LeBron James had a short â€œto do listâ€ prior to this season:
Improve defensively. Check! Although his steals and blocked shots numbers are roughly the same as they were last season, James has without question made strides defensively both in terms of one on one defense and in terms of fitting in to the teamâ€™s overall defensive scheme.
Improve free throw shooting. Check! James is shooting a career-high .772 from the free throw line, up from .712 last season and reversing four years of steady decline in that category.
The third item on the listâ€”improve perimeter shootingâ€”is the subject of this article.
One way to evaluate James in this department is to look at his three point shooting percentage. James shot .290 from behind the arc as a rookie on 2.7 attempts per game. In his second season, he shot .350 on 3.9 attempts per game but since that time his attempts per game average increased to nearly 5 while his accuracy steadily declined: .335 in 2006, followed by .319 in 2007 and .315 last season. So far this season, James has improved his three point shooting percentage to .342 on 4.7 attempts per game.
James consistently shot right around .300 from three point range in the first three months of this season but in February he shot .400 and in the first three games of March he shot .632 (12-19). Obviously this is too small of a sample size in order to be able to determine whether James has really made a permanent improvement in his three point shooting or if he is just riding a temporary hot streak. James shot .361 from three point range in November 2006 and .391 in December 2006 but failed to reach the .300 mark in any of the remaining months of the 2006-07 season. A glance at his game logs shows that he has had brief hot streaks from three point range a few times during his career but those short hot streaks have always been followed by longer cold streaks.
A second way to evaluate Jamesâ€™ long range prowess is to examine the â€œHot Spotsâ€ charts at NBA.com. The â€œHot Spotsâ€ charts divide the court into 14 different zones. Each zone lists a playerâ€™s shooting percentage from that area and is color coded based on his accuracy: red, naturally, indicates a â€œhotâ€ zone, gray could be termed lukewarm and blue is cold. Throughout his career, James has consistently been red hot in the paint but lukewarm or cold from virtually everywhere else. This season, that pattern still holds true: James is red hot in the paint, lukewarm in nine other zones and cold in four zones. His four cold zones are the two zones immediately outside of the paint on both the right and left sides (the midrange game) and the two zones directly to the right of the midrange zone on the right side of the court. James is lukewarm from the top of the key midrange zone and from four of the five three point zones.
What do these charts and numbers mean? We will find out during the last month of the season whether James has really improved his three point shooting or if he just temporarily boosted his percentage with a few hot shooting games. The bigger story is that he is still a cold shooter in several of the midrange areas. This is because James does not have a reliable one or two dribble pullup jump shot. In contrast, Kobe Bryantâ€”the player with whom James is competing to win this yearâ€™s MVPâ€”has three hot zones, 10 lukewarm zones and only one cold zone (straight on three pointers from above the top of the key). James has made some strides with his perimeter shooting but in the playoffs we can certainly still expect to see the better teams wall off the paint and try to force James to shoot jump shots, particularly from the midrange areas where he is still struggling.