OAKLAND — The comings and goings of LeBron James‘ jump shot has been a fascinating study over the course of his career.
There have been times where James has been a competent shooter. And there have been big games that he’s won with his jumper. But more often than not, the greatness of James is about how much he’s done for his team’s offense despite an inconsistent jump shot.
In 2012, James won his first championship and was named Finals MVP, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists over five games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In that series, he made just seven (18 percent) of his 38 shots from outside the paint.
A year earlier, the Dallas Mavericks successfully employed a zone defense to keep James out of the paint. In ’13 and ’14, the San Antonio Spurs generally played James soft on the perimeter to force him into being a jump-shooter as much as possible. Last year, Andre Iguodala did the same, and James shot 24-for-90 (27 percent) from outside the paint in The Finals.
This year, for James to take 90 shots against the Warriors from outside the paint at the rate he’s been shooting them thus far in the playoffs (one for every 4:05 he’s on the floor), he’d have to average 66 minutes per game over a seven-game series. As cool as it would be to see seven games that went to four or more overtimes, that’s probably not going to happen.
There was a point this season where James was the worst high-volume jump-shooter in the league. He improved from the outside after that, but still finished with his worst field goal percentage from outside the paint in nine years.
But at the same time, James was less reliant on his jump shot than ever before. In the regular season, James took just 42 percent of his shots from outside the paint, the lowest rate in his career.
That trend has continued in the playoffs, where James has taken only 41 percent of his shots from outside the paint. For the first time in his career, in either the regular season or playoffs, he has taken more than half of his shots from the restricted area, where he’s long been one of the league’s best finishers.
Part of that is who James is on the floor with. The Cavs have only one non-shooting big — Tristan Thompson — in their rotation, so James has been playing with either three or four shooters around him.
The breakdown: James has played 65 percent of his minutes with Thompson or Timofey Mozgov (eight total minutes) on the floor and 35 percent with four shooters.
With how he’s being complemented these days, James is often the Cavs’ offensive “center.” According to Synergy Sports play type tracking, James’ post-up possessions are down from last postseason, but his possessions as the roll man on a pick-and-roll are way up.
Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey is probably still having nightmares about the play the Cavs ran several times in a row in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the conference finals. It featured James as a passer at the elbow and then as the roll man after a hand-off to Matthew Dellavedova.
James’ improved supporting cast makes the task of defending him even tougher. Not only are Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy, but the lineup the Cavs put on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters — Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, James and Channing Frye — has been near impossible to guard, in part because of how it takes advantage of James’ ability to be some sort of point guard/center hybrid.
Casey was an assistant on that Mavs team that zoned up the Heat in 2011. But during the conference finals, there was no point in going back to the tape to see what worked five years earlier. James is a different player now, and he has a different supporting cast.
“This team has far more 3-point shooters than that 2011 team did,” Casey said.
“When you have shooters like he has, he’s like a quarterback,” Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll added. “I feel if you play soft on him, you just allow him to survey the floor.”
No player throws cross-court passes like James, who has 59 assists (to seven different teammates) on 3-pointers in these playoffs, 12 more than any other player. Give him space, and he won’t use it to shoot, but rather to pick your defense apart with his passing.
But if you play tight, you run the risk of getting beat off the dribble. And if James gets into the paint, he’s either finishing at the basket or drawing help and finding a guy who’s even more open than he was before the drive.
“When he’s attacking the basket,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, “that opens up everything else for our 3-point shooters, for Tristan getting dunks, Kevin getting put-backs and layups. He’s just taking what the defense gives him.”
So, when The Finals tip off Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), the Warriors will know that the task of defending James is much tougher than it was a year ago, no matter how well he shoots from the outside.
“We have to be ready to cover a lot of the floor and 3-point shooting bigs in Frye and Love, so we can’t lose sight of them,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. “But we’ve got to try to protect the rim as well, and that’s a big challenge. Just like teams that play us with our shooting and spacing, it’s hard to cover all that court.
“Last year we generally were playing against two bigs, Mozgov and Thompson, so we were able to help more around the paint and force more jump shots. And it will be much more difficult now with Frye and Love. So our tactics will have to change a little bit.”
“It’s hard to force a guy to one thing,” Iguodala said about defending James. “You try to take him out of his comfort zones more than anything. And then it’s five guys, defensively, being on the same page, knowing where the rotations are going to be. And then communicating is probably the biggest part.”
Defense is always about all five guys. But the Cavs’ ability to put four shooters around James means that Iguodala’s teammates can’t be in the same position to help as they were last year. They need to stay closer to Cleveland’s shooters, or James will have the ball in the shooter’s pocket before they have time to recover.
“I think that’s where he’s most dangerous,” Draymond Green said. “Obviously, he can score the basketball. But he’s most dangerous as a facilitator. So we always have to be aware of that. He’ll find guys anywhere.”
James’ jumper may come and go in the next 2 1/2 weeks. But the comings and goings of James’ jumper have never mattered less.