Miami Heat: The Continuing Evolution of LeBron James


Since LeBron James entered the NBA, his Achilles’ heel was always his jump shooting. It’s no fault of his, he was 18 and still growing, he got by in the game on athleticism and size as much as skill, and nobody has a perfect shot right out of the crib anyway. From his rookie season of 2003-04 to 2005-06 he shot 46% from the field, and .330 from three point range. HIs shooting percentage has crept up from there to 48% in 2007-08 when he led the league in scoring to 49% in his first MVP year of 2009 and now to 54% this year. Billy Madison said it, he’s good.

What’s so stunning about LeBron’s game today is his distance shooting. Once his biggest weakness, he’s turning it into one of his greatest strengths. His three shooting has leapt to 42% this year, smashing his previous best of 36% from a season ago. Not only that, he’s got 10 games this year where he hit more than one highlighted by a 5-for-8 outburst against Houston in November. With his strength it’s a pull up jumper. He’s made half-court shots look like mid-range jumpers in the past, but this is ridiculous.

It’s not like he’s taking more shots, he’s just taking more steps to become the most efficient thing to ever step on a basketball court, man, beast, robot or alien. That includes those MonSTARS that terrorized the Toon League all those years ago. He’s attempting 3.2 three-pointers per game, up from 2.4 last season but way below his four per game career average. He’s making 1.4, bettering his career average of 1.3. His high was 1.7 per game back in 2008-09 but he attempted 5.1 three’s that year. He’s shooting his highest percentage from the floor of his career at 54%, his Player Efficiency Rating is 29.1, actually lower than last season, but that was record-setting.

His True Shooting Percentage of .606 is the highest of his career if it holds and ninth in the league with only Chris Bosh and Kevin Durant the big time offensive players ahead of him. Tyson Chandler leads for the second year, if you were curious. The only fault in James’ game is his free throw percentage, below 70% for the first time since 2006-07. His Cavs made the Finals that year though, maybe this is a portent. Oddly, he’s only taking about six a game – career low is 5.8 his rookie year and the next lowest is 8.1 last year.

All this leads to one conclusion. He’s becoming an unstoppable machine, if he isn’t already. It’s always fun to wonder how his game will evolve. After all, every player has to make additions to replace the things Father Time takes away.

Look at Dwyane Wade – he’s forced to work on a more consistent jumper and how to use footwork to get around people because he can’t blow by them. Same thing with Kobe Bryant. They are blessed with a vast basketball intelligence and strength, which doesn’t go away, but one must wonder about LeBron. His game is a frightful combination of size and speed, but he also reads a game like no other.

Being the end all, be all in Cleveland turned him into a brilliant point man, his speed gives him a leg up over the guys in the paint, his size makes him a great post player, and his mind makes him a coach on the floor. It’s almost not fair.

For the longest time the assumption has been that as LeBron gets older he’d move closer to the basket. His now great and still improving post game has been a boon to him, the first time he’s shot over 50% was 2010-11 when he started playing more back to the basket in Miami, and it’s only gone up from there.

His defense has been brilliant in the post, too. I’ll have vivid memories of that Lakers game where he bossed Pau Gasol around the paint too, while making a horrifying face. Vivid in part because it’s burned into my memory. He very well could have won Defensive Player of the Year last season, maybe the voters just thought it was too much.

Now though, his perimeter game is growing by leaps and bounds. Perhaps I’m making a big deal out of it – three shooting seems to be flying out of whack this season what with OJ Mayo shooting over 50% and Kevin Durant’s insanity, but it’s not that crazy. Perhaps LeBron is finally finished growing, and he’s found his stroke.

When Michael Jordan began regular weight training back in the early 90’s, his trainer warned him his shot would be messed up for a while because it’s all muscle memory, and he was right. Could it be that LeBron has broken through and stopped growing, reached his full adult level? After all, we’re supposedly in the prime of his career, the peak of his athleticism.

Five years from now, when LeBron is a grizzled 32 year old vet, what will he be? Once athleticism starts to wane, that’s when players typically start to plug in new moves and styles. LeBron has done all this already, you have to wonder where it goes from here – how much more is there to know, to perfect? Bill Simmons made the Larry Bird 2.0 comparison during last year’s playoff run, that is entirely within the realm of possibility.

It’s not a suspect jump shot anymore, and James just adds wrinkles every season.

With the three shooting, the fadeaway out of the post, the jump hook he’s got growing after a quick session with Hakeem this summer, it’s getting so what he can do on a court should be considered cheating. Either way, it’s a blast to be a fan right now. A friend said it the other day – it’s a lot of fun watching basketball in the prime of LeBron James’ career.