How Can Lebron Get Better

A great article by David Thorpe, NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla.

Since you have to pay to read it on ESPN, I will post here for you. I might get in trouble for it but I will deal with that later :)

Looking forward to your comments!!!

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My assignment is to analyze LeBron James and figure out why his offensive production has slipped this season.

First, some perspective.

It’s time to take a closer look at LeBron James’ game.
James’ 2005-06 season was more extraordinary than most people realize. In fact, since 1979-80 (the first season for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird), James had the best Player Efficiency Rating for any non-center age 18 to 22, posting a 28.1 PER at age 21. In other words, during those 27 years, only Shaquille O’Neal put up a better statistical season by age 22.

James easily outpaced Michael Jordan, Amare Stoudemire, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and all the rest.

Naturally, now we expect more from James. It comes with the territory.

Instead, James has tailed off.

That doesn’t mean he’s having a bad season — far from it. He just turned 22, and his current PER of 23.7 would be the 10th best (since 1979-80) for players age 18 to 22.

And his passing is still exquisite, even if his assists are down a bit. His eye and feel for the game are truly amazing, at any age.

But we expected that he might be able to take his game to new heights and essentially take over the league, and it hasn’t happened.

Specifically, his scoring has slipped from 31.4 points per game to 26.3, and that decline has been caused primarily by his decreased ability to create shots and get to the free-throw line. His free-throw shooting has become a problem as well.

Meanwhile, such players as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who were in the same celebrated draft class of 2003, have continued to make significant strides in their fourth season.

My study of his half-court offensive game reveals some of the problems ∧ potential solutions.

On to the breakdown:

ON THE DRIVE
Some of James’ problems stem from how he is being defended. Teams are, of course, looking to make things difficult for him every time he touches the ball, especially with the Cavaliers lacking other weapons.

James likes to drive hard to the hole from the perimeter, and every James drive is an invitation for two or three defenders to rush and trail towards him. So at the very least he must beat his own defender and prepare for the “pinch” defender (the man guarding the teammate closest to James). On pick and rolls, which the Cavs run frequently, he must also deal with his screener’s defender, who often follows James to prevent him from changing directions.

And he sees other defenders as well. One Western Conference scout told me that his team fronts the post on the strong side when James has the ball on the wing, while the weak-side post defender rotates toward the ball and shows as well. In other words, a sound defensive team gives James the impression that all five guys are ready to pounce on anything he does.

This strategy is working for a couple of reasons.

First, James appears unwilling to take (and sometimes unable to make) the midrange shots that are available to him.

LeBron is fearless when it comes to attacking the rim.
Second, he’s forcing the drive. He often seems locked in on getting to the rim, going up against three or four defenders in traffic. He is rushing his right hand drives and going right into the web that his opponents have spun for him, with no angle to the basket and several tall players to contest his shots.

In watching him closely, I’m amazed at the number of off-balance runners he has tossed up to the rim, mostly hoping for foul calls, which rarely come from this type of shot.

Of course, when he is able to get by the defense and get his shoulders to the rim, he is an incredibly explosive finisher, and he is known for his ability to score on “and ones.” But scoring consistently against three or more defenders is too much to ask, even for James.

He should find his midrange game, stroking in some 16-foot jump shots. Almost no one would be able to contest these shots successfully. And that weapon ultimately would open up driving angles to the rim, as defenders rush out to contest him.

His recent free-throw woes might also be having an indirect effect on his game. He is shooting too many double-pump shots from the 5-to-8-foot range, perhaps to avoid getting fouled. Normally we would expect him to attack the basket, risking a blocked shot but typically getting rewarded for the strong move by getting the foul call. But refs usually swallow their whistles on midair, hanging, double-pump shots.

OFF THE BALL
Basketball is a game of habits, and James, with his advanced point-guard skills, has developed the habit of floating to the perimeter to get the ball. He might well have been encouraged in this habit by Cleveland coach Mike Brown, who runs a lot of isolation sets for James.

There are times when he does need to get outside to catch a pass, but there are ample opportunities to instead make a hard cut toward the basket, looking to receive a pass on the move or to post up.

He will draw lots of attention if he cuts more often, opening up more lanes and angles for his teammates. And if they end up shooting, then LeBron will be closer to the basket and increase his chances for an offensive rebound.

IN THE POST
James is not spending much time in the post, perhaps because he feels it is easier to deal with double teams by driving from the perimeter rather than backing down a defender inside.

And when he does post up, he is not fighting hard for the best position. By contrast, big, strong, accomplished post players like O’Neal and Eddy Curry battle for space inside the paint. James, who often enjoys a similar size advantage over his defender, often settles for posting up 15 feet or more from the basket.

Recently, against smaller and lighter opponents such as Matt Carroll, Raymond Felton and Jason Kapono, James went to the post only a handful of times, and only once did I see him work at getting deep post position. (Predictably, he was fouled immediately.)

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
LeBron can still make difficult shots look ridiculously easy.
The other times he settled for long turnaround jump shots, shot a hybrid jump hook from 12 feet, and on one occasion dribbled back to the 3-point line and then smartly drove to the basket for a layup. Overall, his success rate on these soft post-ups was not good.

If he would work at getting better position inside, he would get easier baskets, get fouled more, and not always have to face two or three defenders, as the help defense usually wouldn’t have time to collapse on him.

Posting up more often would also put him in better rebounding position. James is averaging exactly one offensive board per game. That’s not enough when Richard Hamilton — two inches shorter, 57 pounds lighter — pulls down 1.1 per game and Caron Butler, whose build is similar to James’, gathers 2.6.

A commitment by James to become a force inside would give him better and higher-percentage scoring opportunities while wearing down his opponents. Also, it would reduce the mental stress of always having to face the teeth of a defense focused almost entirely on him. On the perimeter, he is the magnet, the target. Battling for the ball inside, he’s just another big body in a scrum.

OUTSIDE SHOOTING
James is shooting a solid 34.1 percent from 3-point land. It’s clear he knows the right way to shoot, and sometimes shoots it correctly. But he needs better habits.

His form is inconsistent. He doesn’t seem locked into a particular shooting motion, and that’s something he can address.

His biggest problem is his lack of balance. He often leans backwards while jumping, which causes his right leg to arch upwards to help prevent him from falling down (the right leg acts as a balancing tool). Of course, if the clock is winding down, and he has to lean back to get a clean look, that’s fine. But generally he shouldn’t lean back on jumpers.

On the “catch and shoot,” he is often a bit stiff-legged. This creates a lack of rhythm and power in his jump shot, which usually means a shot that falls short. More leg drive on the jumper will cure this problem.

Sometimes he attempts the stylish shot rather than the sound one — for instance, quickly bringing his arms down to his sides after releasing the ball instead of holding his follow-through.

FREE-THROW SHOOTING
James has struggled quite a bit this season at the free-throw line, which is ironic when you consider it’s the one place where he does not have to face multiple sets of defenders.

His free-throw percentage has dropped from month to month, and for February he’s down to 52.4 percent. (For the season, he’s at 68.6 percent.)

The reason for his drop is fairly clear — he’s all over the place on his routine and release.

A proper free-throw attempt should feature a monotonous tone, the same thing every time. From the moment the ball is handed to James until the moment it reaches the basket, his routine should be identical.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Trips to the line are now an adventure for LeBron.
Right now, James lacks a tight routine (other than kissing the bracelets on his wrists to signal his love for his family).

To begin with, he is changing the length of time he looks at the basket before he actually shoots it. Ideally he would give himself a good second to eyeball the rim, though if he’s more comfortable looking at his dribble before lifting his head and releasing the ball in one motion, that’s OK. The problem is he’s mixing the two together in his routine, changing the length of time he looks at the rim from shot to shot.

While he’s doing a nice job of extending his follow through and holding it, he often is leaning or even stepping backward after his release, signaling a balance problem (similar to the way he shoots 3-pointers).

I see him working on his right wrist sometimes after shots, trying to get the snap right — though actually I observe no problems there. Instead, I see his left hand turning slightly during his release, which means the ball is often moving sideways from his right index and middle fingers. That causes the ball to take a flight path that is not totally straight over the center of the rim. (Watch his left hand upon release — if the fingers are pointing to the rim, it’s a good shot, but if his left palm is facing the basket, then his left hand has had an impact on the shot.) This is a very common problem shooters face — one that can be corrected with proper practice.

FINAL POINT
We’ve seen what James can do, so it’s only natural that we expect even more — just as he probably expects more of himself.

James has accomplished so much so early — while carrying such a big load for the Cavs, Team USA, the NBA in general, and those around him — that he might be suffering from something like mental fatigue. It’s not easy for a player or anyone else to grow in every way every day, even at age 22.

Now that opponents have adjusted to him, he will have to adjust his approach to the game if he wants to improve. In a sense, this stage of his career will be harder, simply because he’s been so good so early. He will have to decide consciously to improve in all aspects of his game and develop some new aspects.

The talent is there, and the early accomplishments of King James have put him in rare company. He wears Michael Jordan’s No. 23. He’s routinely compared to Jordan, Magic, Oscar and the other greats. He says he wants to be a billionaire.

He has the right role models for success. Now we’ll see if he can, as each of them did, take his game — and the game of basketball — to new heights.

David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he works as a personal coach for Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat), Orien Greene (Indiana Pacers), Alexander Johnson (Memphis Grizzlies) and Kevin Martin (Sacramento Kings). You can e-mail him here.

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