NBA Playoffs: LeBron and the Broken Jumper

LeBron James, as usual, will probably waltz into the Finals again this year without much trouble. The Pistons made games interesting, but ultimately couldn’t hang.The Hawks might make it interesting, but I’m not sure yet that I buy them as a true challenger. James is still the best basketball player in the league, even if he wasn’t the best player this year. He’s having one big problem this year, and it’s only gotten worse in the playoffs; he can’t make a jumper. LeBron’s traditional stats show that he’s been very good so far in this year’s playoffs:

23.2 8.6 7.2 49.5 26.1

Well, good except for his three-point shooting. Which, to be fair, was never his forte, but he did develop into a guy you had to respect at the arc. It’s also become more a part of his game as he’s aged. A closer look shows that an astounding amount of that point total comes in the paint, where James still excels, and from foul shots. He’s obviously also rebounding and distributing at a high level, which he’s always done. When the Cavaliers destroy a team, it’s not just because of James’ scoring; it’s because his gravity forces every position on the court to respect his offense, making it possible for guys like J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert beat you with spot-up shooting. Teams are decreasingly respecting his jumper in the playoffs, and so far he’s been able to get his so far. That’s not gonna fly against high-level defensive teams like Golden State and San Antonio in the Finals. Just how bad has LeBron’s shooting been, you ask? Let’s look.

Quick glossary:

Pull Up jumpers are a shot where the player makes the attempt from 10+ feet while having taken 1 or more dribbles before. Catch and shoot is a jump shot outside of 10 feet where the player possesses the ball for less than 2 seconds before the attempt. An open shot is an attempt where the closest defender is 6-10 feet away.

Pull Up % C&S % Open (Overall) Open 2P% Open 3PT%
33.3 28.6 35.5 40.0 27.3

That’s dismal. Teams are increasingly going to sag off of him, but most Eastern squads don’t have players that they trust to slow him down and recover when this strategy results in attacking the paint. Good defensive teams are basically going to treat him like Tony Allen in last year’s series against Golden State. For that to work against LeBron, you need two primary ingredients: a good rim protector and a wing that you trust to deal with him in close range and recover quickly when they sag off him. Right now, the only teams equipped with both components are the Spurs and the Warriors. The Hawks have decent interior defense, but is Kent Bazemore a LeBron stopper? No. The Raptors don’t have a good enough version of either component.

The Spurs have Kawhi Leonard/Tim Duncan/LaMarcus Aldridge, guys you can trust to be smart about handling LeBron outside the paint, drive him the right direction, and challenge him on the interior in the best way you can. The Warriors have Andre Iguodala/Andrew Bogut, and to a lesser degree Harrison Barnes/Draymond Green/Festus Ezeli. Really, Green isn’t fast enough to challenge LeBron all that well up close, but let him float and he might do better.

Basically, you want to neutralize the blow-by. You need to take away situations where LeBron catches and fakes or just runs past his defender, causing the scheme to collapse, usually resulting in a layup, free throws, or a cross-court dump to Smith, Love, Irving, etc. Let LeBron’s man drift in the midrange, staying within 8ish feet. It’s close enough to disturb his shot apparently, far enough to offer quick help on any other players that try to drive or pull up, and close enough for the defender to at least guide his driving path a certain direction. Not to mention that if one of the other wings drives causing a collapse, he’s the least threatening player to be waiting for the catch and shoot dump off.

The 2013 Finals was a great example of letting LeBron shoot–problem was that he found his shot in the last two games. Teams need to be prepared to adjust accordingly if that happens again, but for now, letting him sit on an island to shoot, staying close enough to force his drives, and cutting off his drive and dish passing lanes is the best strategy with the right personnel.

Don’t bother coming at the King. He’ll probably miss.

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