LeBron James’ post game has evolved through the years to the point where it is now a consistent facet of his game that his opponents must account for.
One of the biggest criticisms he faced earlier in his career was his inability to play with his back to the basket. It took time for the superstar to remedy the issue, but it is a riddle he eventually solved.
James spent large parts of his possessions with the Cleveland Cavaliers isolating at the top of the floor or running pick-and-rolls.
He was always efficient in this setting but his game needed some refinement. To be clear, the Akron native was already a stud offensive player prior to developing his low-post game. However, armed with it, he is one of the most destructive offensive weapons the league has ever seen.
The four-time league MVP was humbled during the 2011 NBA Finals in his first season with the Miami Heat. The Dallas Mavericks assigned a multitude of defenders to guard the superstar, many of which were undersized.
Despite standing 6’8’’, James never figured out how to take advantage of the likes of Jason Kidd (6’4’’) and J.J. Barea (6’0’’) on the block. Matt Moore of CBS.com offered his insights on King James’ lack of interior game during the 2011-12 season:
For years, people have marveled at James' athleticism. To put it simply, the dude's a truck that moves like a jackrabbit. He's got so much power and speed packed into that 285 lb. (a rough number, he drifts between 295 and 260 and protects the number like his bank account) frame, but there's the hitch. He has never really exerted it in the post. He's bigger than any 3 that can guard him, faster than any 4. So why not just pound guys into oblivion in the post instead of drifting into those pull-up perimeter shots?
Clearly, playing out on the wing was no longer sufficient.
Emergence of Post Play
After losing in the title round, James spent part of the 2011 offseason working on his post-up game with the aid of Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
The transformation helped take the Heat offense to new heights. Erik Spoelstra shared as much with Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland during the 2012-13 campaign:
"When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player," Spoelstra says. "It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon's and Ewing's post-up moves. I don't know if I've seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one offseason. His improvement in that area alone transformed our offense to a championship level in 2012.
Indeed, the former Cavalier returned in 2011-12 with a commitment to the post-up game. He flashed it in very small doses and was efficient in doing so. According to Synergy Sports, James converted 49.4 percent of his shot attempts that originated from the post.
One must note that Synergy Sports tracks every play that starts with a player catching the ball with his back to the basket near the paint as a post-up play. Thus, if the player faces up his defender and drives for a score, that will be recorded as a post-up shot.
That was in fact the case for James during the 2011-12 campaign. He had several post-up opportunities tracked and many of them were possessions where he ended up facing his defender. In the instances where he actually flashed his back-to-basket game, he was decent.
What’s interesting is that it took a particular set of circumstances for James to truly embrace banging on the interior. Chris Bosh was injured against the Indiana Pacers during the 2012 playoffs and Miami adapted by spreading the floor and playing its best player inside.
Given that his interior game was a work in progress, there were times where he looked uncomfortable. He had not yet developed a solid go-to move other than the turnaround jumper. Watch James work on Danny Granger below during the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals:
During the 2011-12 season, the Heat’s leading scorer converted 31 of 54 (57.4 percent) turnaround jumpers (fadeaway and non-fadeaway) per NBA.com. That same season, James also started using a right-handed hook shot that he would unleash during post-ups.
It is a great way to get a shot off, especially if an extra defender comes over to shade James after a few hard dribbles down in the low block. Watch below as he scores with a right-handed hook shot over Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2012 NBA Finals:
Adding a Go-To Move
James’ low-post game was good in 2011-12, but it became great in 2012-13 with a few key additions. Synergy Sports tells us that his conversion rate on post-ups dropped to 43.6 percent, but do not let that fool you into thinking he regressed.
On the contrary, the superstar added two crucial moves that helped refine his back-to-basket game: a go-to move and a left-handed hook shot.
The two-time All-Star Game MVP abandoned the uncertainty and instead became a much more confident interior player. When confronted with a defender on the low block, James’ favorite move is to head toward the middle of the floor where he can get either a layup or hook shot inside the paint.
On every single post-up trip, that is what he is looking for. It gives him his best chance to get to the restricted area where he converted 74.5 percent of his field goals in 2012-13. Watch how he works on Jeff Green of the Boston Celtics during the 2012-13 regular season:
James went toward the middle of the floor with the hope of getting all the way to the rim. The moment he saw the help come his way, he reversed course and showed off his new weapon: the left-handed hook shot.
Coming up with a go-to move might sound simple and obvious, but it can take a few years to develop one and then add a few counters. For instance, Michael Jordan favored the baseline drop-step and then added the fadeaway as a counter.
Kobe Bryant initially had the jump shot to rely on and then added the baseline spin to keep defenders off balance. The latter is now Bryant’s favorite place to go when confronting defenders on the interior.
And much like other great perimeter players before him, James has now found his pet play as well as the counter that goes along with it. Watch what happens during the 2013 NBA Finals when Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs tries to take away the middle of the floor from the superstar:
Leonard played James for the middle and consequently opened up the baseline. James obliged by reversing course and getting a left-handed layup on the play. James has become quite dangerous in this setting because he has a consistent idea of what he wants to execute on every trip down the floor in these scenarios.
Watch how Paul George and the Indiana Pacers defend James’ post-up during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals:
Indiana shaded a defender toward the middle of the floor to take away the Heat superstar’s ability to get into the lane. Roy Hibbert is there to deter James from entering the paint. The two-time champion adjusts by countering with a pivot and left-handed hook shot.
At the conclusion of the game, ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace had this to say:
James said he's still working on “counter attacks and feeling the defense out” quicker with his back to the basket. But his instincts and timing are solid enough to make him effective now.
Although it may have seemed at the time as though James was in fact playing off instinct, it seems fairly obvious now when tracking his progress that he knows for the most part how to manufacture quality shots. His movements might lack the fluidity of Olajuwon as well as his rapidity, but the execution is devastating nonetheless.
Armed with a go-to move and a counter, he will probably become a more lethal post scorer going forward. In addition, he still has the turnaround jumper he can break out every now and then.
In 2012-13, James converted 19 of 49 (38.8 percent) turnaround jumpers (fadeaway and non-fadeaway) per NBA.com, and that helped keep defenders honest at least on some level.
Other Post-up Weapons
For all the talk about James’ scoring though, the most crucial aspect of his offensive repertoire with his back to the basket might very well be his passing.
He is difficult to double team in just about any spot on the floor, but especially on the low block because he can find his open shooters on the weak side of the court and make the most ridiculous passes look like child’s play. Watch him find Mike Miller for a corner three-pointer against the Spurs in the 2013 Finals:
The former Olympian has evolved as a post player and yet still has room to grow. The next step for him is stringing along multiple moves in succession and turning his jumper into a form of a counter much like Jordan and Bryant have done before him.
With that said, James’ back-to-basket game is the best it’s ever been and there is reason to believe it will get better. The rest of the league might not be ready for what happens next.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.