LeBron James is only getting better.
The most transcendent player of his generation has begun showcasing a missing element to his game: the three-point shot.
And James’s rekindled love of the three-ball is something that Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra must embrace.
James is shooting a career-high 43.9 three-point percentage this season. If James can renew his threat from behind the arc, he will create an even more impossible task for defenders and provide his coach with plenty more offensive options.
He'll also set the stage for the remainder of his career.
James is as complete a player as he is a polarizing one. No top-five scorer distributes, rebounds and plays defense the way he does. He’s unstoppable in transition and attacks the basket with a ferocity unrivaled since Dan Gilbert learned to use email.
And if proves capable of consistently shooting the deep ball too?
That’d be like if Greg Maddux had been given a 100-mile-per-hour fastball; or if Peyton Manning was upgraded with a scrambling ability; or if Mila Kunis was enhanced with plastic surgery.
It’s simply unfair.
Allowing the Development
Not only is James shooting a better three-point percentage this season, but his attempts are again creeping upwards; he has averaged six three-pointers per game in the past two weeks, headlined by a 5-for-8 performance from behind the arc two weeks ago in a win at Houston.
Given, James is shooting just 29 percent during that stretch, but it hasn't hurt the Heat. James is attempting 3.4 three-pointers in the team's 10 wins and just 2.3 attempts in the team's three losses.
If Spoelstra allows James increased shot attempts from behind the arc, the benefits will create an even greater mismatch every time Miami steps on the hardwood.
Even More Flexibility for Spoelstra
As coach, Spoelstra already has an embarrassment of wealth in perimeter shooting weapons Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and Mike Miller. But when the game is in its final minutes, Spoelstra will have even further flexibility if his best player can draw out the defense with his deep shooting.
If LeBron can begin pulling defenses out to the perimeter, it opens up more drive-and-kicks, more dangerous pick-and-roll opportunities, clearer lanes for Wade and Bosh and, of course, additional off-the-dribble opportunities for himself.
Not only will he draw out defenders and open up slashing opportunities for the Heat, but he’ll also join other NBA greats who smoothly transitioned into more prolific shooters later in their careers.
Revolutionizing His Game in Preparation for the Sunset
An improvement in perimeter shooting comes with age for many of the game’s greats, and it’s something that great coaches, such as Phil Jackson, have fostered for their superstars.
Michael Jordan, since we love to make the comparison, advanced his perimeter abilities to compensate for the natural loss of athleticism and slashing power.
The greatest player of all time never shot better than 20 percent from behind the arc until his fifth season as a pro. He never had a three-point percentage higher than 40 percent until his 10th season, and that was when he shot 50 percent in just 17 games during his 1994-95 comeback season.
But in his latter years, in his first two championships following his return, Jordan shot 42.7 percent (1995-96) and 37.4 percent (1996-97).
Magic Johnson never shot higher than 23.3 percent from three-point range until the end of his career. In his 10th season in the league, which began his final three years before his initial retirement, Johnson shot 31 percent, 38 percent and 32 percent. In his return season in 1995-96, he shot a career-high 37.9 percent.
Kobe Bryant, in the first part of his career, was a guy who shot just two three-pointers on average per game. But as his career developed, he became a more perimeter-oriented shooter who took five to six three-point attempts per game.
James will eventually need to expand his game in this manner, and the development can begin to occur now. It’s not just about preparing for the days when his legs are gone, but also saving his legs for tomorrow.
Save the Legs for When it Counts
James doesn’t appear tired, even following the Heat's championship run and the added games in helping to earn a Gold Medal for the United States. But by taking perimeter shots, a player like James can certainly add to his longevity.
As the almost-28-year-old begins creeping into his 30s, he will need to better manage his body and ready himself for when it truly matters: in the postseason.
Attacking the rim saps stamina. If James doesn’t learn to let off the accelerator on given nights, he won’t be as primed for any extensive postseason run. Spoelstra will continue to give James the heavy minutes but will need to allow him to relax his approach on possessions.
Ultimately, James should maintain his style of aggressively striking the lane, while developing his game from beyond the arc at select moments during games.
Spoelstra must seize the appropriate opportunities on given nights to promote James’s expanding three-point game. James is a career 33 percent three-point shooter, but he's coming off a career-high season in which he shot 36.2 percent while attempting just 2.4 attempts per game.
It's time for Spoelstra to remove the deep-ball handcuffs, and let James develop into the player he will need to be later in his career.
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