TrueHoop: Lebron James

Calling the MVP race

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
1:21
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The ESPN Forecast is overwhelmingly clear, and it's not looking good for LeBron James. But first, there's something to explain about an ox that lived a century ago.

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Who is the NBA MVP?

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
10:22
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan gives us his early top-five ballot for the NBA's MVP.

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Takeaways from Heat-Clippers

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
3:29
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
LeBron JamesAndrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesLeBron James and Blake Griffin had many opportunities to challenge each other.

• The Los Angeles Clippers don’t subscribe to the idea of moral victories, at least not vocally, but the vibe around the team after the 116-112 loss to Miami Heat was comparatively rosy for a team that lost on its home floor and didn’t have one of the four best records in the Western Conference for the first time in well over a month. The Clippers weren’t happy about the turnovers and the defense, but they’d wanted a tempo game against Miami and they’d accomplished that. They wanted to keep the ball moving against Miami’s pressure in the half court, and they nailed that task as well.

•  When Chris Paul suffered an AC separation of his right shoulder, he said emphatically that he didn’t believe in silver linings. Serious injuries derail momentum and disrupt the season -- for player and team. So to honor CP, let’s call what the Clippers are seeing from Blake Griffin over the past month an unintended consequence rather than a silver lining. On Wednesday, 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, and as if that’s not a full demonstration of his dominance, consider this: 52 of the Clippers’ 98 possessions ended in a Blake Griffin field goal attempt, a Blake Griffin field goal attempt that resulted in a pair of fouls shots, a Blake Griffin assist or a Blake Griffin turnover.

• LeBron James turned in another “1-through-5” game, guarding every position on the floor for Miami. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when LeBron became an equal opportunity defender with the Heat, but we can look at a Sunday night in January 2011 against the Trail Blazers in Portland. The Heat spent much of the game bogged down in the half court, at which point Erik Spoelstra unleased an early incarnation of Heat small ball. Miami went gangbusters as James found himself covering 7-footer Marcus Camby. Wednesday night, James matched up with DeAndre Jordan and Griffin for stretches and did his usual work on his perimeter counterparts. James loves to roam when his assignment is a secondary or forgotten option of the offense -- and Jordan snuck underneath a couple of times on LeBron -- but the multi-tasking was impressive as always.

• Only LeBron can avenge a technical foul call that clearly irritated him and set him off into a flurry of rage that materialized in … assists and facilitation. On the possession following the tech, LeBron pounded the ball upcourt and was met by Griffin at the 3-point arc. James then performed what might have been a pointed imitation of Griffin’s elaborate between-the-legs, eat-your-heart-out-Anthony Mason shtick. LeBron then orchestrated the prettiest half-court set of the night. In a five-second span, James dished the ball off to Ray Allen, moved into a screen for Allen, caught the pass from Allen while rolling hard to the rim, then stopped short to lob an alley-oop to Chris Andersen. One hockey assist and another basketball assist followed on the subsequent possession as the Heat capped a 6-0 run to build their lead back to 17 points.

• Griffin drew the assignment to guard James to start the game -- and for much of the finish while the Heat were still small. [We discussed the decision] this morning before shootaround,” Griffin said. “It was actually T-Lue, Tyronn Lue. I guarded him a couple of times when we played them in Miami.” Griffin did an adequate job as roadblock, and James spent most of the possessions opposite Griffin setting up Wade on some pretty cuts, and moving the ball to the weakside, which the Clippers routinely vacated or merely forgot about.

•  Doc Rivers spoke pregame about the miracle of Allen’s shotmaking. Four hours later, he experienced it firsthand when Allen nailed the dagger as the third option on a play designed as a single-double for Mario Chalmers, with a contingency pick-and-roll with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When nothing materialized off either action, Wade swung the ball to Allen, whose 3-pointer gave the Heat a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in regulation. “It was a little bit of a broken play,” Spoelstra said. “We had been running a little bit of an action to try to get some different matchups to take advantage of the switches. [The Clippers] switched, and Dwyane [Wade] was able to drive. Because they had switched and handed off so many things, sometimes defensively you lose sight of guys on the weak side, and that’s what happened.”

•  Neither the Clippers nor the Heat did much to stop the other in the half court. Miami’s aggressive schemes left them vulnerable to weakside actions, cuts and duck-ins. The Heat were late to rotate when they trapped up top, and when they did, they’d end up with Mario Chalmers crashing on Griffin in the lane -- generally a bad idea for the guy who isn’t Griffin. The Clippers, meanwhile, “lost guys” all night in the words of Rivers. They switched everything for Griffin and the guards appeared confused as their counterparts breezed around screens. It was ugly on both ends defensively.

Clippers in good hands without Chris Paul

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
10:20
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Blake GriffinAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillBlake Griffin and the Clippers have taken a big leap forward while Chris Paul's shoulder mends.
In Portland a few nights after Christmas, LeBron James spent the evening in a camo tee, brown leather pants and a tan jacket. On the floor, his teammates beat a hot Trail Blazers team on a late 3-pointer by Chris Bosh. The Heat got some nice minutes from Michael Beasley, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis on a night that wasn’t Dwyane Wade’s most efficient.

About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.

So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
[+] EnlargeChris Paul and Blake Griffin
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokSitting out has been tough for CP3, but the Clips are 11-5 without him.

“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”

Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.

The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.

One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.

In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.

He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'


-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul

With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.

But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.

It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.

The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.

Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.

If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.

Learning to love the Brooklyn Nets

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
10:58
AM ET
By Reihan Salam
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
NetsAP Photo/Kathy WillensYou can't buy love, not even in Brooklyn. But as one longtime resident says, the Nets are now theirs.
Before the Nets moved to Brooklyn, I knew almost nothing about professional basketball, or basketball in any incarnation. I understood that it was a sport in which tall people excelled, and as someone who stands well below the median height, I spent very little time playing it. I certainly remembered Michael Jordan from my youth, when his shiny head was all but unavoidable; as a dark-skinned man with a shaved head, I suppose I have him to thank for being so smooth and aerodynamic. And I was vaguely aware of an indestructible, headband-wearing man called "The LeBron," who for all I knew was some kind of myth or legend, like Sasquatch.

Yet when I first heard that a professional sports franchise was planning to move to Brooklyn as part of a multi-billion dollar real estate transaction, I was intrigued. The reason is that I am, and have long been, a Brooklyn nationalist. Marty Markowitz has nothing on me. When I get my facial tattoo, it will be a map of Kings County across my forehead.

If Brooklyn didn't have a team, I thought to myself, all of the other professional sports franchises in the world could burn to the ground. Though I was born decades after the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, I grew up with a sense that a grave injustice had been done to my city -- a crime that would one day be avenged.

In the 21st century, Brooklyn pride has become an irritating cliche. But in the 1980s and '90s, it meant something entirely different. It was about thumbing your nose at a world that didn't give us the respect we deserved. We Brooklynites were nobodies, treated as part of an anonymous expanse of mediocrity, crime and poverty ringing Manhattan's Emerald City. This despite our proud architectural and cultural heritage, and our history as a separate and distinct city that competed with, and often bested, New York until we were conveniently swallowed up in an 1898 election that was almost certainly rigged.

So how could I not love the Barclays Center, the beautiful alien vessel that is home to the Brooklyn Nets? For all my enthusiasm about the arena, basketball was still baffling to me as recently as this past offseason. I started to read about the Nets, and about the sports more broadly, when they first moved from New Jersey. Intellectually, at least, the game started to make sense. Professional sports are the way Americans talk about all kinds of things such as business, race, class and modern medical miracles. Reading about the Nets organization gave me some sense of what I had been missing by avoiding pro sports my entire life. Even so, my connection to the team was more intellectual than visceral. At my first Nets game, against the Orlando Magic almost exactly a year ago, I brought reading material, just in case I got bored. The game wound up being pretty fun, and the food was excellent. Even so, I wasn't quite hooked. I read an article or two amid the cheering fans.

I did, however, pay pretty close attention to the team’s activity during the offseason. I knew just enough about the NBA to know that the arrival of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was a huge deal. Luring Andrei Kirilenko and two and a half legendary Celtics made the Nets’ Russian paymaster look like some kind of Svengali. A totally respectable team was now being discussed as a serious title contender. When one of my friends, a die-hard NBA fan, suggested that we buy half-season tickets, I decided to give it a shot. This team was destined to make noise, and I figured I ought to be a part of it. Another friend warned that just as the Lakers failed to build a superteam out of aging, dysfunctional parts last season, the Nets would disappoint. But if the Nets were truly terrible, I could still support the city I love while catching up on my reading and enjoying a wide array of gluten-free snacks.

Going to the games changed things. For whatever reason, I started thinking of the players as real people, and I couldn't help but root for them on a personal level. When Shaun Livingston, who suffered an injury that should by all rights have been career-ending, played exceptionally but unflashily well at the start of the season, it occurred to me that it must have been a pretty big deal for him. When he had a slump, I felt the sting. And when he came roaring back during Deron Williams’ most recent injury spell, I was happy to see that Livingston's feisty, intelligent play wasn't a fluke.
[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Jordan Johnson/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe ups and downs of two aging Hall of Famers is something any Brooklyn sports fan can relate to.

Garnett has had a storied career, and he could retire tomorrow and be extremely proud of all that he's accomplished. All the same, I imagined that he was plagued by the sense that his body and his instincts were failing him early on in the season, and I really wanted him to get his confidence back, not least because I'm keenly aware of my own aging. His explosive play the past few weeks have been a source of more fist-pumping excitement than I have any right to expect.

My Celtics fan friends had always boasted of Pierce’s loyalty, so I knew that he’d struggle to find a place on a new team. His bad days became my bad days while his flashes of brilliance gave me an adrenaline boost. I couldn't identify with Joe Johnson, who seems almost supernaturally cool, but I was glad he was there to be a steady, solid performer even as the rest of his team flailed.

Then there were the players with something to prove, such as Mason Plumlee, who became another bright spot during some of the more dismal stretches of the season. You could tell how proud he was of making a name for himself. Andray Blatche has been making a fool of all who've doubted him. Apart from hitting a healthy percentage of his attempted 3-pointers, Mirza Teletovic laughed in LeBron James’ face (“I grew up in the middle of the Bosnian civil war, son.”). Not only is Teletovic thrilling Brooklyn fans, he’s putting his home country on the map, which has to be a huge source of pride. And though Alan Anderson isn't necessarily great at pro basketball, his eerie resemblance to Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan is enough for me. This could be the most lovable team in the NBA.

Then there is the raw power of being in an enormous room full of people shouting “Broo-klyn” at the same time. These are my people. Yes, our team has been pretty terrible until recently. Yes, we have the worst mascot in the NBA. But whether it’s fans from the Jersey era who've stuck with the team or former Knicks fans who are sick of Jimmy Dolan and want to give Brooklyn a shot, or people such as me who are still extremely confused by foul calls (I do know that the refs are always biased against us), we’re sharing in this crazily intense collective energy. It is weird, and it is glorious. When I'm not at the games, I’m checking the score. And when I go to the games, I’m leaving the reading material home.

The Miami Heat's season of irrelevance

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
9:44
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Wade & James & BoshAP Photo/Lynne SladkyWith nothing left to prove in the regular season, the Heat's 2013-14 has been a total yawner thus far.
If you’re down on this NBA season, you’re probably blaming the spate of injuries to high-profile players. The injuries are an obvious drag, but there’s a more subtle reason for why these cold months are feeling like the NBA’s winter. After three years as epicenter of basketball drama and intrigue, the ever-riveting Miami Heat are finally giving us an irrelevant season. In Thursday’s loss to the New York Knicks, much of the focus was on how Miami’s mediocre opponent finally benched a wacky role player. The listless Heat performance against a theoretically overmatched team registered as an afterthought.

Right now the Hollinger Playoff Odds have the Indiana Pacers as overwhelming favorites over the Heat. And while that may indeed be the case, few serious NBA observers believe in this disparity.

It’s not that Hollinger’s rater has some grand flaw. It’s just that it can only rely on regular-season data in a season where we can’t trust the Heat’s play. One thing that escapes Hollinger’s formula is Miami’s apathy toward this 82-game prelude. You could see but one example after the Heat's recent loss at home to the Golden State Warriors. A grinning LeBron James regaled media with effusive praise of Stephen Curry as though the two were teammates in victory.

Times have changed. The LeBron of three years ago likely would not have been so magnanimous over eight turnovers and a home loss. The post-Decision maelstrom led to heavy negative scrutiny over the Heat’s 9-8 start. Every game was a referendum on Pat Riley’s experiment and LeBron’s career. The stakes were high and the players were moved to tears by defeat. Now, the players don’t even bother to pretend they’re broken up over losses.

Dwyane Wade made news by playing his first full back-to-back against Toronto on Sunday. He, like James and Chris Bosh, also happens to be averaging almost the fewest minutes played of his career. This isn’t coasting out of convenience, though. The benefits of rest were made clear by the foe that nearly dethroned Miami in last year’s NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs have kept their core fresh with plenty of downtime throughout the slog of the regular season. The Heat have borrowed San Antonio’s wise method, a further suggestion that individual games aren’t life and death.

So much of our analysis of the NBA season is based on the (possibly flawed premise) that we’re learning something about the upcoming postseason. The Heat are well positioned to trash that premise.

First, their conference is laughably weak. For Miami, staying afloat in the East is as simple as not drowning in a puddle. That roster all but guarantees a No. 2 seed at the very least.

Second, precedent encourages coasting. Last season’s team struggled to return to form after expending great effort pursuing a 27-game win streak. It’s doubtful you’ll ever see this team repeat the “mistake” of trying so hard at the wrong time of year.

Finally, the Heat have nothing to prove. They are 27-9 and actually playing quite well compared to some other reigning, resting champions. The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers notably slipped to 21st on defense after a dominant title run. Of course, the Lakers easily won a repeat title in June 2001 as though the preceding shaky season never happened.

It likely won’t be that easy for the Heat -- those 2000-01 Lakers lost only one playoff game -- but the example stands as a reminder that a title contender’s following season can be deceiving. Rudy Tomjanovich’s memorable, “Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion” declaration might as well been, “Don’t ever be tricked by a title contender’s regular-season cruise control.”

The problem for fans, and the league in general, is that it’s hard to be interested in what doesn’t interest the most prominent team. The Heat were able to stave off viewer boredom with the win streak last season, but in the absence of attainable records, stakes are low.

The Heat are still an enjoyable watch, but much in the same way an All-Star game presents the height of athletic exhibition. That the Heat have gotten boring is no great tragedy, though it represents a void for the league. One that probably lasts until late spring, when the Pacers and Heat are likely to finally test themselves in a competition that actually carries tension and popular anticipation.

How the draft lottery weakens the East

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
1:00
PM ET
Harris By Curtis Harris
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
The current state of the Eastern Conference has been widely panned and rightfully so. As of Friday morning, only three East teams sit above .500, and the conference currently holds an overall win percentage of .442, which puts it on track for 36 wins per team. That’s a historically horrific track to be going down. Just once before has a conference had a lower win percentage -- and that was way back in 1960 when the West won 40 percent of its games.

This year may be the worst-case scenario for the East, but it’s continuing a steady trend. For 15 years dating back to the 1999-00 season, the Western Conference has won an average of 52.5 percent of its games overwhelming the East’s 47.5 percent. But since 2009, the West has held a higher win percentage than the East in every individual season.

There are many reasons for this. One of them that has not been discussed much is that the NBA draft system often unintentionally (but systematically) awards decent West teams slightly better draft picks than similar teams in the East. It's a system designed to help the weak get stronger, but it's rewarding the stronger conference almost every season.

It works like this. The lottery format, of course, semi-randomly assigns the top overall picks -- only twice since the 1999-2000 season has the worst team in the NBA won the top pick. But what matters is who gets into the lottery: specifically, teams that miss the playoffs. In the West, those are typically good teams. In the East, that's not so. So the top draft spots are going to a pool of teams that includes some strong West teams and weaker East ones.

Since 2000, 13 Western Conference teams have been in the lottery despite having one of the 16 best records in the NBA. On the flip side, this means that 13 Eastern Conference teams that did not possess one of the 16 best records in the NBA made the playoffs.

This odd situation is a quirk of the playoff structure, which takes the eight best teams per conference not the 16 best teams from the whole league. And it’s also a byproduct of the draft which then promises the top 14 picks to the non-playoff teams, not the 14 worst teams in the NBA, recordwise.

The average victories for the should-have-been playoff teams from the West is 43.3 wins. The average for those should-have-been lottery East teams is 39.6 wins. The situation reached its nadir in 2008 when the Golden State Warriors won 48 games, which was the 12th best record in the NBA. Still, they missed the Western Conference playoffs. Meanwhile the 37-win Atlanta Hawks got themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference postseason with the 19th best record in the league.

Other notable misfortunes include:
  • The 43-win Utah Jazz missed the playoffs, but made the lottery, while the 38-win Milwaukee Bucks saw the postseason in 2013.
  • In 2011, the Pacers won just 37 games and made the playoffs, while the Rockets won 43 and got a lottery pick.
  • In 2009, the 46-win Phoenix Suns didn't make the playoffs, but the 39-win Detroit Pistons did.
  • 2005 saw the Timberwolves win 44 and make the lottery, while the Nets won 42 and didn't.
  • In 2004, the 39-win Knicks and 36-win Celtics made the playoffs in the weak East, while the 42-win Jazz and 41-win Trail Blazers drew pingpong balls.
  • In 2001, the 45-win Rockets and 44-win SuperSonics earned spots in the lottery, but the 43-win Orlando Magic and the 41-win Indiana Pacers did not.

Those 42-, 44-, even 48-win Western Conference teams are getting an (admittedly slim) chance at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. More importantly, though, they are absolutely getting a leg up on a better opportunity to collect talent compared to those Eastern teams which are losing three, five, or even 11 more games.

This discrepancy helps to reinforce the power of the Western Conference, while limiting the ability of the Eastern Conference to correct the imbalance.

The 13 West teams that missed the playoffs but got into the lottery received an average draft selection of 12.5 when in a league-wide draw would have been slotted in at around 16.5. That’s an appreciable four pick difference. Meanwhile, those crummy East teams got an average draft slot of 15 when they should have been picking at No. 13.

Obviously, the uppermost part of the draft is where the franchise-changing players are added. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwyane Wade ... they were all taken in the top five picks. However that mid-range in the draft is important for complementing those stars with good role players.

Luckily for the East, the Western Conference has largely bungled its draft choices in this range. The 2008 Warriors with their 14th pick, instead of the 19th that they deserved, took Anthony Randolph ahead of useful players like Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert.

You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes it’s going to drown in the pool, I suppose.

This quirky situation isn’t the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the cause of the disparity between the East and the West. I don’t think we’ll ever really know why the West is demonstrably better than the East for 15 years running now.

But the point here is that the current, peculiar format of the draft and the playoffs isn’t doing a lot to correct the imbalance and the solution is fairly simple.

This is yet another argument for a HoopIdea that many others have made before: It's time to reconsider the process of allocating talent to teams. At a minimum, it would make sense that the 14-worst teams receive the top 14 picks. The West is already formidable enough.

10 Things To Know: Christmas games

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:36
PM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
"I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game.” -- Stan Van Gundy

Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.

With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.

To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.


1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began

The puppets are always the first to know.
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In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.

But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.

The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?

Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.


2. The master

Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
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Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.

But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.

The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.

What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.


3. A pair of aces
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Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.


4. It’s gotta be the sleeves?

First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.

LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."

Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.

The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.

But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).


5. An exercise in sadness, Part A

Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.

Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.







6. Behold: The Sultan of Swag

At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
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This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.

The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.

So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.


7. Welcome back, Dwight Howard

Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
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Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent 3-point shooting (!!) in 35 minutes over 11 December games. The Rockets have five more games on the slate before the new year, but the only thing close to that since he wore out a FastPass at Disney World was a torrid eight-game April (20.9 points, 61.1 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) to push the Lakers into the playoffs.

Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.


8. An exercise in sadness, Part B

Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?

Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.






9. Melo has Durant’s number

It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
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But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.

Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.

Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.


10. Pop or Scrooge?

Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?

A.) “I want some nasty.”

B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”

C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”

E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”

The truth about LeBron

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
11:45
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
We go inside the numbers to show how LeBron James is on pace to be the most efficient go-to shooter ever.

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Celtics and Sixers exceeding expectations

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
1:08
AM ET
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Information
Archive
Remember all of that talk before the season about tanking? How the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers were expected to lose a lot of games in order to position themselves for a top pick in the 2014 NBA draft?

Well, apparently the players and coaches didn’t get the memo.

Boston buzzer-beater
The Celtics went to Miami and upset the Heat on a Jeff Green buzzer-beater.

That’s not normal -– at least with LeBron James in the lineup.

The Heat had won 24 consecutive regular-season home games with James in the lineup entering Saturday. They hadn’t lost a home game with him since Jan. 4.

The Celtics somehow overcame 58 percent shooting by the Heat, making 10 3-pointers to notch their third straight win after starting 0-4. Perhaps first-year head coach Brad Stevens is already figuring this NBA thing out.

Green’s game-winner was his seventh career game-tying or go-ahead field goal in the final 5 seconds of a game. His 64 percent shooting on those shots (7-for-11) is the highest percentage for any player with at least 10 attempts since he entered the league in 2007-08.

Philly facts
The Sixers are another team with a first-year head coach, Brett Brown. After opening 3-0, including an upset win over the Heat to start the season, they lost two straight and looked like they were coming back to earth.

But their performances the past two nights against the Cleveland Cavaliers suggest the Sixers are going to compete night in and night out.

After a 94-79 victory versus the Cavs on Friday, the Sixers went for the home-and-home sweep Saturday in Cleveland. The Sixers extended the game to double overtime and almost earned another period but for a Kyrie Irving game-winning shot in the final second.

At multiple points down the stretch, the Sixers could’ve handed it to the Cavs. But a Thaddeus Young game-tying shot with 5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, an Evan Turner layup with 8 seconds left in the first overtime and a Michael Carter-Williams game-tying 3-pointer with 11 seconds left in double overtime kept the Sixers alive time and time again.

Turner set a career high with 31 points, Young was three points shy of his career high with 29 points, and Carter-Williams had a career-high 13 assists.

MCW for ROY?
Carter-Williams has distinguished himself as the early favorite for the Rookie of the Year award. He is the first player with at least 21 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds within his first seven career games since Jay Williams for the Chicago Bulls in 2002.

Carter-Williams joined Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history with at least 130 points and 50 assists in their first seven career games.

With college stars like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker potentially up for grabs in the 2014 NBA draft, teams like the Celtics and Sixers were expected to be in position to acquire as many pingpong ball combinations as possible. But seven games into the season, the Sixers sit in first place in the Atlantic Division with the Celtics just one game back.

Did LeBron James beat the odds?

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
2:54
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
LeBron James
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
LeBron James might look like a born NBA star, but according to a new study he doesn't fit the mold.
Upon receiving his second consecutive Final MVP last June, LeBron James said, "I'm LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I'm not even supposed to be here."

It's hard to blame a guy for a little unbridled euphoria after winning back-to-back titles, but James' remark seemed a little odd on the surface. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in the New York Times on Saturday morning in a column titled, "In the N.B.A., Zip Code Matters," "How could such a supremely gifted person, identified from an absurdly young age as the future of basketball, claim to be an underdog?"

It turns out that James' claim is quite reasonable, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, a quantitative analyst at Google and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.

Stephens-Davidowitz collected data from Basketball Reference, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the U.S. Census to calculate the probability of reaching the NBA.

Among Stephens-Davidowitz's more salient findings:
  • Growing up in a wealthier zip code increases the likelihood an African-American or white male will make the NBA.
  • Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that "black N.B.A. players are about 30 percent less likely than the average black male to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother."
  • African-American NBA players were far more likely to be born to married parents.
  • Each additional inch of height almost doubles an American male's chances of making the N.B.A.

You can find some fun interactive elements about who makes it to the NBA here.

Digging through these findings can be treacherous because it's easy to get caught up in a discussion of pathologies and pseudo-patholigies that runs off the rails. But as Stephens-Davidowitz notes, his conclusions seem to buck some popular mythology about ballplayers at the highest level:
These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. In “The Last Shot,” Darcy Frey quotes a college coach questioning whether a suburban player was “hungry enough” to compete against black kids from the ghetto. But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.

People are driven to excel by all sorts of cultural and personal factors, but material circumstances weight heavily in the equation, too, which could very well be what James meant when he said he wasn't supposed to be on that podium.

Top stats to know: Heat vs. Nets

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
11:54
AM ET
By Justin Page, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports Paul Pierce and the Nets look to end a 13-game losing streak to LeBron and the Heat.
Tonight on ESPN (8 ET), the Miami Heat visit the Brooklyn Nets. The Heat are coming off a loss, but have a couple trends in their favor.

Miami has won 13 straight following a loss dating back to last season (including playoffs), and have also won 13 straight against the Nets, tied for the third-longest active win streak for one team over another.

What are some of the other topics our broadcast crew will be talking about?

Pursuit of a 3-Peat
The Heat will try to become the first team to win three straight NBA titles since the Lakers did so from 2000 to 2002.

There have been five three-peats in NBA history. The others are by the Lakers (1952-1954), the Celtics (1959 to 1966) and the Bulls (1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998).

Potential LeBron James accomplishments
LeBron James is seeking to join Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as the only players in NBA history to win three straight MVPs.

He’s trying to join Kareem-Abdul-Jabaar (6), Michael Jordan (5) and Russell (5) as the only players to win three MVPs.

He’s also seeking to become the first player in NBA history to win five MVP awards in a six-season span.

And he can become only the second player in NBA history to win both the regular-season MVP and an NBA championship in three straight seasons, joining Russell.

Heat own the old Nets
The Heat have won 13 straight games vs the Nets. The Nets last win in the series came on March 20, 2009.

Miami is 9-0 against the Nets in the Big 3 era (since 2010-11), winning those games by an average margin of 17.3 points and outscoring them in the paint, 44.9 to 35.1. However, those Nets teams did not have Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce.

What do Pierce and Garnett have left?
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to Brooklyn after spending six seasons together in Boston. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they are the first duo in NBA history to play on two different teams together while having each been selected to at least 10 All-Star games in their career.

Heat guards contain Rose in his return

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
1:01
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
ESPN Stats & InformationDerrick Rose played in a regular-season game for the first time since April 25, 2012.
There was no “championship hangover” for the Miami Heat in their opening game against the Chicago Bulls.

The Heat cruised to a 21-point halftime and held on for a 107-95 victory.

Dating back to last season, the Heat have won 38 of their last 40 regular-season games. The Heat and the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks are the only teams in NBA history to win at least 38 games in a 40-game stretch (across seasons), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The return of Derrick Rose
Rose scored 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting (1-of-7 on 3-pointers) in his first regular-season game in more than 18 months.

Rose struggled against guards who defended him:

• Against Mario Chalmers, Rose shot 2-of-5 with four turnovers.
• Against Norris Cole, he missed each of his three field-goal attempts.
• With Dwyane Wade defending him, Rose was 0-for-1.

What did the Heat do well?
The Heat shot 6-of-8 on corner 3-pointers, their most makes in a game against the Bulls over the last four seasons (since LeBron James joined the Heat and Tom Thibodeau took over as Bulls head coach).

The Heat shooting well on corner 3-pointers isn’t a surprise: Last season, they led the NBA in corner 3-pointers made and attempted.

But it is a surprise against the Bulls: Since Thibodeau took over, the Bulls have allowed the fewest makes and attempts on corner 3-pointers in the NBA.

Role players come up big for Heat
The numbers show that the Heat's role players should be the ones credited with the win over the Bulls -- not the "Big 3."

James, Wade and Chris Bosh were outscored by four points in 25 minutes on the court together. But when at least one of them was on the bench, the Heat outscored the Bulls by 16.

With the “Big 3” on the court together, the Heat shot 2-of-7 on 3-pointers and were outrebounded by seven. But with at least one of them on the bench, the Heat shot 9-of-13 on 3-point attempts and had six more boards than the Bulls.

Stats & Info: Opening Night in the NBA

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
12:40
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant and LeBron James both have records in their sights this season.
The NBA season tips off tonight with six teams in action, including the two favorites in the Eastern Conference and the first leg in the battle for Los Angeles supremacy between the Lakers and Clippers. We take a look at the numbers to know heading into the season.

LeBron and the Heat aim for 3-Peat
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat will try to become the first team to three-peat since the Lakers accomplished that feat 2000-02. Should Miami make it to The NBA Finals, it would be the first team to do so four straight times since the Boston Celtics from 1984-87.

LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are the only players to win the regular-season MVP award and an NBA Championship in consecutive seasons. James hopes to join Russell as the only player to accomplish that feat three straight times.

Even without another title, LeBron could join a short list with a third straight MVP award. Only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell have been named MVP three straight seasons.

James has won four MVP awards in the last five seasons. If he wins this year, he’d be the first player with five in a six-season span. He’d also join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan and Russell as the only players with five MVP awards.

Kobe closing in on Jordan
Kobe Bryant will miss the beginning of the season as he continues to recover from a torn Achilles, but he needs just 676 points to move past Jordan into third place on the all-time scoring list.

This will be Kobe’s 18th season in the NBA, all with the Lakers. Only John Stockton, who spent 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz, has played more seasons with a single franchise.

Rose returns to Chicago
Derrick Rose is back with the Chicago Bulls after missing all of last season. Rose last played on April 28, 2012, the first game in an eventual playoff series loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Rose averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 assists per game during the 2011-12 season. Chicago’s point guards have struggled in his absence.

Last season, the Bulls starting point guards averaged 9.7 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 39.5 percent from the field. All three marks were in the bottom quarter of the league.

Lots of personnel changes
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there were an NBA-record 13 head coaching changes in the offseason. Nine of those coaches will be making their NBA head-coaching debut.

There are 92 international players on NBA opening night rosters, a new record for the league. France has the highest representation with 10 players, and 27 of the 30 teams have at least one international player.

More post-ups = more success for LeBron

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
5:00
PM ET
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Information
Archive
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesLeBron James has posted up much more often over the last two seasons.
In ESPN the Magazine's NBA preview issue, which will be released on Friday, LeBron James commented on how he has plenty of room for improvement in his post-up game.

"I know I still have room for improvement. I feel I can improve on my shooting, on my ballhandling, on my low-post game. Since I started playing ball, I've only been in the low post for two years now, playing with my back to the basket. So that still needs a lot of improvement to catch up with the rest of my game."

LeBron has changed his game drastically over the last two seasons, becoming much more of a low-post threat.

Over the last two seasons -- the time in which LeBron said he has been playing in the low post -- 13 percent of his plays have been post-up plays and 11 percent of his points have come from the post.

In the previous five seasons, only six percent of his plays and six percent of his points came from post-up plays.

His post-up plays per game and post-up points per game have increased by more than 80 percent over the last two seasons compared to his previous five seasons.

Posting up more often has led to higher percentage shot attempts by LeBron. His average shot distance in his first eight seasons was 12.5 feet from the basket. In the last two seasons, it's 11.4 feet.

With an improved post-up game, LeBron hasn't had to rely on jump shots quite as much. After shooting 10.1 jump shots per game in his first eight seasons, he has attempted 7.5 jumpers per game over the last two seasons. That includes just 2.9 3-point attempts per game over the last two seasons compared to 4.2 3-point attempts per game in his first eight seasons.

With an average shot attempt distance of more than a foot closer to the basket, naturally LeBron's field goal percentage has improved. After shooting 47 percent during his first eight seasons, he has shot 55 percent over his last two seasons, including a career-high 57 percent last season.

LeBron relied on his post-up game even more in the 2013 postseason. He averaged more than four post-up plays per game, accounting for 16 percent of his total plays en route to the Heat's second straight NBA title.

Whether or not finding a post-up game was the key aspect that led to LeBron finally breaking through and winning back-to-back championships is up for debate. But the stats don't lie. LeBron has posted up more often, has settled for jump shots less often, and on average has attempted closer shots to the basket.

All of that has resulted in a more efficient, more successful LeBron James.

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