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Has LeBron James Lost His Shot?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

James’ efficiency on jump shots is plummeting: converting at a dismal rate outside of the paint and on track for a career-low three-point percentage.

Is LeBron James a good shooter?

The casual NBA fan might say so. But a closer look at LeBron’s jump-shooting this year reveals that James is struggling to score outside the paint now more than he has for most of his career. 

One of the first to pick up on this trend was NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, who tweeted out that LeBron’s shooting percentage outside the paint was at a career-low earlier this week.

Schuhmann went on to write that LeBron had become the worst shooter from outside the paint in the league, converting on just 28.5% of his shots, even worse than Kobe’s mark of 30.1%. Now, those numbers have changed since then thanks to a better shooting performance against Denver on Dec. 29, but the fact remains that LeBron’s ability to score from the outside has reached rock bottom. 



How Bad Is It?


While he’s retained the ability to convert at the rim, the farther LeBron goes from the basket, the more apparent his shooting struggles become. He’s shooting just 37.8% on shots from 3-10 feet away from the basket — his worst mark since his sophomore season in 2005 — and he’s shooting 32.7% from 10-16 feet from the hoop — a shot that he converted on 44% of the time during his four-year stint in Miami. 

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This chart from NBA Savant highlights a more frightening issue: LeBron is shooting roughly 25% from beyond-the-arc so far this season. You’ve probably figured it out already, but that’s also a career-low for James, who’s shot below 30% from three just once in his career — his rookie season. 


What’s Causing It?


Lack of Movement

Many are speculating on the reason for his poor shooting, with one theory being that there is lack of ball movement and offensive fluidity in Cleveland as opposed to Miami. The idea is that under Eric Spoelstra’s pace and space system James was able to get more open looks. David Blatt’s offense in Cleveland seems to be less structured and has the tendency to result in isolation situations. 




In the above clip from this game against the Suns on Dec. 28, that lack of ball movement and motion is painfully evident. We see that with the exception of Tristan Thompson vying for post position, no one else is moving. The stagnant nature of the offense results in a forced, late shot clock three-point attempt from James. 


Poor Shot Selection




Later in the game, we see a play being run for James, who turns down a three-point attempt to get closer to the hoop. But a double-clutch jumpshot fails to faze the defender, resulting in a heavily-contested and off-balance fadeaway. 

LeBron’s greatest strength has always been just that: his strength, a trait that that is most evident when driving to the rim. It’s hard to deny that James is at his best when he’s barreling toward the rim with a full head of steam, and at that point he can either use his strength and athleticism to finish over the defender, or he can kick it to a teammate in the face of staunch rim-protection. 

But we’ll cut LeBron some slack. Obviously you can’t charge the rim on every possession. The defense eventually gets used to this tactic and sinks toward the basket, packing the paint, and it is then that the average NBA player takes advantage of the space the defense has given in front of him and shoots an open jumper.

But here’s the scary part: LeBron is shooting just 20.7% on wide-open three-pointers, which NBA.com defines as shots where no defender is within six feet. (For reference, his teammate Timofey Mozgov is converting that shot at 20%.) So even when the defense gives James space to shoot, he can’t make the most of it. 


Fatigue


While poor shot selection and a lack of an offensive scheme are definitely pieces of the puzzle, that 20.7% on wide-open threes figure tells us that even when shot selection and ball-movement aren’t an issue, James is still struggling. 

LeBron has been in this league for 13 years now. When you take into account the wear and tear a player’s body undergoes through 13 full NBA seasons, combined with 178 playoff games (basically an additional two seasons), combined with multiple Team USA and Olympic appearances, you can begin to picture the stress James’ body is under. 


The Solution


Two come to mind. 

1) Take a break. Last year after getting off to a rocky start in Cleveland, LeBron took essentially a two-week leave of absence during the winter to recoup. Once Kyrie Irving is back to full strength, James should toy with the idea of taking another break, since everyone knows that Cleveland’s real season begins in April. 

2) Scrap the jumpshot. LeBron sports one of the ugliest jumpers in the NBA, an awkward one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-shoulder-lean mess. Now, LeBron was shooting 40% from three with that same eye-sore of a release in 2013, so it’s been proven he can succeed with that form. However, the shot requires a lot of extra movement, and he’s undergone back issues and finds himself on the wrong side of 31. If LeBron wants be effective as his athleticism declines, he should look to adopt a traditional jumpshot, one that requires less effort and will complement him in the twilight of his career (a la Ray Allen). 

Regardless of what the solution is, James better find one fast. 


Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
What percentage did LeBron James shoot from three in the 2014-15 playoffs?
Created 12/31/15
  1. 37%
  2. 35%
  3. 28%
  4. 23%

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