It's no surprise the Miami Heat are currently erring on the side of inadequacy.
Well, it is and it isn't.
Regular-season efforts are always under question in Miami, and for a good reason. Interest fluctuates for the Heat, often seesawing between committed and disinterested.
Even so, the Heat are expected to win. A lot. Much ado is made over their losing streaks because they're supposed to win. A lot. So it's always surprising when they incur a three-game slide like the one they're presently on.
Except, not this time.
As James goes, so do these Heatles. And right now, he's going in the direction of seeming exhaustion and more disastrously, inefficiency.
Pretty Ugly Shooting
Amid Miami losing at least three straight games for just the sixth time since the Big Three's inception, James is struggling to remain effective.
Effective by LeBron James standards, I mean.
For most players, registering 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists is a fantastic game, regardless of their shooting percentages. For James, it was one of his worst performances of the season, and it came in a gut-wrenching loss to the Joakim Noah-piloted Chicago Bulls.
It was, in a way, as Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta points out, a personal worst for James, who went 8-of-23 from the floor:
LeBron's 17 points are the fewest he's ever scored when taking at least 23 shots. http://t.co/q5CnfS5ctq— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) March 9, 2014
At the same time, it was only a harbinger of how James has played since torching the Charlotte Bobcats for a career-high 61 points.
In the three games since then, James is shooting 39 percent from the floor. Consider he's knocking down 57.8 percent of his shots on the year and was at 58.3 percent following his offensive dismantling of Charlotte, and you'll understand how unusual this is.
If that doesn't do it for you, consider what Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel says here:
This is the first time LeBron has shot under 40 % in consecutive games since Dec. 13-15, 2010. Shot a combined 11 of 31 vs. Pelican and Cavs— Shandel Richardson (@ShandelRich) March 10, 2014
Then consider how his last three performances stack up against his display against Charlotte:
LeBron vs. Bobcats --- 61 pts. LeBron vs. Spurs, Rockets, Bulls -- 58 pts.— Shandel Richardson (@ShandelRich) March 10, 2014
The way James is playing now is out of character, to say the least. He has been the pillar of economical offense for nearly a decade now, improving his field-goal percentages in each of the last eight seasons.
And it makes you wonder "why?" Why is he struggling so mightily? Why is he scoring with the efficiency of Rudy Gay before he joined the Sacramento Kings?
Fatigue? Is that why he's struggling?
As the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman posits, this probably has nothing to do with a lack of energy:
I can't buy fatigue, considering the Heat were idle for three of the previous four days before facing the Bulls on Sunday. And let's not overstate Saturday's side trip to Cleveland for Zydrunas Ilgauskas' jersey retirement. NBA players tend to stay out a bit late on Saturday nights. No, I think if there is any hangover from last Monday, it's how easy the outside offense came, all those heat-check 3-pointers that were dropping against the Bobcats. LeBron needs to attack. Hopefully Sunday was sobering enough. Wizards beware (although we thought Sunday it would be Bulls beware)
If not sleep deprivation or motor impairment, then what?
Diagnose James' recent trials and tribulations how you like. Whatever you conclude, the issues begin away from the basket, as ESPN's Marc Stein clarifies:
Hard to process: LeBron averaging just 19.3 PPG on 39% shooting since his 61-point eruption ... including 3-for-27 shooting outside paint— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) March 10, 2014
James, as his shot chart over the last three games shows, isn't struggling at the rim. He's converting more than 66 percent of his shot attempts near the basket. Beyond that, he's been uncharacteristically bad.
Outside the paint in general hasn't been pretty, and his three-point shooting has been even worse. He's one for his last nine (11.1 percent) from behind the rainbow.
Efficient long-ball shooting is something James has grappled with all season. Again, by his standards.
One year after lighting the net on fire from deep by draining 40.6 percent of his treys, James is connecting on 37.3 percent of his bombs. The importance of his three-point shooting cannot be overstated with stretch 4s at a premium these days.
James shot 50 percent from the floor in a loss to the Houston Rockets, yet he was 0-for-3 from long range. The Heat, meanwhile, are 13-9 when he fails to hit at least 30 percent of his three-pointers. Four games over .500 gets it done in the Eastern Conference, but it's hardly worthy of any team seeking a third straight championship.
There has also been a noticeable decline in the frequency with which he's nailing mid-range jumpers.
Between nine and 24 feet, James is shooting just 39.6 percent, whereas he was converting 43.4 percent of his attempts from that same area last season. Through the last three games, he's 2-of-20 (10 percent) between nine and 24 feet.
Should we really be surprised, then, that the Heat are losing games they're expected to win, when James isn't shooting the way he's expected to shoot?
Powerful To a Fault
For all their bluster, the Heat are still James' team.
The health and performance of Dwyane Wade may determine whether or not Miami completes its three-peat, but the Heat are in position to chase that three-peat because of James. When he struggles, the team struggles. It's that simple.
And unfortunately, it's that true.
Five. That's how many games there have been in which James has buried under 40 percent of his shots this season.
One. That's how many wins the Heat have when he shoots below 40 percent this year. They're 1-4 on such occasions.
Miami's incompetence isn't just tied to James' shooting woes through this five-game sample size, either.
Since joining the Heat, James has shot worse than 40 percent 26 times during the regular season. Take a moment to first reflect on how incredible that is. And then look at the Heat's record through those games: 11-15.
This from a team that has won 73.4 percent of its games since his arrival, the second-highest winning percentage in the NBA during that time, behind only the astonishingly consistent San Antonio Spurs (73.6 percent). When James is off like he has been of late, the Heat are no better than a fringe-playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
After all this time, you think it would be different. You would think the Heat aren't still so firmly bound to the performance, to the efficiency of one player.
But they are.
It's a gift. It's a curse. It's a compliment to James. It's an insult to the Heat's lack of collective distinction.
"I dropped the ball. It's like a double entendre," James told reporters after the loss to Chicago. "I actually dropped the ball, but I dropped the ball on my team."
Is LeBron James' shooting slump the root of Miami's three-game slide?
Let's not turn James' recent stretch of games into something more than it actually is. In two of his last three contests, he's gone up against a pair of pesky defensive teams in Chicago and San Antonio that house dominant perimeter defenders in Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard.
This is not a sign of things to come, no matter how long it lasts. Not now.
If James is still clanging jumper after jumper off the back, front and side of the rim come April, then feel free to lose sleep.
Until then, recognize his brush with inefficiency for what it is: proof the Heat's biggest pratfall is that James remains the ultimate solution to all their problems.