LeBron’s Aim

Well, today seems as good as any to talk about LeBron James’s shortcomings.

OK but first, let’s be real clear here: the only real question about LeBron’s career is how high up the list of all-time greatest players he’ll ascend. His career has already reached pretty freaking stratospheric heights, and he can probably take it higher, so his shortcomings are really more like “shortcomings.” And anyway, it’s really only one singular “shortcoming” that is at issue now. Namely, he can’t really shoot.

Well, he can shoot. This here stat page shows that his Field Goal % this season is .491, outstanding for a wing player. Plus, his True Shooting %, which takes into account his success at field goals, three pointers, and foul shots, is even better at .583.

But all that means is that LeBron is really, really efficient shooter–which isn’t the same as being a good shooter. Offensively, LeBron’s strength is his strength–he can easily get to and finish at the rim, as the stats bear out. Only a few perimeter players take a higher percentage of their shots in the paint, and they are typically penetrating point guards who really, really can’t shoot, e.g. Rajon Rondo.

LeBron’s stellar overall and adjusted FG% is a testament to how otherworldly he is at finishing at the rim, because once he takes a step or two back, he’s not the same ol’ LeBron. On the season, he’s only making .373 of his 2-point jumpshots, and .297 of his 3-point jumpers. Furthermore, his 3PT% has basically declined every year of his career, and his FT% is only now, in his 6th year in the L, beginning to creep up towards respectability.

That LeBron’s jump shot is not the best part of the game is no great insight. Even some dude just plucked entirely randomly off the street could point this out. And, so the thought goes, once LeBron develops his jumper, he’ll be truly unstoppable. Just like Mike.

Let’s think on that for a second, though. Yes, MJ is famous for, well…a lot of things, but one of them is remaking himself from a gravity-defying aerial artist* with a receding hairline into an apologetically good, totally bald sharpshooter . But he was also Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Is there another example of a superstar doing the same thing while still maintaining superstar-level production? Some players develop a hyper-specialized skillset–rebounding, defense, whatever–in order to maintain a roster spot, but MJ added shooting while keeping the rest of his arsenal. Other players begin to rely more on guile and basketball IQ as their physical gifts diminish, sure, but that’s not exactly what MJ did, either. His career was in many ways split into two totally different ones, like Babe Ruth dominating as a pitcher and then one day deciding he might as well jack loads of dongers. As freakishly transcendental as LeBron James is, asking him to do something that has only really ever been done once, by the greatest of them all, is a tall order.

Also, but is it true that Michael couldn’t shoot at the beginning of his career? His overall FG% was much better than LeBron’s at the same point in each’s career–though the shot chart records don’t go back that far, so it’s hard to judge the inside/outside split of his 2-point field goals. His 3PT% is way lower than LeBron’s to start, though he also took far fewer–one reason possibly being that maybe, since the 3-point line had only been established in basketball the year before he started at UNC, he didn’t have any real incentive to develop his long-range shot during his early basketball years. Anyway, by his sixth year, he was making 37.6% of them, better than any year of LeBron’s career to date. MJ was also a much better free throw shooter right out of the gate, quickly establishing and never really deviating from his career average.

Good free throw shooting seems like a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of being a good jump shooter. Mastering the repeatable, undefended 15-footer suggests that a player at the very least possesses proper shooting mechanics. And while some very few players are good free-throw shooters but not good jump shooters, the opposite is almost unheard of. So while MJ still had room for improvement, he entered the league with basically a picture-perfect shooting motion intact. Maybe, then, the perceived late-career development of a jump shot was really just a decision by an older Jordan to score points in a less physically enervating manner rather than constantly having to beat his defender off the dribble and then contend with some Entish brute at the rim. More likely it was just the by-product of  playing in the Triangle Offense, a scheme designed to get easy shots by exploiting player spacing and ball movement, rather than just having to dunk on chumps. Whatever the real reason, it wasn’t like His Airness just woke up one day and found out he could shoot like the lost Paxson brother–chances are, he had been able to shoot all along, we just hadn’t really noticed.

The same can’t be said for LeBron. People have been saying since high school that he needs to add a jumper to his game. Betting against LeBron to do it–or anything else–is a dangerous proposition. Even without a trusty J, he’s still probably the best basketball player alive. But there is an expiration date on the expectation, and though he hasn’t yet reached his peak, it’s possible that, in his 6th year as a professional, that date is rapidly approaching.


*That image is courtesy of a helpful eHow article on how to dunk like Michael Jordan. I’ll save you some time by just reprinting the easy-to-follow steps here. NOTE: all steps are equally important–skip even just one, and YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO DUNK LIKE MICHAEL JORDAN:

Step 1: Stretch every muscle that you can.

Step 2: Do calf raises and wall squats.

Step 3: Stretch again.

Step 4: Go to a basketball hoop and try dunking. If it is too hard lower the height of the hoop if you are able to.

Step 5: Keep practicing every day.

Step 6: Once it is easy to dunk raise the height of the hoop and try to do cool tricks.

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