Posted December 10, 2013

The Fundamentals: LeBron James taking his game to staggering new heights

LeBron James, Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney, The Fundamentals
LeBron James celebrates against the Clippers

Over his last five games, LeBron James has averaged 31 points and 6 assists on 71.4 percent shooting. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Rob Mahoney

The play of LeBron James has long been one of the most compelling aspects of the NBA, but lately the experience of watching the world’s best basketball player has taken on an entirely new significance. Outrageously efficient performance has become so predictable for James that every appearance is now appointment viewing.

By now, most NBA fans have caught wind of James’ most recent exploits: a five-game stretch in which he topped 30 points on every occasion, anchored five consecutive Miami victories and posted an absurd 71.4 field goal percentage. Trim away some of James’ misses at the end of the first game in that stretch, and he’s made 49 of his last 65 shots (75.4 percent), which may be the closest thing to shooting perfection that we’re likely to see from a player with such a large role.

For those of us who have had the pleasure of watching James so freely ply his trade, this recent stretch has been a breathtaking experience. Yet for those players unlucky enough to line up opposite James, his performance must be suffocating. Every touch brings its own terrifying potential, as James approaches his on-court goals with an authoritative certainty. He wants to get to the hoop off the dribble for an easy score, and so he does — without much concern at all for defenses, physical limitations or other factors that inevitably steer the play of basketball mortals. Every trip down the floor serves as a reminder that LeBron James simply cannot be stopped, and when he’s executing at this high a level, I’m frankly not even sure he can be slowed.

We’ve waited an entire decade for James to stop growing as a player, but during this season he has been more effective and controlled than at any point previously. Much of that is a tribute to James’ nearly flawless offensive judgment, as he consistently wards off a slew of inferior options in orchestrating the Heat’s offense to maximum effect. But not all of his staggering efficiency can be traced to restraint. What we’re seeing in Miami is a perfect spiral of smart team basketball and staggering individual brilliance, the combination of which has yielded an unparalleled season. In NBA history, the list of players to average 27 points and 6.9 assists and post a 63.3 true shooting percentage (which factors in two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws) for a season is as follows:

LeBron James.

If we loosen the assists requirement to focus solely on scoring output and shooting efficiency, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley and Kevin Durant (who’s having an incredible season in his own right) sneak in to qualify as well. That means that no playmaker has ever had a scoring season this potent and no premier scorer has ever had a campaign with such productive passing.

That combination of skills is nothing new for James, who was trumpeted as something of a Jordan-Magic amalgam from Day 1. But there’s an obvious distinction to be made between being a can’t-miss prospect and a superstar player who apparently can’t miss. We’ve seen plenty of elite scorers and top-notch playmakers, but James deftly walks that line in a way that no player ever has before, and has continued to build out his game in a way that takes full advantage of his prodigious skill set.

By refusing to settle for inefficient offense, James puts defenders in an impossible situation. The kinds of maneuvers that typically goad superstars into hoisting mid-range jumpers (playing off them, attacking a ball-dominant hand, etc.) don’t work well with James, as every sliver of open space surrendered to him just gives him more room to gain speed and analyze angles. Watch how James exploits the bit of space that Metta World Peace is hoping to use as a cushion against him:

But at the same time, the opposite strategy — crowding James on the perimeter in order to make him uncomfortable off the dribble — can yield similarly disastrous results. Watch here as Caron Butler attempts to deny James his immediate space:

Still, the last thing a defender should want to give James is a full field of vision, if only because he sees the complete game with an impossible clarity. The passing angles are accounted for. The driving lanes are surveyed. Every possibility is considered in the briefest of moments, all while opponents grow increasingly nervous with every second that James holds the ball — and their fate — in his hands.

And frankly, they should be a bit spooked. James is making 75.6 percent of his attempts at the rim this season, he’s hitting a career-high rate on his runners and floaters and he has the benefit of working with teammates who understand his tendencies and how to best complement him. Lineup tweaks and an increasing familiarity have given the Heat’s offense an astounding harmony, with teammates surrounding James’ creative efforts with the kind of choreography usually reserved for a scripted play:

Because of that synchronized movement and James’ abilities, the Heat often breathe life into what could otherwise be a rather blunt offensive maneuver. In the face of that limitless possibility, it’s LeBron’s discipline that really sets him apart. He can do it all, but why settle for anything less than the optimal result on any given possession?

As dominant as James is with the ball, he never seems to get quite enough credit for all he does to make himself available away from it. High-usage ball handlers have a bad tendency of running out to the perimeter in an effort to command control of a possession, but James trusts his teammates and understands the game well enough to find space within a more natural flow. Rather than make a jagged cut to the top of the floor, James seals his man in the post, curls to create an opportunity to catch the ball at a point of advantage and screens willingly. Few stars more fully understand the value of all that comes before the catch, and it’s through that mentality that Miami’s ad-libbed sequences still tend to create quality shots.

Beyond that, James has undergone an incredible transformation as a perimeter-shooting threat, primarily by capitalizing more consistently on his spot-up tries. According to Synergy Sports Technology, James rates as the second-best spot-up player in the league in points scored per play. That’s largely due to the unbelievable 53.3 percent mark James has posted on spot-up three-pointers, up from 33.9 percent shooting last season. He hasn’t changed his shooting form significantly, but the repetition of attempting squared-up long-range attempts has apparently triggered James’ evolution into a dependable three-point shooter.

James looms over most every Heat possession. When he’s not threatening defenses off the dribble, he’s fighting for position or spacing the floor, setting up a checkmate three moves in advance. His fantastic skill set has broadened to the point where he’s a completely continuous threat, capable of projecting his power and influence throughout Miami’s every offensive action. In fact, I’d guess it’s harrowing in its own way for opponents to bear witness to LeBron’s almost casual dominance. He doesn’t demand the ball. He doesn’t force the action. He just peers into the game itself and sees all of basketball’s doors open to him.

Andre Drummond grabs a rebound

Before his injury, Andre Drummond led the NBA with a 16.3 offensive rebounding percentage. (J. Dennis/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

GO FIGURE

• I don’t have any nits to pick with the NBA’s field for the All-Star Saturday events, but it’s worth noting that three of the season’s top five perimeter shooters in terms of three-point percentage will be absent from the three-point contest. Kyle Korver (46.4) leads the league in accuracy, but he won’t be participating this year after last competing in the 2004 and 2005 contests. Kevin Martin (44.3) and Ersan Ilyasova (44.2) will also stay home, though we don’t yet know if any of those three players were actually approached or whether they were glossed over for the sake of players with more three-point attempts (in Ilyasova’s case) or more star power.

• It should be interesting to see what effect Pistons center Andre Drummond’s back injury — which will keep him off the court for 4-6 weeks — might have on his league-leading offensive rebounding marks. Drummond should still qualify as a leader (his 16.3 offensive rebounding percentage ranks first in the NBA), but back injuries can be unfortunately persistent for many players and could conceivably make Drummond a bit less bouncy (or a bit less active) upon his return. Either way, this is a tough break for a rookie big man having a monster year. The fact that his rebounding numbers rate so favorably (he also registers eighth in defensive rebounding percentage and third in total rebounding percentage) relative to the league speaks to his amazing production.

NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

1. J.J. Barea goes to the block

Some of the NBA’s greatest joys come in watching players very obviously stray from their comfort zones, particularly when said player stubbornly clings to an improbable, mismatched skill. One of my favorite such examples to watch for: the post-up work of the 6-foot (in lifts) Barea, who didn’t hesitate in attempting to back down Nolan Smith all the way from the three-point line:

2. Doug Collins commits to a head-scratching decision

Collins is a good coach, but what on earth is he doing with Dorell Wright? I don’t know of any criteria or framework that could lead to a coach willingly choosing to play Royal Ivey over Wright, and yet that’s what this season has come to for the Sixers. Jason Richardson and Thaddeus Young are both out of the lineup, which should in theory open up plenty of chances for the perfectly useful Wright to make his mark as either a wing or a stretch big. But Collins has opted instead for the likes of Ivey and Jeremy Pargo (all while running Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen for 40-plus minutes), despite the fact that both kind-of point guards have shared minutes on the floor with Jrue Holiday. Power to Collins in his attempts to add some ball-handling to lineups lacking in shot creation, but this latest turn only serves as an extension of his weird treatment of a capable rotation player.

3. Eric Bledsoe plays on a fault line

The Clippers’ Bledsoe has been brilliant at times and confounding at others, but through good and bad it can at least be said that Bledsoe is consistently unstable. I mean that quite literally: I’m convinced that no NBA player falls down more often than Bledsoe, who tends to hurl his way down the paint in the most straightforward use of his athleticism possible. He’s a ball of kinetic energy, and whether he’s driving toward the hoop or trying to evade a trap, the odds are good that the sequence will somehow end with Bledsoe’s hitting the deck as he scrambles to make a play.

4. Stay tuned for Nando De Colo

As fun as it is to watch the Spurs’ top players execute on both sides of the ball, I appreciate the opportunities that their success has created for rookie guard De Colo. He’s not exactly NBA viable in his present form, but De Colo bears more than a passing stylistic resemblance to Manu Ginobili, and shares in his flair for exciting passes. He might be a bit raw for a 25-year-old, but De Colo’s game offers a legitimate reason to stick around through garbage time of the Spurs’ next blowout.

Gerald Wallace directs traffic

Gerald Wallace has been a liability at small forward for the Nets this season. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

5. Waiting on P.J. Carlesimo

With Gerald Wallace in the midst of a horrid season, I’ll admit to getting impatient with the slow lineup adjustments of Nets coach Carlesimo. Every drop of available data is clear in evaluating lineups that feature Wallace as a small forward, and the numbers aren’t pretty. Substituting Reggie Evans for Kris Humphries in the starting lineup brings Brooklyn’s most-used lineup to a completely neutral pace-adjusted point differential, while virtually every other combination involving Wallace and two big men has been a sag on the Nets’ performance.

Moving Wallace into a role as a nominal power forward, however, has resulted in some of Brooklyn’s best defensive lineups and achieves an optimal amount of floor spacing. This isn’t rocket science, and yet consistently Carlesimo still seems reluctant to use Wallace as a power forward on a more consistent basis.

6. Russell Westbrook, the sound and the fury

Of all the phenomenal finishers and explosive athletes around the league, none invokes more mid-drive anticipation for me than Westbrook — simply based on the potential for an incredible audio-visual experience. His speed and body control are magnificent in their own right, but what makes Westbrook’s finishes such gems are the ways he translates power into sound.

A hard dribble bangs on the court before leaping into his hands. The crowd collectively gasps at the audacity of Westbrook’s launch point, and the potential of a dunk to come. Then Westbrook completes the play by hammering the rim and screaming into the embedded microphone, perhaps embarrassing some poor, silent defender who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s such a fun player, and worthy of appreciation in all his sonic glory.

7. It’s finally Andrew Nicholson’s turn

Nicholson’s playing time has been somewhat spotty in his rookie season with Orlando, but coach Jacque Vaughn is finally starting to dole out more substantial minutes to the 6-foot-9 forward as a result of injuries. Nicholson has logged at least 20 minutes in four consecutive games, averaging 12 points and six rebounds. There are no guarantees of role or playing time, nor should there be. But it’ll be nice to get a longer look at Nicholson on a more regular basis, as there’s been plenty to like about his offensive game.

8. Ricky Rubio invokes the worst kinds of Jason Kidd comparisons

The points of comparison between Rubio and a young Kidd have been obvious, from their pure playmaking to the lack of shooting range to their knack for picking up steals. But where Rubio and Kidd may share the most explicit link is in their habit of botching wide-open layups when they get to the rim.

By now, Kidd’s layup problems have become something of a complex for him, as he actively looks to avoid attempting a shot around the rim at all costs. One can only hope that Rubio’s gun-shyness on layups — he’s already an even more abysmal finisher at the basket than Kidd ever was – doesn’t progress in the same way. In either case, the limitation is baffling: How can two players with such a thorough understanding of angles and trajectories blow a point-blank attempt in the simplest fashion possible?

31 comments
JimmyMackey
JimmyMackey

I think that if a person appreciates athleticism for itself, Lebron is definitely a modern day Michael Jordan.  I think he does well enough when he does well and seeing that in action is definitely a pleasure.  I follow certain teams though and sometimes it can be difficult to know where they are playing on TV.  I invite my friends I work with at my DISH office over for Kings games and a few Brewski’s.  I make sure I don’t miss the beginning of the game because I use my DISH Hopper’s Game Finder app to get the time and channel before I invite them over, that way, I don’t look like a fool.

jrd4100
jrd4100

Last time James met Paul Pierce and Jeff Green, he shot 45% and his team lost. He's not unguardable. He's a great player. But he can be slowed, and he can be beaten.

paul s.
paul s.

people choose to fawn over LJ, which is fine, he's a marvelous player - he's a genetic freak of nature, who's worked hard to develop his skills - to me however, he'll always be the classless boob from 'The Decision" humiliating his home town team to take the easy way out and get 'his' ring, to justify his money and ego - I don't care if he breaks every record in the book, he showed his immaturity and selfishness and has never owned up to it.

DougDavis
DougDavis

One thing that seems missed here, what wasn't called or was a regular foul in 1990 would be an automatic ejection and fine today.

It isn't LeBron's fault that the game has been changed to highlight offense, but if the subject is G.O.A.T, the fact that breathing on a star today results in 2 shots from the line, while Jordan went through a boxing match on his way to the rim, cannot be ignored. 

Ruff
Ruff

In my opinion, we may be looking at the greatest basketball player ever. For sure the most talented. Lebron is a mutant. Noone (including Jordan) brings to the table the skill set Lebron does. Plus he has the basketball IQ to go with it. His decision making is excellent. BUT, the most incredible accomlishment in NBA history, (maybe in the history of sports), is Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double for a whole season. THAT was an all around offensive player! Talk about records that will never be broken!

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

What is with the media's obsession with lebron james? I think they see him very much like they see Obama (someone they're equally obsessive about). He's an experiment of their own, because they deemed to be a 'chosen one.' So their credibility lies in their ensuring he's seen as successful. Now, unlike Obama, James is actually good at his job. However, it's rather incredulous that they're actually creating new ways of measuring efficiency just to make him look good. While he is great, I can show you stretches from both Jordan & Chamberlain that Lebron does not measure up to. That said, James has been great. But can we tone down the fawning? This deluge of "OMG Lebron is like the greatest player ever ever times infinity!!!"-type articles is really becoming insulting to one's basketball IQ.

obadiahhume
obadiahhume

I thought the Caron Butler video was most revealing.  Not because of LeBron's immense skill, which he clearly has, but because playing him tight will definitely not work when LeBron is allowed to create space by switching his pivot foot and then sliding it several feet.

BarryJay
BarryJay

With all this talk about LeBron James‘ current run of five straight games of 30 points at the 70% clip and how it may be the best stretch of games in NBA history- some may have forgotten Michael Jordan‘s insane run of triple-doubles during the 1988-89 season.

In an experimental move by Phil Jackson, the Bulls moved Jordan to point guard for part of the season and as only Jordan can, he responded with 10 triples doubles in 11 games. 

 

StephenGrange
StephenGrange

I did not think it was possible for any high schooler to be more over-hyped than James.

 

Turns out he was undersold. Truly an all time master of his trade....Talent coupled with a work ethic that can be equaled, but not exceeded.

riley8
riley8

With the game on the line with 3 seconds left and down 2 who do you inbound the ball to: Bird or James?  Bird and it's not even close.

Mark V.1
Mark V.1

I've always thought LeBron was closer to Bird in his skill set than Jordan or Magic, even if Bird and LeBron are on different planets in terms of raw athletic ability.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

 @jrd4100 Boston lost the series and James had one of the great playoff performances in an elimination game.... so I'd hardly say he was contained consistently

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

 @paul s. he did own upto it - thats the problem.... hes said he was immature and made a mistake and has tried to move on

 

never letting people forget a bad period in their lives/careers is a bad way to live life.... just move on

DougDavis
DougDavis

 @sage80_wanker

 With all due respect Lebron James is a good guy who does a lot of good things for people in need.  Please don't compare him to someone who creates more people in need and finds his greatest joy from it.  Lebron hears about a young girl gunned down in the streets of Chicago and thinks of the family, Obama thinks of the great society and how well it continues to work for his National Socialist party.

CoreyHardin
CoreyHardin

 @sage80_wanker

 Way to bring your hatred for Obama into a sports article.  The majority of Americans disagree with your political analysis, so please, go to Faux news' message board for such rants.  I'm sure someone over there cares.

Beth3
Beth3

 @StephenGrange

 Yep.  What might be most amazing is that LeBron has a peerless basketball body and a peerless basketball brain.  He's got Magic's size and sight, Jordan's speed and hops, Barkley's strength, and Bird's brain and whereas a birdbrain isn't generally a good thing, in basketball, it's the best.

leehwgoc
leehwgoc

 @riley8 Let's distort this scenario a bit, for the benefit of your perspective.

 

LeBron and Bird are *opponents*.  C's are down 2 with 3 seconds left and inbound the ball to Bird...

 

...with LeBron James in man-coverage.

 

Do we still trust Bird to penetrate and get the bucket?

 

Nooooooooooooooooooope.

Ruff
Ruff

Thank you Glen Beck! As CoreyHardin said, it would appear that the majority of Americans disagree with you.People, this is a sports site. Why do you all have to always bring your political opinions out here? Good grief, give it a rest. We get it, you don't like President Obama. I don't like Govenor Romney. Difference is, I made my voice heard at the polls, not on cnnsi.com.

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

 @CoreyHardin No hatred involved. It's an accurate assessment of performance & of media reaction. Actually, the majority agrees. Obama has less than 50% approval. And what does Fox News have to do with anything? That 'Faux' thing is extremely original, btw. Do you think of that all by yourself? You must be a clever guy.

CoreyHardin
CoreyHardin

 @leehwgoc  @riley8

 I'd rather have Lebron with the ball being guarded by Bird, than Bird having the ball being guarded by Lebron.

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

 @Ruff You should probably learn to spell someone's name before you try to type it, RUFF. Not everyone who's orgasmic over BO is Glenn Beck. Deal.

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

 @Ruff You should probably learn to spell someone's name before you try to type it. Not everyone who's orgasmic over BO is Glenn Beck. Deal.

DougDavis
DougDavis

 @Ruff

 Ok so truth offends you, we now know that, the rest is up to you.  For me, your voice is heard every other week, can reading the truth and facts once really be that much worse than my lib tax?  I give money to people who wish me harm, like you, not a single Republican in all of America wishes you any harm, that my friend is the real difference.

 

This is about LeBron, he has proved himself to be all that and more than the hype, I only wish him the best and look forward to watching his career, I said before it would be impossible but now I hold out some possiblity that he may go down as the best ever.

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

 @paul s.  @CoreyHardin It doesn't matter what you bring to a sports blog. My assessment is CORRECT, DESPITE YOUR CAPS LOCK PROBLEM, which you seem to confuse with intelligence. His approval rating is currently around 46%. And it has been under 50% for the majority of his tenure. Re-election does nothing to negate my argument. That only shows that 51% of those who voted thought Romney would be worse, for any number of reasons. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Which qualifies you to be an Obama supporter.

paul s.
paul s.

 @sage80_wanker  @CoreyHardin accurate assessment of What? the only person bringing politics to a SPORTS blog is you, and NO your assessment is WRONG - when a man is elected TWICE with over FIFTY percent of the vote, that means a MAJORITY (over %50 ) approve of him - now go back to your GED studies..

BarryJay
BarryJay

 @StephenGrange "Talent coupled with a work ethic that can be equaled, but not exceeded." -- "misleading."