LeBron James' Inconsistent Stroke Has Opponents, Cavaliers Off BalanceFebruary 5, 2016
CLEVELAND — Pegged as the NBA's worst high-volume shooter from outside the paint earlier this season, LeBron James responded with weeks of improvement—followed by a recent string of inconsistency.
James, now 31 and in his 13th professional season, is showing little sign of slowing down. He ranks fifth in the NBA with 24.9 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting from the field.
But if there's a kryptonite to his game, it's long-range efficiency.
Despite remaining one of the most talented and unstoppable forces in the league, James must normalize his stroke if the Cleveland Cavaliers are to become more consistent as well.
On Dec. 28, James was the league's worst outside shooter with marks of 31.9 percent from mid-range and 24.8 percent from three. Don't think he didn't notice.
"I actually saw [it] on my Instagram feed that I was the worst-shooting player in the NBA," James said, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com. "I actually saw that when I woke up from a nap. I remember exactly when that was. Denver. Right before the Denver game, so I answered the call."
Over the next 12 games, from Dec. 29 to Jan. 21, James hit 55 percent of his shots from the field and 40.8 percent from deep. The Cavaliers went 10-2 over this stretch, with their only losses coming at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
If his outside shots are falling, James is nearly unguardable and can force opposing coaches to shift gears.
"Hope he misses," Warriors interim coach Luke Walton told Bleacher Report. "I mean, he's too good. You've got to pick and choose what you're going to live with.
"If you get up on him and try to take away his three-point shot, he's too big and strong, and he'll get around. Once he gets in your paint, he's playmaking to other people, and if you don't rotate, he's dunking on whoever's guarding him. Obviously, if he gets hot from three, then we'll change up our defensive game plan. To start the game, you've got to live with something, and that's probably your safest bet."
Cleveland's success has been largely determined by James' quality, rather than quantity, of scoring. In 35 wins, he is averaging 24.8 points with a 59.3 true shooting percentage and 30.9 usage rate. In 12 losses, he is averaging 25.1 points with a 51.6 true shooting percentage and 33.6 usage rate. (James has missed one game, a loss at the Miami Heat.)
"It's great for us," Kyrie Irving said, referring to when James gets a hot hand. "When he's steamrolling like that, I'm coming off pick-and-rolls, and I'm looking for him at that three-point line. He knows that that work he puts in will translate to the game. He becomes that much bigger of a threat offensively.
"He can cut to the basket and get to the rim at will, but when he's knocking down that jump shot, I don't even know the words to describe what kind of player he is. He's just that much more dangerous when he knocks down that three ball."
James is 6'8" and 250 (or more) pounds, so opposing teams have always game-planned to keep him from gaining steam and heading toward the basket. His combination of size and speed has rarely been seen, if ever, in the history of the NBA.
"It makes it easier for us. It opens everything up," Tristan Thompson said of James' outside shooting. "He's always going to make big plays in the game. Even if he's not shooting the ball well, he's going to make big plays by attacking the rim, making a three or finding guys. For him to get in a rhythm, us bigs have to set good screens, roll to the basket and shooters get your hands ready."
While James didn't take many more shots from deep during his 12-game stretch of improvement than he did during his first 28 contests of the season (4.1 to 3.9 per game), he seemed far more selective about when and where to launch one.
This was particularly important when the Cavaliers endured their longest road trip of the season, a six-game stretch that ended with the "Texas Triangle" (i.e., Dallas, San Antonio and Houston). During this trip alone, James connected on 41.4 percent of his 4.8 three-point attempts per game, leading Cleveland to wins over the Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers, Mavericks and Rockets.
Despite his turnaround from outside the arc, James shrugged off the notion that he'd made any major adjustments.
"It's all about repetition and putting in the work," he said. "You go out and live with the results because you know you've put the work in. Just working on my base and my balance has allowed me to shoot better from the perimeter."
Yet, as they have done to so many other teams this season, the Spurs and Warriors removed the shine from the Cavaliers.
Cleveland split its season series against San Antonio, during which James averaged 25.5 points but managed to shoot just 20 percent (1-of-5) from three—thanks in part to forward Kawhi Leonard, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Leonard denied an interview request. His teammates were more than happy to sing his praises, though.
"I feel like [James has] had some amazing games against us," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "We try to make him take contested shots—not running open in transition. Having a guy like Kawhi always helps. There's not too many players in the league that have that type of length, speed and strength. It's very hard—impossible—to match up with LeBron in all three conditions. Kawhi is as close as you can get."
While San Antonio relies on that great individual matchup, defending champion Golden State—which swept its two games against the Cavaliers—prefers a collective approach to stopping James.
"It takes a great team effort," Warriors forward Harrison Barnes said. "You look at guys like (Andrew) Bogut, Draymond (Green), Festus (Ezeli)—big guys behind you that can help our guards, myself, Andre (Iguodala) or whoever's guarding get that double-team and help—that's what really limits him."
James caught fire when previous Cleveland head coach David Blatt was still at the helm. But he has gone cold from outside under new head coach Tyronn Lue. Yes, he's shooting a sparkling 59.8 percent from inside the arc thanks to Lue's preference for pushing the ball and attacking on offense, but James has made just one three-pointer in 19 tries over the last seven games.
His surge had pushed his three-point percentage to 29.7. Now, after this streak of 5.3 percent shooting, that number has plummeted to 27.1, which is just 105th in the NBA—one spot below Kobe Bryant.
The Cavaliers are 5-2 in those seven games. In the two losses (to the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets), James is 0-of-8 from outside the arc.
This is a critical time for Cleveland. With the trade deadline fast approaching, it needs to recognize and fill its needs if possible. The problem is, those needs change daily depending on which James shows up to the arena.
Come playoff time, teams will focus their defensive game plans on keeping James out of the paint and stopping him in transition. If his outside shot isn't falling, it will be easy for opponents to pack the paint and force other Cavaliers to win games.
Cleveland needs James to find some sort of consistency with his shot—not these blazing-hot and ice-cold streaks he's shown thus far.
He doesn't need to be an elite marksman, but he can't be as bad as he's been under Lue.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and accurate as of Feb. 4 unless otherwise noted.