LeBron's final hurdle: the free throw line

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
3:45
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- At the Heat's media day on Monday, LeBron James looked like a man completely at peace. For more than 20 minutes during his news conference, James spoke calmly, with supreme confidence, fully cognizant of his long line of accomplishments at age 28, his golden place in history and his promising future.

“I want to be the greatest player of all time,” James said. “It’s that simple. But I’m far from that.”

James knows he’s the best basketball player on Earth, a two-time NBA champion and four-time MVP in his prime coming off the most lopsided MVP vote in league history. This past summer, he married his high-school sweetheart, traveled around Europe and watched his team reload after repeating as world champion. James has a lot to feel good about these days, to say the least.

But at Monday’s news conference, one thing seemed to rattle James while he sat on his figurative throne:

His lifelong battle with the free throw line.

The struggle

It’s the last area of the game he has yet to conquer.

What else is there? Last season, he ranked in the top five in scoring and eighth in assists. He shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range and raised his overall field goal percentage to a blistering 56.5 percent. He led his team in rebounds and committed a career-low 1.4 fouls per game. He topped the rest of the league in PER by a wide margin with a 31.7 rating and raised it to an astronomical 37.8 in clutch situations, according to NBA.com data.

The man who wants to be the greatest player of all time has pretty much mastered every technical skill in the book -- except for free throws, which just so happens to be the simplest skill of all. Just walk up to the line and shoot an uncontested shot from 15 feet. What’s so hard about that?

Nonetheless, James converted 75.3 percent of his free throws last season, which was the exact league average. Meanwhile, he is decidedly above-average in just about everything else. And he knows it, too. Which is why James made it his No. 1 priority this offseason (besides, you know, getting married).

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Christopher Trotman/Getty ImagesLeBron James is anything but average ... except when he's at the free throw line.
Just before the Heat rode off into the summer sunset after winning the title, Heat boss Pat Riley said “our goal is to get [James] up over 90 percent from the free throw line.” But when asked about that bar on Monday, James laughed it off.

“Ninty percent is not the goal, that is out of control,” James said, shaking his head to a roomful of laughter. “Let me get to 80 percent first. Let me get to 78 percent.”

James didn’t pick up that 78 percent figure out of thin air. That’s his career high for a season, set in 2008-09 in Cleveland, which is slightly above his career rate of 74.7 percent. But on Monday, in one of the few moments when James was actually asked about on-court matters, he made his call.

“Eighty percent is the goal,” James said. “Hopefully what I've been able to do in the offseason can translate to the game. I’m very focused on it and it’s something that I want to improve, but we’ll see what happens.”

Is 80 percent really that far-fetched for James? Depends how you look at it.

Consider this: Across an entire NBA season, the difference between a 75 percent shooter and an 80 percent shooter is turning one miss into a make every three games. That’s it. But if it were easy for James to do that, he probably would have done it by now.

James’ longest stretch of games in a regular season during which he’s shot at least 80 percent? Try 42 games. And he did it in his rookie season. In fact, he’s never shot 80 percent in any 30-game stretch in a Heat uniform. All in all, becoming an 80 percent free throw shooter for an entire season would require doubling his longest stretch of 80 percent shooting in his career.

Given James’ mastery of the sport, how is this possible? The average American probably knows a friend, co-worker or family member who shot 80 percent at some level in his or her basketball career. This is probably why free throw shooting has become a fetish of the critical NBA fan. If Joe from around the corner can hit free throws at the neighborhood park, why can’t the best player in the world?

Repetition makes perfect?

James still hasn't figured out the riddle. His problem, he’ll tell you, is repetition. One of the first things you learn as a basketball player is to find a free throw routine. One dribble, spin, shoot. Three dribbles and up. Whatever it is, just stick to it. But James hasn't mastered that part. He tweaks and overhauls his routine probably dozens of times every season.

“Obviously it becomes mental at some point when you go up there,” James said. “For me, it’s mental, it’s not physical. One game you make 11 out of 12. Next game you shoot 6 out of 13. Then you change it ... which is crazy.”

To a basketball coach, it is just that -- crazy. James fully understands that this is certifiably irrational and probably detrimental. A player doesn't scrap his routine after a random fluctuation at the line, just like a baseball player doesn't overhaul his batting stance after going 0-for-4 on a Saturday afternoon. Knowing this, James tried to correct his approach this summer, but it led to a psychological tug-of-war.

“This offseason I just stuck to the same routine,” James said. “Even if I missed four or five in a row I just stuck to the same routine, just try to challenge myself. It went through my mind, ‘OK, it’s time to change.’ I was like, ‘No, stick to the same routine. Stick to the same shot.’ That was cool, I was able to do that all summer.”

What’s the longest he’s ever stuck to a routine?

“I don’t know, which is letting you know it’s not a good thing at all,” James said. “I shot 85 percent my freshman year in high school and after that, it was too easy to score and free throws didn't matter and it’s been downhill ever since.”

Putting it into action

As James sees it, he’s never needed to be elite at free throws to be elite. But with two NBA titles under his belt and “the greatest ever” distinction in sight, he has made it a top priority these days. In all likelihood, this is probably not the first offseason James has started from scratch. He’s probably tried every trick in the book to correct his free throw shot. Last season, he found some success emulating Ray Allen’s routine, but it wasn't long before he tweaked. Even after winning four MVPs, the random fluctuations still got to him.

“I can go in the gym during the offseason after my workout dead-tired and shoot 150 free throws and make 150 free throws,” James said. “That means absolutely nothing until you get out on the floor and you actually do it.”

James isn't alone in this struggle. A fascinating photo snapped by ESPN Radio’s Beto Duran last season informed us that at one point last season that Dwight Howard had made 82 percent of his 1,582 free throws in practice. 82 percent!

In games? Just 49.5 percent. But Howard wasn't the only one to buckle under the pressure. Even if we take Howard out of the equation, the Lakers’ free-throw percentage tumbled from 89 percent on the practice floor to 77 percent in real action. In other words, the Lakers went from Kevin Durant to LeBron James once the bright lights came on.

Though it’s unlikely that James actually reaches his goal next season, we probably shouldn't doubt him at this point either. Three seasons ago, James didn't have a reliable postgame or a knockdown 3-point shot. Now he has both. One-by-one James has turned almost all of his remaining weaknesses into strengths. The last skill standing is the free throw. If he figures that out, what then? The “greatest ever” tag may not be so far after all.

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