Maximizing LeBron isn't all that easy
November, 16, 2010
By John Krolik
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron James: an embarrassment of riches that can be difficult to tap.
LeBron James is the most versatile superstar the NBA has seen in years. He's extremely good when he creates shots for others, a force to be reckoned with when he drives to the basket, and almost literally unstoppable when his teammates occupy the defense and create shots for him. James' versatility produces a fundamental paradox: Should his coach build a gameplan around him in order to ensure that the team is getting the most out of each of James' abilities, or be confident that James' versatility will allow him to be an effective part of an offense built around others? Should LeBron be milked for maximum production, like he was in Cleveland, or molded for maximum efficiency, like he was in his last two international campaigns?
In James' last two seasons in Cleveland, a clear plan for how to use him emerged. Early in the game, James would look to get baskets by moving without the ball and try to set up his teammates when he had the ball in his hands. He'd find cutters diving to the rim or set up shooters coming behind back-screens with skip passes.
Late in the game, LeBron would go into overdrive. The offense went through him on every possession, with a few set plays designed to set up LeBron for a dunk or Mo Williams for an open 3-pointer thrown in to keep defenses off-balance. But mostly, it was LeBron going isolation or pick-and-roll and looking to drive, and four other Cavaliers being ready to shoot or cut to the basket if their men left them to help out on LeBron.
Was it predictable? Absolutely. But it was also extremely effective -- if you don't believe me, check out the numbers, or the Cavaliers' regular-season records. The Cavaliers used their version of the LeBron Plan in 157 regular-season games from 2008-2010, and they won 126 of them as LeBron coasted to two straight MVP awards.
The problem, of course, was that the Cavaliers' plan wasn't enough to beat the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, despite James' stellar play in that series, and the Celtics made an absolute mockery of the Cavaliers' plan in last season's playoffs.
So LeBron went to Miami, and from an X's-and-O's perspective, it was hard not to get excited. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh capable of carving apart defenses on their own, the Heat would be able to use LeBron in ways the Cavaliers never had the talent to. Miami could move James around the floor and allow him to attack the basket against defenses woefully unprepared to stop them, or he could find teammates for high-percentage look after high-percentage look.
So far, that hasn't happened in Miami -- LeBron is basically playing pick-and-pop basketball, settling for jumpers, and trying to make highlight-reel plays on the break, and it's led to some relative growing pains. Everyone expected that James' point totals would go down in Miami, but who could have predicted that his true shooting percentage would be lower than it has been since his rookie year, or that his turnover ratio would be a career-high?
The party line in Miami is that James is being more unselfish, and his assist totals have been high -- but his passing is much less efficient in Miami than it was in Cleveland. Last season, LeBron averaged 4.0 passes that led to shots at the rim and 2.5 passes that led to 3s per game. This season, those numbers have fallen to 1.8 and 2.1 assists per game. LeBron now averages 4.3 assists that lead to mid-range shots every game, as compared to 1.4 of those assists per game last season. When you consider that mid-range shots are far less efficient than shots at the basket or beyond the arc, that's not a good trend.
After "The Decision," "Scottie Pippen" was a trending topic on Twitter. Pippen's name was brought up as a slight to James, but the truth is that James and the Heat could do well to rip some pages out of Pippen's book. Pippen was great without ever trying to be. He could play in the post, handle the ball, attack the basket, drain open shots, and make the right pass at any time. He could do it all -- but never tried to do it all at once. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan recognized that, and that's why Pippen was the second-best player on six championship squads.
James has Pippen's versatility, except that James is bigger, stronger, a better passer, and has scored more points per game than any player not named Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. That's a scary combination, and it's time to realize that emulating the best second banana of all time on occasion won't make James any less of a superstar.
Where are James' weak-side cuts for a dunk after Wade splits the defense on a pick-and-roll? For that matter, where is that devastating Wade-James two-man game we heard so much about, with an unstoppable James rolling hard to the rack after he sets a screen for Wade? Where are those dribble-handoffs with Wade or Bosh at the high post ? Where is LeBron's post game, working with Bosh on the opposing block to make it impossible for defenses? Why is LeBron passing to Zydrunas Ilgauskas and James Jones for spot-up jumpers instead of Wade and Bosh for dunks?
Over his last two seasons in Cleveland, LeBron was forced to blossom into a complete and historically good player. Now LeBron has the opportunity to help the Heat grow into a complete and historically good offense, but most of his possessions have been of the "OK, LeBron, your turn" variety. LeBron and Wade have often looked more like Iverson and Carmelo than Michael and Scottie or Magic and Worthy, and that's a shame.
Of course, the key caveat to all this whining about what the Heat could be on offense is this: Even with LeBron "struggling" compared to his past two seasons, Bosh playing the worst basketball of his career, and the Heat barely scoring inside the paint, the team is third in the league in offensive efficiency. Eventually, James, Wade, and Bosh are going to embrace each other's versatility, get creative, and start clicking, and that's when things are going to get frightening for the rest of the NBA.