Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In Part Two of a three-part series on James and his place in the league, we take a look at how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003 and how his early failures shaped the player he is today.
In Part One (Sunday), we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. In Part Three (Tuesday), we’ll weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — May 31, 2007 was the day LeBron James seemingly put it all together. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in Detroit, James scored 29 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ final 30 points in a double-OT victory that helped the franchise and its star reach The Finals for the first time.
As usual, James was nearly impossible to stop when he got into the paint. And no Piston defender was able to stay in front of him without help. But the difference on that night was that his jumper was falling. There was a ridiculous, pull-up 23-footer from the right wing to tie the scorein the final minute of regulation. There was an even crazier three in front of the Pistons’ bench to tie it with 1:15 to go in the second overtime.
The Pistons — one of the best defensive teams in the league — were helpless.
“It was very Jordanesque,” Detroit’s Chauncey Billups said afterward. “That kid was on fire, it was crazy. He put on an unbelievable display out there. It’s probably the best I have seen against us ever in the playoffs.”
James was 22 at the time. That performance was six years ago. And in the six years since, that basketball prodigy has evolved into a much different and much better player.
The evolution has not been a straight path. While his game has expanded and improved year by year, there have been hiccups along the way. And everything has come under the intense scrutiny that comes with being dubbed as “The Chosen One” in high school.
From star to MVP
With his combination of size, skill and athleticism, James was ready to be a star from the time he was drafted at the age of 18. He lived up to the hype right away, becoming the third rookie in NBA history — Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan were the first two — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. And he did it with little variety in his game.
That night in Detroit, at the end of his fourth season in the league, all of James’ offense in the final 16 minutes originated from the top of the key. There was a single give-and-go through Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the high post, but everything else was James dribbling on the perimeter and either getting to the basket or pulling up for a jumper. Only one of his 18 baskets in that game came off an assist.
|James’ shooting and efficiency|
|EFG% = (FGM + (0.5*3PM))/FGA
TS% = PTS/(2*(FGA + (0.44*FTA)))
That was the kind of player he was. He attacked from the outside in.
“We tried to post him up at times,” says then Cavs assistant Michael Malone, “and sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t.”
For opponents, the No. 1 priority was preventing James from getting into transition. If they could do that, the next step was keeping him out of the paint and making him a jump shooter. From his second year on, he was one of the best finishers in the league, shooting about 70 percent in the restricted area.
That accounts to 1.4 points a shot. Comparatively, his jumpers, even when accounting for the extra point he got when he made a three, were worth just 0.8 points. So defenders sagged off of him, went under the screen, and played the odds. Complicating things for defenders, though, was that he’s been a willing and competent passer since the day he entered the league.
“I tried to make him think,” says Shane Battier of his days guarding a younger James. “If he was instinctual, there’s not much I can do.”
The hiring of Mike Brown as coach in James’ third season helped him become a better defensive player. But though he was unstoppable at times and the most complete player among the league’s top stars, his numbers didn’t change much from his second season through his fifth. It was in his last two years with the Cavs when James really established himself as the best player in the world, becoming a better shooter and more efficient scorer.
He got into the paint more, got to the line more, and his jumper started to improve. And with a better supporting cast for their star, the Cavs jumped from 19th in offensive efficiency (in both 2006-07 and ’07-08) to fourth (in both ’08-09 and ’09-10). They held the league’s best record each year and James earned his first two MVP awards.
VIDEO: James claims MVP in 2009-10
Expanding his game in Miami
James’ move to South Florida not only gave him two All-Star teammates but a coach who would finally get him to step out of his comfort zone. In that first season in Miami, coach Erik Spoelstra used pie charts to show James and Dwyane Wade that they needed to add more variety to their offense.
|James in the post, last 5 seasons|
|% of total possessions, according to
Synergy Sports Technology
Though Wade clearly had to make bigger sacrifices, James saw his usage rate go down. He learned to play off the ball a little and even dabbled with a post game. His standard field goal percentage hit a career high of 51 percent in 2010-11, though his effective field goal percentage and efficiency took a dip because he shot fewer free throws and 3-pointers.
It was Season 2 in Miami that brought the biggest change in James’ game and, ultimately, his first championship.
“When we lost to Dallas,” Spoelstra says, “he put in a lot of time that summer, really to help us establish a back-to-the-basket post-up game.”
James began to work out of the post a lot more than he ever had and reduced his 3-point attempts. In The Finals against Oklahoma City, he shot just 7-for-38 from outside the paint, but he destroyed the Thunder inside.
And it was in that playoff run that Spoelstra and the Heat turned to the idea of positionless basketball. Thanks in part to an injury to Chris Bosh, they used more one-big lineups, with James essentially playing both power forward and point guard at the same time.
Last season, with Ray Allen adding more shooting to the rotation, the Heat assumed a full-time identity.
“Their situation has evolved where he has become the lead guy,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle says of James. “[In 2011], they didn’t have all that stuff sorted out and so we took advantage of that, and they’ve adjusted brilliantly since.”
James is the primary attacker, of course, but he has also become a pretty good shooter. After making fewer than 33 percent of his 3-pointers in his first eight seasons, he shot 36.2 percent from beyond the arc in 2011-12 and then 40.6 percent last season.
“The scouting report used to be he would lose faith in his jumper,” Battier says. “That’s no longer the case. That’s the biggest difference, but that’s a huge difference. It changes the way you have to guard him.”
“That doesn’t happen by accident,” adds Spoelstra. “That doesn’t happen by you getting your reps in games. That was a lot of repetitions before and after practice, and in sessions on his own.”
With his own shooting improvements and all the space he was creating for his teammates, the Heat became the best shooting team in NBA history last season, registering an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent.
The priorities when defending James are basically the same as they always have been. Defenders still don’t want to see him in the open court, and they still need to keep him out of the paint. According to SportVU data, the Heat scored 1.67 points per James drive* last season. The league averaged just 1.03 points per possession. (*Drive = Any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the basket and is dribbled within 10 feet of the basket.)
James can now attack opponents from the inside out, using his refined post game to bully himself to the rim or draw extra defenders and create open looks for his teammates. And when he does have the ball on the perimeter, he’s better able to punish defenses for sagging off.
“Those became pivotal shots in the San Antonio series,” Spoelstra says. “It was the only thing they would give us.”
“I looked at all my regular season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid-range shooters in the game,” he said afterward. “I just told myself, ‘Don’t abandon what you’ve done all year. Don’t abandon now because they’re going under.’
” ‘Everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the off-season training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it.’ And I was able to do that.”
Closing the deal
Improved post game? Championship No. 1.
Improved jumper? Championship No. 2.
Of course, James’ journey to the top of the mountain was not quite that simple, because he really was good enough to win championships in 2010 and 2011.
In his final year in Cleveland, the Cavs held a 2-1 series lead over the Celtics in the conference finals. But they blew it, with James shooting 18-for-53 (34 percent) over the last three games. In Game 5, his final home game in Cleveland, he shot 3-for-14 and acted like he’d much rather be somewhere else in the second half. Even if many doubted his championship mettle, that game was stunning.
In his first year in Miami, the killer instinct was there through the first three rounds, as James made several huge plays late in games against both the Celtics and Bulls. But then something changed in The Finals against Dallas.
He didn’t play terribly, but he played passively, more like a ball-distributing point guard than a 6-foot-8 freak of nature with the ability to take over games. In a six-game series, he got to the free-throw line a total of 20 times. Many wondered if he would forever be known as a superstar who couldn’t close the deal.
“I definitely didn’t play up to the potential I knew I was capable of playing at,” James said of the Dallas series in a recent interview with ESPN the Magazine’s Chris Broussard. “So you could make any assessment — I froze, I didn’t show up, I was late for my own funeral. You can make your own assessment. I can’t argue with nothing.”
Less than a year later, James was faced with another moment of truth, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston with the Celtics leading the series 3-2. That night, five years after that memorable game in Detroit, he had another breakthrough.
There were no signs of passivity as James racked up 45 points (on 19-for-26 shooting), 15 rebounds and five assists, sending the series back to Miami.
That was the night things changed, perhaps forever. Six games later, LeBron James had his first championship.
What was the difference between that game in Boston and some of the others that came before it? Only James really knows.
“The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals and me playing the way I played,” he said the night he won his first title, “It humbled me. I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted.”
The development of his game, the development of the Heat’s system and the shedding of whatever mental roadblock was holding him back in 2010 and 2011 all contributed to James going from the best player in the world to NBA champion.
Staying at the mountaintop won’t be much different from getting there. Every season is a new journey, and James almost took a step backward this past June. If Kawhi Leonard didn’t miss a free throw in a critical and series-changing Game 6 of The Finals, if Bosh didn’t get a key rebound, or if Allen didn’t hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history, the scrutiny would have been right back on James for the two ugly turnovers he committed in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
That’s sports. And that scrutiny is what comes with having the kind of talent that no one has ever seen before.
Now, we see what comes next.
“I want to be the greatest of all-time,” James said as he began his quest for championship No. 3. “I’m far away from it. But I see the light.”