,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said in “Basketball: A Love Story.” “I think it was a combination of years and years of experience and working on skills and covering his weaknesses. He was making threes and shooting a high percentage. The year before, I felt we had answers for him. We could go under screens. I’m pretty sure he shot in the 30s [on threes] in 2015, and he was over 50% the next year. We had no answer for him.”
(Kerr was half-right: LeBron shot 31% from deep during the 2015 Finals, but only 37.1% in 2016. Though, given how James finished that series, you can understand why the number might seem higher to Kerr.)
With players like Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Trae Young reorienting the geometry of the court by launching shots from farther and farther away, James, too, has extended his range; only 10 players have attempted more shots from at least 28 feet out over the past five seasons. And as James Harden led a dance dance revolution behind the arc, LeBron learned the steps; at this point, the side-step three leaning left on the left-hand side of the floor is as close to a signature shot for him as the right-hand tomahawk and the turnaround fadeaway.
It’s fair to identify necessity as the mother (or father?) of invention in some of those changes to LeBron’s shot diet; it is, after all, less physically taxing to uncork a jumper than it is to drive through three levels of defense or bang on the block for 48 minutes. That doesn’t make it any less remarkable that James has been able to not only make those changes, but sustain them, ensuring that he moved from his athletic prime through his late 30s without any real decline in production. Back in 2009, James told Ballard, “If I’m just getting my man-strength now, I don’t want to see me at 32.” Age 38 — when still physically overwhelming defenders and averaging a career-high 29.6 points per 36 minutes — probably would’ve really blown his mind.
In FreeDarko’s “Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History,” Nathaniel Friedman called James “the orderly culmination of all basketball that has come before.” He’s also the culmination of what’s come since: an evolutionary offensive organism adept at adopting the advancements of other stars to give him even more ways to survive, thrive and score. Every crossover and Eurostep, every pro hop and “crab dribble,” every left-block drop-step and 30-foot stepback — everything LeBron has added and refined over two decades has helped him reach this point.
Reasonable people can argue about GOATs, the purity of one’s hooping and the significance of James’ status as a scorer. On the last point, a player who has said countless times over the years that he fashions himself a facilitator first might even agree.
“I think it's great that you can put up a lot of points, but that ain't my legacy — being a scorer,” he told Broussard in 2013. “When you say LeBron James, you ain't gonna say, ‘Ahh, man, he was a flat-out scorer.’ I did a little bit of everything.”
At that, he smiled.
“I can score, though.”
Now, thanks to two decades worth of honing what didn’t work on Day 1 against Sacramento and perfecting what did, he’s on the precipice of scoring more than anybody ever has. There’s no arguing that.