Can impossible dreams correct free throw shooting problems?
Consider the case of LeBron James and his motivator, Ray Allen. James doesn’t just enjoy Allen for his ability to stand in the corner and make James look good when firing passes in Allen's direction. James savors Allen on bus rides, plane flights and ice downs when talk sometimes turns to the art of shooting, even its possibly unattainable holy grails.
Recently James and Allen had such a talk when perhaps the greatest statistical achievement in shooting was broached. This zenith of quantifiable mastery demonstrates not only skill but also the discipline to be consistent, prudent and well-rounded.
It’s simply referred to as 50/40/90. As in 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, 90 percent from the foul line. The granddaddy of efficiency.
Simply, pulling this off is rare. It’s been done by only seven players since the 3-pointer arrived in 1979. It hasn’t happened since Steve Nash did it for the fourth time in his career in the 2009-10 season. (Perhaps hitting these marks for a season should just be referred to as “accomplishing a Nash.” Larry Bird, who did it twice, is the only other player who accomplished the feat more than once.)
Allen has been chasing this significant plateau for years, several times coming within a whisker. In 2008-09, for example, he shot 41 percent from 3-point range and 95 percent at the line, but “just” 48 percent overall. He hasn’t stopped striving, though, and this could be the year. He’s at 47 percent from 3-point range and just under the standards for free throws (89.6 percent) and field goals (48.6 percent) with fewer than 50 games to go.
Other than Allen, the active player most likely to pull off this feat would be Kevin Durant. And, in fact, he is currently the only player at 50/40/90 this season as he, like Allen, tries to become the eighth player to execute it for an entire season. Of course there is always Nash, who is once again hitting the numbers just nine games into his Laker career.
James, though, would love to be in on the action. At least someday. Or to at least not be laughed out of the conversation. James, who is not only ultra-competitive but also highly aware of statistics regardless of what he might say publicly, was quite intrigued by the chase when he and Allen discussed it.
These heights would be one of the few things in the game that would currently be considered out of reach for James. Before this season, you see, James had never shot better than 36 percent from 3-point range or 78 percent from the line. This is one area Durant, who is a much more talented shooter than James probably will ever be, is probably going to get his friend on.
However, these discussions with Allen helped change James’ concept at the free throw line. That motivation has, at least in part, helped shake James from one of the worst free throw shooting slumps of his career and kicked off a tremendous turnaround over the past several weeks.
As has been noted as he’s racked up in-season awards, James is having his best shooting season. At 55 percent overall and 41 percent from 3-point range, James is actually on pace to get two-thirds of that holy grail he and Allen hold in such regard.
James has been devastating finishing around the rim since he was a teenager and his jump shot has been steadily improving for the past five seasons. This season he’s been excellent on 3-pointers, shooting fewer shots off the dribble and waiting for more in-rhythm, set-up shots.
But then there’s the foul line, where James had one of the worst stretches of his career to start this season. By mid-December he had dipped to a career-low 64 percent. Perhaps as a cause-and-effect, James was actually taking about three fewer free throws per game than he was last season as he appeared to sometimes be shying away from the line.
Opposing scouts, noticing how much James’ overall shooting was improving, actually began putting in their reports that the only weakness in James' game was at the foul line.
It was a source of frustration for James, who was seeing unexpected regression in what otherwise looked like the start of the golden era of his career.
So during conversations with Allen, who is currently the fourth-best free throw shooter of all time at 89.4 percent, the topic of free throws came up. Allen has said several times since joining the Heat last year that he’s been impressed with how hard James works on his game. A famous repetition man himself, Allen implored James that there was no reason he couldn’t not only improve his free throw shooting but become a great free throw shooter. Perhaps even get within sight of the 50/40/90 dream someday.
“I told him that at the foul line he needed to focus on technique over talent,” Allen said.
James has listened. By refining his stroke, James has followed up his worst free throw shooting start to a season with one of the hottest streaks in his career. Since Christmas, James is 59-of-69 for 86 percent. Those missing trips to the line have also returned as a more confident James is back to averaging nearly nine free throws per game in that span.
The big difference fans will notice in James' technique is his balance. Throughout his career he has fought balance issues on all of his shots. When he was younger he would repeatedly fade away on his jumpers, even wide-open ones. When he was posting shooting numbers in the low-to-mid 40s, his jumper was nicknamed “Fade-a-Bron.”
Fixing that flaw took years of refinement in the offseason. There’s a lapse or two occasionally but overall James has cleaned it up. He now usually has near textbook balance on his jumpers, going straight up with his shoulders squared and his elbow and wrist in good position.
Still, not having proper balance is a mistake he defaults toward. Among other things, that was an issue earlier in the season with James often shooting free throws “on his heels” according to someone familiar with his game, letting his momentum sometimes go backward at the line.
Through working with the Heat coaches, talking with Allen and putting in extra work in practice, James has corrected this mistake. In an effort to get his balance forward he now puts nearly all his weight forward after releasing the free throw to make sure his momentum is correct.
This doesn’t have the greatest aesthetic quality because James sometimes looks like he’s about to topple over as the ball is on the way to the basket.
By rule, a player cannot step over the foul line until the ball hits the rim or passes through the net. In an effort to avoid that violation, James at times looks like he’s headed for a face plant in the lane as he leans forward waiting for the ball to get to the rim before at last putting a foot out to catch himself. He may even be bending the rule a bit by reaching his foot over the line even if he doesn’t touch before the ball reaches the rim, though officials would be hard pressed to whistle him for it.
No matter what it looks like, the changes in technique and James' diligence appear to have turned around his fortunes at the line this season. He’s raised his overall percentage about 10 points to 74 percent, close to his career average of just less than 75 percent.
As for that 90 percent dream, there's no chance this season. Just to put it in perspective, if James made his next 300 free throws he’d still be at 89 percent for the season. But it seems the chasing of that ghost is providing some positive reinforcement that’s helped refresh his outlook on all the valuable free throws he gets.
In the short run, James has corrected a flaw that was dogging him this season. In the long run, he has a new hard-to-achieve carrot to eye. After the way the past year or so has gone for him, it’s understandable he thinks he can reach it.