LeBron James improves the play of every player with whom he shares the court. His ability to draw help defense and find the open man is virtually unparalleled, and defenses are often left with the difficult choice of preventing James from barreling to the rim or leaving another player wide open.
It should come as no surprise, then, that elite spot-up shooters thrive around LeBron. It's why Mike Miller has already flocked to James once again—this time following him to Cleveland—and why Ray Allen is reportedly leaning toward joining the Cavaliers as well, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard.
Driving and kicking, however, isn't a talent unique to LeBron. Plenty of premier passers at the point guard position possess his level of court vision but are arguably quicker and craftier handling the ball to open up passing lanes. So, what makes LeBron stand out?
It isn't that he's seeing passes others are not or that he's creating passing lanes that other players cannot create. It's actually a lot simpler and something that cannot be taught: James is simply capable of making passes other players cannot due to his pure strength on the ball.
Most NBA defenses compensate toward better offensive players by loading up multiple players on the strong side, which is to say where this elite offensive player has the ball. By simply moving players into his path to the basket, he's discouraged from even attacking at all.
The consequence of such a strategy is that it leaves weak-side shooters open, and a simple cross-court pass could lead to an open three-point shot. The defense, however, is banking on the elevated trajectory (in order to throw it over the defense) and the greater distance of the pass to increase its flight time; therefore, an overloaded defense has time during the ball's flight to recover back to its original position.
Here's an example of that involving Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat last season, with Wade attacking from the left side of the floor off a pick-and-roll. As he comes off the pick, he notices Allen's man, Shaun Livingston of the Brooklyn Nets, has completely turned his body toward the action. Allen is therefore left open in the corner, and Wade tries to hit him.
But the combination of the ball pressure and increased arc he has to put on the pass forces him to both lob it and throw it off target. And even if the pass is accurate, Livingston is right there.
This type of cross-court pass is the one most defenses dare the offense to make, if only because the result often looks like the play above. Otherwise, it's a deflection, a steal leading to transition the other way or a completed pass that leads nowhere for the offense. (The ball has been successfully forced out of the talented player's hands.)
James, however, makes these passes look easy. Here's a similar play from last season against Indiana, with Lance Stephenson turning his back to Allen to face the play. Somehow, LeBron throws a no-look, backhanded pass on a dime with zero arc on the ball. It's in Allen's hands in milliseconds, and moments later he's nailing the shot.
Now, watch the play again, but this time focus on Ray Allen. You'll notice that as soon as Stephenson turns his back and pinches in toward the paint, Allen slowly creeps up the three-point arc toward the wing. Only the craftiest of shooters do this, because they understand that those few steps can create that much easier of a passing angle.
What's more is that it throws Allen's defender, Stephenson, off his expected rotation. When he spins his head back around toward Allen once James makes the pass, Allen is not where he is expecting him to be. Instead of turning, pivoting and sprinting, he has to spend an extra tick locating Allen.
It's this split-second that gives Allen enough time to shoot the ball. By the time Stephenson does notice Allen has crept over, it's too late; his closeout is late, and the greatest spot-up shooter ever is already rising up.
Even in the Wade video, we can see Allen doing the same thing. In that example, however, his movement is opposite. As Wade begins to probe the paint, Allen slides down to the corner. While it's certainly his ability to knock down shots that makes him such a great player, Allen's understanding of floor spacing coupled with his diagnosis of a help-side defender's movements are why he's open time and time again.
This same recognition of passing angles and manipulation of the defense usually get muddled up once a typical player drives into the teeth of the defense. Allen likes to space on the weak side where defenders might forget about him, but sometimes that can hurt his chances of touching the ball because he's out of sight.
If a 6'4" player drives into two 6'10" players, it will be difficult for him to see the back side of the floor. That's why you'll often see drivers kick out to the strong side or try to finish, because the on-ball pressure is too consuming and his options are restricted.
Still, Allen slides to the corners, anyway. In what is known in coachspeak as "baseline drive, baseline drift," weak-side shooters are supposed to move down to the corner to give a baseline driver an outlet on the far side.
Here's what the San Antonio Spurs refer to as their "hammer action," which takes advantage of this baseline drift with a screen as well:
Great defenses, however, will cut off the baseline and funnel drivers into an awkward in-between: not quite all the way low to the baseline but not the middle, either. This causes them to get stuck in that awkward seven-foot range at just about the second hashmark, where only a kickout or bad floater are viable options.
Enter James, who has the spectacular ability to throw weak-side passes even from that uncomfortable position. No other player in the NBA is capable of this pass, and Allen, who is always mindful of his positioning on the floor regardless of how unlikely it is that he touches the basketball, is often the recipient.
Here, LeBron drives right against the Washington Wizards. As he gets toward the rim, the Wizards do a nice job of cutting off his baseline path. Most players would give up here, kicking it out meekly and resetting. James chooses to reverse pivot, throw a mid-air pump fake to suck Allen's defender in toward Shane Battier at the block and then fire another bullet to Allen in the corner.
A significant portion of Allen's three-point attempts these past two seasons would not have been possible without James. Conversely, James' assist totals would have shrunk without Allen's combination of dead-eye shooting and wherewithal on the court.
If Allen chooses to return for another NBA season and play for the Cavaliers, expect the same type of James-Allen connections to hurt opposing defenses. Their ability to play off each other is beautiful to watch, and it only improves each other's games. Allen stretches the defense to open up driving lanes for James, and James opens up the three-point line by drawing defenders toward the paint.
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