Steve Smith saw a lot of this coming. He saw a team in Cleveland that was distinctly different from the one that LeBron James led in Miami, one without a running-the-floor mate like Dwyane Wade, one with a point guard whose natural instincts are always to come back to take the ball, one without as many shooters in the rotation to space the floor, one that didn't have a system in place when he arrived, a way that things have always been done, which meant that everyone, from players to all of the assistant coaches, would be learning together on the fly.
So the former All-Star and current NBA TV analyst wasn't especially surprised when the Cavaliers started slowly, nor when James, whose shooting percentage had increased for each of the past seven seasons, slipped from his ultra-efficient Miami levels.
"Then I thought LeBron was hesitant to play the way he's played because he was trying to allow Kyrie [Irving] to be a point guard, a guy who handles the basketball," Smith told Bleacher Report last Thursday. "But of late, he's gone back to, I get the ball, you guys block, I make the play. And I think his next eight games, he's about to explode. He's figuring it out. Not just figuring it out for himself, figuring it out for them, and probably understanding the coaching staff."
It's just a single-game sample size.
But so far, Smith's prediction seems pretty prescient.
Friday in New Orleans, James shook off a sore knee to sink 17 of his 24 field-goal attempts, by far his best performance of the season. The last time he had played, he went 12-of-21 against Toronto, his fourth-most accurate performance since re-joining the Cavaliers.
So, if he's turning the efficiency corner, what prevented it earlier?
Well, maybe it wasn't all about him.
Over the course of four years in Miami, efficiency became an obsession.
"It's a huge thing for me," James said late in the 2012-13 season.
|Picture of (In)efficiency?|
|LeBron James' Shooting Pct.||2014-15 Games||2013-14 Games|
To explain his field-goal percentage soaring from 41.7 as a rookie to 50.3 in his last season as a Cavalier to 56.5 and 56.7 in his third and fourth seasons with the Heat, respectively, James spoke of "just being in the right place offensively," learning how to better read the game and his teammates, set himself up for easier shot attempts and pass on looks that he didn't like.
He spoke of valuing absolutely every shot, especially during his most sublime stretches, such as when he shot 50 percent or better 24 times during the Heat's 27-game winning streak in 2012-13, and then did so in each of the next six games he played; or when he shot 66.7 percent or better in five straight games in 2013-14, including a 61-point masterpiece against Charlotte.
He engaged in a friendly yet serious competition with Wade, where each would check the final stat boxes after every game, with one mocking the other for failing to convert at least 50 percent from the floor. At times, James seemed to take things a bit too far, getting a bit stingy with his shot-taking, passing on a good shot in search of a great one.
Then he signed with Cleveland.
And started with a 5-of-15.
Then a 14-of-30.
Then a 4-of-12.
Then a pair of 8-of-18s.
It wasn't until the sixth game of the season—when he went 9-of-17 in his first meeting with the New Orleans Pelicans—that he made as many as, or more than, he missed.
Even now, even after the aforementioned accurate outings against Toronto and New Orleans, he still has a ways to go to match his Miami marksmanship. He's shot 60 percent or better twice, after doing so 26 times last season, and shot 55 percent or better four times, after accomplishing that so routinely (42 times) last season that it became expected. He's shot under 45 percent nine times, after only seven outings that "poor" last season.
And he has as many as 60 games left.
When presented with the overall percentage slide, Cavaliers coach David Blatt said he anticipated "that will probably round itself out to a number similar to previous years. That would be my guess. We still haven't played that many games."
That's true, and percentages can spike quickly at this early stage.
James' plundering of the Pelicans, for instance, raised him from 47.5 to 49.0 percent.
Still, that's his lowest rate since 2008-09.
For many players, two common culprits for a drop in shooting percentage are more shots in general, or more three-point attempts specifically. That's not really the case here, however.
James hasn't become a gunner. He's averaging slightly more shots (18.4) than the past two seasons (17.6 and 17.8, respectively), but it's still the third-lowest number of his 12-year career; meanwhile, his assists are up significantly from last season (6.3 to 7.6), his second-highest mark as a pro. He's averaging more three-point attempts (4.3) than in any of his four Heat seasons, but that's negligibly more than last season (4.0), and less than he shot (5.1) his final season in Cleveland. And he's shooting 36.7 percent from behind the arc, still respectable, and ranking third in his career.
Rather, the relative trouble has come from two-point range: from 60.2 percent in 2012-13 and 62.2 percent last season to 52.7 percent this season, back near his 2005-06 level.
Two-point shots, of course, can come from anywhere up to about 23 feet, depending on where they're attempted in the half court. Yet the drop-off doesn't appear to be about distance. He's hitting 39.2 percent of his jumpers, not all that much different from what he did last season (41.2).
For the cause of the dip, look closer. Literally, closer to the hoop.
With Cleveland, he's taking 33.9 percent of his shots less than three feet from the basket—characterized as "at the rim"—which is down from the past two seasons (39.9 percent and 37.3 percent of his overall attempts, respectively), but up from his first two seasons in Miami, when he shot better overall.
He's just making fewer of those. The last four seasons, he converted at the rim at a 79.6, 77.6, 75.8 and 74.4 percent rate, respectively. This season? He's at 67.9, the lowest since his rookie year.
The overwhelming majority of those attempts at the rim are layups, on which he's dropped from 73.7 percent last season to 60.6 percent this year. He has 21 dunk attempts (all made), which puts him on pace for the fewest of his career, accounting for 5.4 percent of his attempts overall, down from roughly 10.5 percent of his attempts the past two seasons.
Many have cited the dunk drop-off as a sign of some atrophying of his athleticism. And maybe, even though he's lighter than last season, he isn't scaling the sky to quite the same heights as he once did, considering all the minutes he's logged over the past decade-plus.
But it's also quite possible that this is not about diminished ability but, rather, increased difficulty.
It certainly appears that way at times, when James is contorted at an odd angle on a drive, forced to go to a tough turnaround from well outside 15 feet or isn't aligned in perfect shooting position even when he takes a straightaway jumper.
This was true at times Friday in New Orleans.
"A lot of his shots tonight—I know he had 41—but a lot of his shots were tough jump shots over a contested hand," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. "He only had two threes. You don't like those shots going in. But a guy has a contested hand up, a player shooting an 18-foot jump shot, fading away from the basket, you've got to live with it. Because you have rebounding position. He's shooting a fadeaway, so he's not attacking the basket. He misses that shot, we're out in transition."
He just didn't miss many, and he got just enough chippies—an alley-oop dunk on a broken play, a coast-to-coast layup as the floor opened—to get himself in rhythm. Plus, he was playing against Luke Babbitt, a defender he knew he could outclass, calling for the ball to splash a three-pointer over his responsible resistance, and finding the handle to swish a challenging pull-up. Nor did he just toy with Babbitt, as illustrated by a spectacular step-back 26-footer against Dante Cunningham.
Still, for all his singular greatness, there are other games in which he hasn't gotten the same sorts of shots to go, shots he's taking more of now, shots that incorporate spinning, more drifting, more fading. There are more sequences like one early against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 8, when he did something you rarely saw last season, launching two off-balance bombs on the same possession, each while early in the shot clock.
Considering the challenging nature of so many of his shots this season, it's somewhat surprising he's been able to keep his percentages from sinking further.
Prior to Friday's game in New Orleans, he explained how he's gotten it to rise as of late.
"The more games you know where your guys are going to be, I know where I can get my shots, I know where to pick my spots," James said. "It's just being out there with the guys more and more. That's what happens. You know exactly where you're going to get things, how the flow of the game will go. It's taken us a little while, but we've been playing some good basketball."
James Jones, his teammate for all four seasons in Miami and his teammate now, also insisted that as continuity comes, his percentages will improve.
"We're still building our offense out," Jones said. "So [we're still working at] getting him the shots he's most efficient in, getting him the shots he's comfortable taking. And also, playing a balanced game, where we don't have to have fourth-quarter heroics, where you have to force tough shots to come from behind or take the lead. I think our overall play and situations have a lot to do with where he's catching the ball and where he's taking his shots."
Here's one key difference from his Miami days, or at least his Miami days over the past two seasons: He's no longer playing power forward.
As the Heat turned to small ball, head coach Erik Spoelstra always spoke of being "positionless." But Basketball-Reference.com doesn't abide by such rules, and it characterized his split between power forward and small forward as 82/15 percent and 82/9 percent the past two seasons. Now, it's virtually reversed, back to the way it was during his first seven seasons in Cleveland and first two in Miami. He's at small forward 65 percent of the time, and power forward 30 percent of the time.
And he's in the post less.
"We have more bigs here, so a lot of his possessions are starting further away from the basket," Jones said. "And when you're playing with Anderson [Varejao] and Kevin Love and Shawn Marion, who likes to slash, you have three or four guys in the paint. So he's shooting more jumpers."
"And we know that shots in the paint are always most efficient," Jones said. "Where his shots originate, he's starting a lot further from the basket, and he's finishing further from the basket."
Jones sees something else.
"Right now, he's managing the total game," the veteran shooting specialist said. "And that's just as we transition to everyone meshing to their new roles. Kyrie has always been a ball-dominant point guard. And then Kevin has primarily been a touch-first guy. So [he's] just working all those things.
"I've always said, guys accept the flow of the offense when it flows through LeBron. Because there's no one on this earth who can say, 'I should touch the ball before LeBron touches the ball.' It's gonna take a while, though. It's why this is going to be a big challenge."
But it seems to be coming along some, at least compared to a couple of weeks ago, when Bleacher Report spoke with current ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach George Karl about this subject.
"LeBron likes big gaps," Karl said. "He likes to attack into the paint. He wants to get his big body into the defense. And when he's kind of frozen, and just shaking and baking a little bit, like Melo [Carmelo Anthony], he's not that type of player. Now, he can make that shot and he can be effective that way."
Karl said that James should be driving into the paint at least 25 times per game.
"And maybe half of them in transition, and half of them can be in execution of sets," Karl said. "But there were games [early in the season] where I didn't feel LeBron. I mean, I didn't feel him. I felt Kyrie Irving playing badly. I felt they were forcing the ball to Kevin Love down in the block. And I think he was trying to be this nice guy, facilitator, I'll do what the coach wants. And I think that's a bunch of B.S. The best player in the game should have the ball in his hands and he should get comfortable. That's my opinion. The other guys, they got to find their windows."
In Karl's view, this should summarize the approach:
"LeBron, what do you want? You can get whatever you want. I think they've gotten that now. Irving is letting LeBron have the pulse of the team. I think earlier in the season, it seems like they were in a tug of war for the pulse of the team."
Last week, in New York, Irving spoke of the emerging understanding.
"We're still getting a feel for one another," Irving said. "But I definitely feel like we make the game easier for one another when we're both out there together."
That has shown in the statistics.
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In fact, of all the numbers you'll find on a deep dive, this is the one that stands out, the one that speaks to the Cavaliers' roster issues, as it relates to James' efficiency:
James is shooting 52.2 percent with Irving on the floor.
James is shooting 38.2 percent with Irving sitting.
By comparison, James is shooting roughly the same with Dion Waiters playing (49.2 percent) as not (48.8 percent). And last season, while James played twice as many minutes without Wade as without him, the percentages were about the same (57.0 with, 56.5 without) either way.
Furthermore, when Irving is playing, 66 of James' 155 baskets have been assisted.
When Irving is out, three of James' 34 baskets have been assisted.
Meanwhile, Irving has shot 46.2 percent in 223 attempts with James playing, and 46.1 percent in 115 attempts with James out, and a larger percentage of his shots have been assisted with James on the bench.
That suggests their separation has hurt James more than Irving.
Presented with the extreme statistical splits late Friday night, James said at first that he didn't know the reason, before adding that it could be because Irving presents another threat on the floor, also—as another ball-handler—greater opportunity to catch the ball off a live dribble, in his sweet spot.
Clearly, Irving's ability to attack the basket, and then pass out, allows James to find his spots, spots from which he can just react, rather than always needing to create some sort of miracle against a set defender.
The latter often leads to stagnation, such as on this possession against New Orleans, when Matthew Dellavedova, Irving's backup, tried to use a James screen to penetrate. Dellavedova, easily stymied by Jrue Holiday, got nowhere. So he didn't push it, zipping the ball to James in a standing position, just behind the arc, left of the key, with Babbitt in a proper defensive posture. After holding the ball for six seconds, and taking one jab step and bounce left, James turned completely around and released from 21 feet.
It was the sort of shot that made you wonder what he could do if his general manager, David Griffin, picked up another playmaker for the rotation, or if his coach, Blatt, cajoled his team into getting more consistent movement in the offense.
It was the sort of shot that few others take—and James typically wouldn't in recent years.
It was the sort of shot that few—also including him—could have any chance to make.
This time, it rattled out, one of only seven attempts he missed in his finest offensive night of this season so far, even if it came in defeat.
Seven misses, 17 makes.
At the start of what, if you believe Steve Smith, may be a special eight-game stretch.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Basketball-Reference.com and are current through Sunday, Dec. 14.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick
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