Monday, September 3, 2007

LeBron's to-do list

LeBron's performance in the FIBA tournament has shown us the ceiling of the player who supposedly had no ceiling, and it was pretty amazing to watch. After a season where LeBron's flaws nearly gained more attention than his attributes (particularly on this board), it was amazing to see him play basketball that was utterly beyond reproach.

So what does LeBron need to do in order to play basketball like this during the season? While many on this board, and everywhere else, have made sporadic lists of what LeBron needs to improve at in order to achieve basketball perfection, here is my attempt, in order, of what LeBron needs to do to reach his nearly limitless potential.

[B]1. Free Throws[/B]

That's right, the most important thing that LeBron needs to do is fix his free throw problems. LeBron is going to be in the top-3 for free-throw attempts every year for the next decade or so. His current clip of 70% on his free throws is costing the team a point or two a game, not to mention his own scoring average; he could have been a 30-point scorer again last season if he was able to knock down 85% of his free throws. I'm putting this at the top of the list because it will not only boost his scoring from the line, but will actually encourage him to go to the hole more, which is where he is the most efficient.

Also, it's an easy area for him to improve; LeBron proved at the FIBAs that he can shoot the ball, and unlike all of LeBron's other attempts, where he has to deal with 2 or 3 defenders, free throws are just as easy for LeBron as they are for everyone else, which is something he should take full advantage of. While his free-throw stroke looked better at the FIBAs, he was only 12-18 from the line, which does disturb me. There is no excuse for LeBron not to be an 80% free throw shooter, and it would help his game more than anything else on this list.

[B]2. Post Moves[/B]

A common refrain during the FIBAs was that "LeBron with a jump shot would be completely unstoppable." I'll deal with the absurdity of that statement a little bit later, but a much more accurate statement is that LeBron with a post game would be completely and utterly unstoppable. Quite simply, nobody with LeBron's speed (and it's a short list, especially from end-to-end), is anywhere near his size, and nobody who plays on the perimeter has anything approaching LeBron's strength. Due to LeBron's exceptional speed, it's impossible for a Power Forward or a Center to guard him one-on-one, and no small forward, with the possible exception of Ron Artest, has anywhere approaching the strength to stop him; hence, if LeBron could switch from a face-up to post-up game with confidence, he would be unstoppable. Oh, and if LeBron catches the ball 7 feet from the basket instead of 30 feet from the basket, it's impossible to put 3 or 4 defenders between him and the basket; the physics don't work. Hence, LeBron would only have to face 1 or 2 defenders, which is much easier than 3 or 4.

LeBron has all the ingredients to be a great post scorer; He has ridiculous height and size. (He has reportedly bulked up to 6-8, 260; Ike Diogu, a load in the post, is 6-8, 255.) He can finish with both hands extremely effectively, and has a knack for using the glass and making scoops from tough angles that can't be taught; his conversion rate on "close" shots (shots from inside that aren't dunks), is better than noted "bucket-getters" like David Lee, Amare Stoudamire, Dwight Howard, and Zach Randolph, is nearly as good as Carlos Boozer's, and is better than any perimeter player in the league. If he's that good at making tough 5-footers going 100 miles an hour and being fouled by multiple people, there's no reason why he shouldn't be able to convert shots from the same distance at normal speed on one defender.

LeBron doesn't need to be Kevin McHale down there; players with highly refined "finesse" post games actually tend to be much less efficient scorers than post players who like to mix it up and get as close as they can to the bucket. A simple jump hook, drop-step, and 'Melo spin are all the "moves" LBJ really needs down there; the more important aspect for him is learning how to use his footwork to establish deep post position, seal off his man, and allow him to get close to the hoop without actually going under it. From there, he can score it with ease. In the Finals, LeBron showed a willingness to go into the post, and the way he threw Bruce Bowen around like a rag doll illustrated just how tough to stop he can be down there; improved footwork will have him dropping 40 on guys like Bowen all year long.

[B]3. A Point Guard[/B]

Okay, technically this isn't something LeBron can get over the summer. But having LeBron on a team without a decent point guard is like not letting Hendrix do solos; he'll still be spectacular, but you have no idea what he's capable of. Let me put this simply; LeBron James is completely and utterly unstoppable when he is gets a head of steam going in the full-court. He is too big, too fast, too adept at changing directions, too strong, too good a finisher, too good a passer, just too good. He is the best full-court player since Magic Johnson, and he might even be better. While LeBron sometimes gets tentative or jumper-happy in the half-court, when he attacks before the defense can get set, he is the ultimate weapon.

On Team USA, LeBron was able to make 3-4 spectacular transition plays every game because of Jason Kidd's ability to throw a lead pass. It looked so simple; whenever Kidd touched the ball off of a rebound or turnover, he knew where the lead-outs were and threw it to them as quickly as he could. It looks easy, but almost every guard in the league would have started dribbling it himself or needed to look to see where his men were, by which point the opportunity would be dead. A point guard who looked to pass it to LeBron to start a break instead of take it himself and start a slow-down offense would increase LeBron's production immensely, not to mention create some of the best highlights the league has ever seen. (On the same note, if Kevin Love, the best outlet passer since Walton, and LeBron ever got on the same team, it would be absolutely ridiculous. has love falling out of the lottery to 16; the Cavs are projected to pick at 24. Lack of athleticism can make a player fall like crazy; David Stern, this is your new conspiracy project.)

Also, while people continually stress that shooters would space the floor and free up LeBron, if the defense is forced to react to a point guard's penetration, they can't load up on LeBron; hence, LeBron faces 1-on-1 coverage and is completely unstoppable. And LeBron doesn't need Kidd or Nash for this, or even Bibby; my dream PGs for LeBron would be Sebastian Telfair (LeBron's buddy, full-court passing wizard, undervalued, Coney Island project; read [I]The Last Shot[/I] before you judge him or his cousin.), Sergio Rodriguez, or Jared Jordan, two guys who always look to pass with flash.

[B]4. A Jump Shot[/B]

That's right; the most talked-about weakness in LeBron's game is only the 4th-most important thing on my list. But before I talk about why that is, I'll go into why it is, in fact, a very good thing that LeBron's jumper seems to have improved. First of all, LeBron plays on the perimeter; hence, he's going to be taking a lot of jump shots. At least 60% of every perimeter player's FG attempts are jumpers, even guys like Wade and Carmelo. And if you're going to be taking jumpers, it's better to make them than it is to miss them. Second, a good jump shot is necessary to open up opportunities to drive; this was made painfully clear in the Spurs series, when the Spurs essentially dared LeBron to beat them with wide-open jumpers and he was unable to do it. Not even LeBron and Wade are able to go to the rim 30 times a game; in order to get to the paint, the threat of a jump shot must be enough to force the defense to respect it.

However, I do have some problems with the thought of LeBron adding a jump shot. First, let's address the notion that a player with incredible driving ability and a great jump shot is "unstoppable." That is a ridiculous notion. Consider this: On Team USA, Mike Miller, one of the game's best shooters, was given an extremely bountiful share of open 3s, from a shorter distance, and only made 33% of them. The best shooters in the world who are relied upon as primary scorers only make 40-45% of their 3-pointers, and even "specialists," who only take wide-open 3s, rarely break the 50% mark. Hence, how can a shot which is difficult enough that nobody can make it over half the time be considered impossible to stop? The shooter will "stop" himself more than half of the time, regardless of defense.

An elite inside scorer, such as LeBron, will score on about 70% of his shots from the inside, even before factoring in free throws; for him to be as dangerous from the three-point line as he is driving to the basket, he would need to hit just over 45% of his threes, which is just about an impossible task for somebody who is as persistently defended as LeBron. And don't even get me started on mid-range jumpers; nobody in the league makes 60% of their mid-range jumpers, and most make well under 50%: an average player will convert about 60% of their shots "inside", and hit 35% of their 3s, which makes both of those shots more efficient than a mid-range jumper any day of the week. Defenses will always be better off making LeBron a "jump shooter" than they will be letting him get to the rim; all an improved jump shot will do is make his backup plan more viable, while free throws, post moves, and a point guard will allow him to improve what should always be his primary mode of attack, his ability to score inside.

And, of course, there's always the danger that an improved jump shot will cause LeBron to "fall in love with his jumper" and settle for it more often than he should; past elite players who have developed solid jumpers have been known to stop driving to the bucket, and LeBron's shot selection has been less than sterling over his career without a jumper he has 100% confidence in. Put it this way: 5 years ago, if I had told you that Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady would both develop extremely good jump shots, you would have imagined that they would both be completely unguardable, right? Instead, they have become worse scorers, and Vince in particular seems to have taken much of the effectiveness out of his game by settling for 3s more often than he should. So I think it's certainly good news that LeBron's jumper seems to be better, but if he could get his free throws down, get post moves, and find a point guard to get him in the open floor, he would be very close to fulfilling his destiny as someone who will change the game forever.

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