Where Will LBJ Land? It All Depends on What Kind of Player He Wants to Be Next

Tom Haberstroh@tomhaberstrohContributor IJune 25, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James smiles during a news conference following Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, early Saturday, June 9, 2018, in Cleveland. The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 108-85 to sweep the series and take the title. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
B/R

Editor's note: Every day this week—heading into the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET July 1—Bleacher Report will look at every angle of LeBron James' upcoming decision with reports and features from our most plugged-in NBA reporters. Today, B/R looks at how LeBron's choice could be shaped by the role he wants to play on the court.

Part 1: LeBron's On-Court Options Are Limitless
Part 2: Ripple Effects of LeBron's Decision
Part 3: Would Anyone Really Be Mad at LeBron If He Left Again?
Part 4: How to Wine and Dine Your Way into LeBron's Heart
Part 5: B/R Staff Predicts Where LeBron Will Land


Imagine. What if Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Anthony Davis were all free agents in the same summer? What if you could sign all four superstars for the price of one—effectively building the equivalent of a superteam with just one player?

Actually, you don't have to imagine it. Because that scenario is reality. And it's happening this offseason.

LeBron James is that guy, blending the best of today's best players into one hybrid basketball-playing marvel. A Super LeBron, if you will.

At 33, James keeps adding skills that make him virtually unguardable. In the playoffs, he quietly took it to a new level and unveiled a version of LeBron that we have yet to see. (Yes, I'm including the "The LeBrons" ad campaign.)

James now shoots from deep like Steph, owns the mid-range like KD, draws fouls like Harden and dominates the basket area like AD. The total package offers a dream scenario for the team that wins the Super LeBron sweepstakes this summer.

The question is, which version of LeBron would he want to be for a new team? And which team can maximize those different versions of LeBron?

Let's go through it.

   

Why he's Steph

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 31:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 31, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The shot that stunned the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals came midway through the third quarter.

James was on a four-on-three fast break when he pulled up in transition and launched from deep to knot the game at 68. The three-point dagger prompted an immediate timeout by Steve Kerr, who looked on from the sideline in disbelief.

Then, it happened again. Three Cleveland Cavaliers plays later, James saw an unsuspecting Durant standing inside the three-point arc and pulled up from a ridiculous 32 feet. As James rose for the shot, a seated Ron Adams—the Warriors assistant coach who is unflinchingly stoic on the bench—was beside himself, frantically motioning for Durant to get up on James. (Apparently, KD missed that memo in the huddle.) James' shot splashed through the net, putting the Cavs up three with 4:16 remaining.

The sequence was emblematic of a change in James' repertoire, which had been increasingly on display heading into the Finals—an ability to ostensibly do a Steph impression and drain threes from near half court. And he was making it look easy like Steph, too. James attempted 17 deep threes in the postseason before the Finals and finished the playoffs 8-of-22 (.364) from 28 to 35 feet, per Basketball Reference tracking. That equates to one parking lot shot per game. If you pull up those long-distance shots for every postseason, you'll find James' eight makes from deep would be the all-time playoff record...if it weren't for Curry. In fact, James made more long threes this postseason than the entire playoff field did in 2011.

Most players don't take this shot because it's an incredibly difficult one to make. It goes in just 26.3 percent of the time, according to data collected by Basketball Reference. This postseason, Curry made 19 of those shots, pushing his conversion rate to 38.0 percent in his playoff career, just about what LeBron shot this postseason.

Research by Tom Haberstroh

But unlike Curry, this long-range weapon had not been in LeBron's arsenal in previous years. He had never taken more than eight of these shots in a postseason, never made more than two.

Research by Tom Haberstroh

Yet James' success from deep wasn't a postseason fluke, either, which is what makes this skill so tantalizing for his future team. In the regular season, James shot an absurd 23-of-42 from extra deep, a 54.8 percent conversion rate. Among all players who took at least 30 of these attempts, James wielded by far the best shooting percentage. In fact, no one else reached even 43.0 percent. Curry himself was 15-of-39 (38.5 percent), ranking well below James.

For a guy who's the size of Karl Malone—who, at this stage of his career, should likely be slowing down and finding comfort in the more plodding area on the block—this is a stunning development. To repeat: He's the size of Malone but shoots like Curry.

   

If he wants to be Steph, he should pick...the Houston Rockets

The Rockets are tailor-made for LeBron if he wants to maximize the deep three. Three of the top five purveyors of the deep three came from Houston last season (Eric Gordon, James Harden and Ryan Anderson). Creating space by stepping a few feet farther back is a loophole Mike D'Antoni and the Rockets identified in the 2016-17 season.

"You look at 'em, and you go, 'Yeah, why not?' It's easy," D'Antoni told SB Nation. "You can see on their form and effort, it's just an easy shot for them."

Evidently, it's an easy shot for James, too. And wouldn't it be poetic if he became a Steph-like force for the Warriors' greatest contemporary rival—the Rockets? Should James want to fully embrace that sneaky good part of his game, Houston is the destination. The hard part is getting there without him or his pal Chris Paul taking a huge pay cut. The Rockets would probably have to find a taker for Anderson's bloated contract, have James opt in and work a three-team trade. It's not likely, but neither were Daryl Morey's poachings of Harden or Paul in the first place.

   

Why he's KD

KD is a master when it comes to getting off his mid-range shot. He's so tall and so skilled that he turns a bad shot into a good one.

James isn't a 7-footer like KD. (Durant is listed at 6'9", but he's said publicly he's actually 7'0" in shoes.) Still, James is now astoundingly good from mid-range—in part because he has mastered the ability to fade away to create the necessary space to get his shot off over other players, no matter how tall.

That skill was on full display in Game 2 of the Toronto Raptors series, as James scored 43 points on an array of dizzying mid-range shots. James hit seven fadeaway jumpers in the second half, tying the mark for most in a single playoff game in the past 15 years, according to ESPN Stats & Info. After the game, James was asked about then-Raptors coach Dwane Casey's game plan against him compared to when they faced off in the 2011 Finals (during which Casey directed the Dallas Mavericks defense against James' Miami Heat). His response: "I wasn't that good of a player in that series. I wasn't a complete player."

In the 2018 postseason, LeBron shot 59-of-121 (.488) on mid-range jumpers, which is plainly unfair. That percentage made him one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA, better than Klay Thompson, who converted 50-of-111 (.450), and Russell Westbrook (21-of-52, .404). In fact, only KD shot a higher percentage from mid-range, hitting 88-of-162 (.543).

To illustrate how good James' mid-range jumper was this postseason, consider this: James shot better in the mid-range this postseason than Kobe Bryant did in any postseason of his career. Yes, Kobe Bryant.

Research by Tom Haberstroh

Can he keep this up? Shooting 48.8 percent from mid-range is something of an outlier for James' career, so it's unlikely he'll maintain this KD-like level (KD shot 49.4 percent during the regular season). Then again, many thought James' Finals run would be over this season, too. (It wasn't.) So it's tough to doubt him at this stage.

   

If he wants to be KD, he should pick...the San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs love the mid-range game. Gregg Popovich's squad took the third-most mid-range jumpers in the league last season, thanks to full-time resident of the mid-range LaMarcus Aldridge (he led all players in attempts from there last season). However, the Spurs ranked just 17th in offensive efficiency because their offense was too one-dimensional with Aldridge operating in the high post.

James could change all that. Not only is he a marksman in the mid-range, he has the ability to deftly pass out of it in ways Aldridge can't. Shockingly, not a single Spurs player averaged more than 3.2 assists per game in their series loss against the Warriors, underlining their need for a playmaker.

James hasn't made his list of potential suitors public, but the New York Times' Marc Stein reported Popovich will do everything he can to meet with James. Popovich trying to convince both James and Kawhi Leonard to play in San Antonio next season is the tallest of tasks. But Leonard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, could also relieve James of plenty of defensive burdens and allow him to maximize his talents on the offensive end.

   

Why he's Harden

BOSTON, MA - MAY 15:  Marcus Morris #13 of the Boston Celtics fouls LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half during Game Two of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden on May 15, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Harden is notorious for drawing fouls. In the regular season, he led all players in free-throw attempts per game and converted at an 85.8 percent clip.

LeBron, by contrast, had, before the 2018 playoffs, not gotten to the charity stripe as often or as effectively. Since taking his talents to South Beach in 2010, he had never led the NBA in postseason free throws per game despite driving to the rack more than just about anybody. He has been shaky at the free-throw line in years past, shooting below 70 percent in the previous two postseasons.

But then 2018 happened—it was as if LeBron learned how to channel his inner Harden. He got to the rack frequently and had more success when he was there. He ranked No. 1 in free-throw attempts per game this postseason (9.7), the first time he's done that since 2009, when he was 24 years old. (Harden ranked fifth this postseason with 7.8 per game.)

Data: NBA.com

Consider that LeBron went to the free-throw line just 124 times in 21 playoff games in 2016, compared to a playoff-leading 213 trips in 22 games this postseason. In elimination games, he was even better; he reached the free-throw line at least 11 times in each of his four elimination contests. (This is particularly noteworthy given the criticisms of James in pressure-cooker outings; the numbers show he wasn't shying away from contact or avoiding the big moment.)

   

If he wants to be Harden, he should go to...the Boston Celtics

Spread the floor with a five-out system and give defenses no option but to foul James when he barrels into the lane. Which team can best offer that? It's easy to imagine that taking shape in Boston, where Al Horford is one of the premier three-point shooters at the center position and can anchor the defense so James doesn't have to.

Going to Boston would mean a reunion with Kyrie Irving—unless maybe the Cavs take Irving back in a trade. The Celtics need a foul-drawer like James; Brad Stevens' club ranked 18th in free-throw frequency last season.

The Celtics don't have the cap space to sign James outright, but president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has assembled the necessary assets to be competitive in the market for James. At this point, there haven't been any whispers that James would pick up and move his family to Beantown. But staying in the Eastern Conference would mean an easier path to a ninth straight Finals, and it's plain that a Stevens-LeBron partnership predicated on ball movement, spacing and rim attacks would wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

   

Why he's AD (and Giannis)

Anthony Davis is 6'10" with a 7'5½" wingspan and has handles that make it impossible to keep him away from the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo is similarly skilled and physically gifted with arms like wings on a Boeing.

But James can also get to the rack at will. Except he finishes at the rim with a rare mix of touch and sheer power.

This postseason, LeBron averaged 6.9 field goals per game in the restricted area, which was just behind Anthony Davis for the league lead. But LeBron was much better at finishing than AD. As if it weren't hard enough to defend James on the perimeter, James (.748) bested both Davis (.689) and Giannis (.741) in field-goal percentage at the rim.

Research by Tom Haberstroh

Nothing is more deflating for a defense than the inevitability that once James gets the ball and generates a full head of steam toward the rim, he can't be stopped. Looking at his baskets within three feet of the rim, James was assisted just 25.2 percent of the time compared to 79.0 percent for Davis and 55.8 percent for Antetokounmpo (and 57.1 percent for even Durant).

James has always gotten to the rack, but not with the degree of difficulty required in these playoffs. James created these super-efficient shots largely by himself, whereas Davis and Antetokounmpo were more reliant on others to get them the rock. According to Basketball Reference, the only postseason in which James created a higher percentage of his at-rim baskets was in 2015, when he posted a 24.1 percent assisted mark on shots inside three feet (Irving and Kevin Love missed a combined 23 games because of injuries that postseason). Does James want to keep doing it all by himself?

   

If he wants to be AD, he should play for...the Los Angeles Lakers

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket against the Golden State Warriors in the second half during Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Lonzo Ball experienced an injury-riddled rookie season, but he still is one of the most gifted young passers in the game. In fact, Ball averaged 7.6 assists per 36 minutes last season, a rate that bested Magic Johnson's rookie-season figure—and every other rookie's in franchise history.

And that should be music to James' ears after he played alongside shoot-first guards like Isaiah Thomas, Jordan Clarkson and Derrick Rose last season. It remains to be seen whether James would want to join the LaVar Ball circus, but Lonzo would give James those easier assisted buckets that could prolong his career.

Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons could also find James in the paint like Lonzo, but James would have to share that coveted territory with Joel Embiid. The Lakers wouldn't have that spacing issue. With an elite passer like Lonzo and loads of cap space to craft a team around James' abilities to own the rim, the Lakers offer the best opportunity for James to enjoy life as an unstoppable big. They'd just need to pair James with an elite shooter who can defend elite wings. Enter Leonard and/or Paul George.

What will James do? Only he knows. But if 2018 is anything like 2010 and 2014, it's safe to assume we can expect the unexpected. Los Angeles looks like the favorite now, but James is anything but conventional. And who knows, maybe James will stay in Cleveland, where he starred this postseason as Steph, KD, Harden and AD molded into one.

   

Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count the Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back to Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.

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