LeBron James’ evolving post game

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When LeBron James came into the league, he was a one-of-a-kind physical specimen who could get to the rim and pass with the best of them. Shortly after he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, people began to question James’ perimeter game, and his jump shot was widely criticized.

Over the course of eight seasons, LeBron what was a glaring weakness his rookie season and turned it into a strength. James now makes 44% of his long 2-point jump shots (16-23 feet) and 45.4% of his mid-range jump shots (10-15 feet), and both marks are well above the league average. James still isn’t a consistent three-point shooter, but very few players can make that shot off the dribble consistently, and teams still have to respect James from beyond the three-point arc. (That said, I think LeBron should make more of an effort to make catch-and-shoot threes an effective part of his game, but that’s a story for another time.)

Now that James is making his jump shots more regularly, his post game is what gets criticized. James is bigger and stronger than almost every small forward and shooting guard in the league, but he doesn’t look to score with his back to the basket as often as many people think he should. Many have said that LeBron’s lack of a post game is evidence that his game isn’t evolving, and that he doesn’t work as hard or as smart as the league’s other great players.

However, as Heat.com’s Cooper Moorehead pointed out today, LeBron does have a post game:

Despite James suffering from a relative lack of mythology [regarding his post game], partially due to the absence of a narrative-fitting signature move, the numbers encourage a theory. Before we get to video, we’ll begin with those numbers.

James, mechanical though he can appear, has 160 post-up possessions to his name this season, shooting 52.4 percent, drawing a shooting foul 8.8 percent of the time and scoring at least a single point on over half the plays. Better yet, he scores 1.03 points per post-up, which ranks him 19th in the league.

That’s among all NBA players, not just small forwards or wing players.

For comparison’s sake, Bryant, in an offense built around versatile players who can operate in the post, has 300 post-ups, but he is ranked 39th in the league scoring 0.97 points per possession, while getting to the free-throw line 1.5 percent less. Effectively, for every 100 possessions, James scores six more points than Bryant.

Among other swingmen known for their post-up capabilities, Carmelo Anthony is 51st with .94 PPP in 274 post-ups, Joe Johnson 26th in 202 possessions (1.00 PPP) and Paul Pierce 10th at 1.13 PPP in 120 post-ups.

That James’ post game is already pretty darn effective is a story in and of itself, but what might be more important is Moorehead’s revelation that LeBron is committed to further developing his post-up game:

James working on his post-game – along with Dwyane Wade – with assistant coach David Fizdale has been a common sight after practices ever since training camp. The length of time and the moves they are working on vary, but Fizdale is a fixture, the man who has worked with James since day one.

“I commend him for having the humility to say he needs to improve at it,” Fizdale said. “That’s a big thing for a guy that could have an ego that says, ‘No, I’m good at this already,’ but he has the humility to say, ‘No, I need to get better,’ and he puts in the time.”

Moorehead includes some video of the things that already work in the post for LeBron — he’s getting better at taking deep position and making a quick move to the rim, and he’s very tough to stop when he catches it in the post, faces up, and takes one power dribble towards the rim — and some talk about the more advance post moves LeBron is working on. James has been trying to get comfortable with an unblockable but very difficult running hook; after that — he’ll start working more on his drop-steps and counter-moves.

One thing about LeBron’s post game is that it will never look like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant’s, which is a comparison Moorehead touches on in his piece. Bryant’s best attributes at this stage of his career are his balance and shooting touch; LeBron’s best gifts are his size, speed, and strength. Graceful fadeaways and intricate counter-moves work wonderfully for Bryant, but LeBron’s best post-up possessions are going to be the ones where it doesn’t even look like he’s doing anything all that impressive — a deep seal under the basket that leads to an easy layup, a quick spin around a defender, or a possession where James simply bullies his way under the basket before going up for the score.

There can be beauty in simplicity — if James embraces that, keeps working on his basic footwork, and stays committed to trying to score on the blocks, he’s going to be even more unstoppable than he already is.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.

NBA looking into Rockets’ owner interacting with referee during game

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Like every Rockets fan — and, let’s be honest, every fan of every team — Leslie Alexander is convinced the referees were screwing over his Rockets.

Except that Alexander is the owner of the Rockets.

And he approached a referee during game play.

The NBA is understandably investigating this, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The NBA said an investigation “is underway” into Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander’s getting up from his courtside seat to have a few words with official Bill Kennedy in the first half.

Alexander appeared to say something to Kennedy during a Thunder possession before returning to his seat. Alexander declined to give any detail beyond he was “upset … really upset.” Rockets guard James Harden said he didn’t see his owner get up. “He did that?” a surprised Harden said after the game. “He’s the coolest guy. I would have helped him.”

The NBA doesn’t let players or coaches cross a line when talking to officials, but they are at least allowed to interact and discuss calls with a ref during a game. It’s something else entirely for an owner to get in the ear of an official during game play.

I’d expect Alexander will see a fine for this.

Whatever he thought of the officiating, the Rockets won to advance on to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Steve Kerr to see Stanford specialists about back issues, is optimistic about return to bench

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If he were not coaching a perennial contender and a team where he genuinely has a deep bond with the players, the GM, and his fellow coaches, Steve Kerr might have walked away from basketball for a while. The pain from spinal fluid leakage from a couple of back surgeries he had two summers ago (the ones that led to Luke Walton coaching the first half of the season in Golden State) would have been too much.

But he tolerated and managed the pain as best he could, until a few days ago when it became too much. Kerr did not coach the final two games of the Warriors sweep of the Trail Blazers and said he would not return to the bench until healthy enough to do so.

Kerr’s next step is to talk to specialists at Stanford University’s medical program, and Kerr is optimistic about the long-term prognosis, he told Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

He revealed to NBCSportsBayArea.com that in recent days he has spoken to several people who have experienced the debilitating effects of a cerebrospinal fluid leak and been able to overcome it. He says that because his symptoms have intensified over the past week, in an odd twist, that may make it easier for specialists to trace the precise source.

“That’s what the next few days are all about,” Kerr said, standing down the hallway from the visitor’s locker room. “They’re trying to find it. If they can find it, they can fix it.”

He’ll begin in the coming days by consulting with specialists at Stanford Medical Center, which has some of the more respected surgeons in the world.

Kerr said his spirits have been lifted by other people who went through this, people who told him doctors found the leak and it changed their lives, that they bounced back to 100 percent. He said that the first back surgeries did their job in relieving his lower back pain, but it has led to spinal fluid leakage that is worse than the symptoms the first surgery solved.

Whether a fix can happen to get him back on the bench these playoffs is immaterial, we all hope it happens just so Kerr the person can go back to enjoying his life without chronic pain. He’ll be around the team as much as he can through the playoffs, but there are far more important things going on with him than basketball right now.

 

Thunder’s offseason moves start here: Offer Russell Westbrook $220 million contract

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The narrative of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff loss to Houston — and frankly its entire season — was about how little help Russell Westbrook was given. Game 5 was the perfect example: The Thunder were +12 when Westbrook was on the court, but he rested for 6:07 and OKC was -18 in those minutes. The Thunder’s role players are young and many — for example, Enes Kanter — are very one dimensional, but that’s because their role was supposed to be much more narrow and defined. Then Kevin Durant left and players were asked to do things outside their comfort zones, or grow up fast, and it didn’t go that well.

Thunder GM Sam Presti has some work to do this summer to tweak that roster, make it more versatile, and design it to fit better around Westbrook (not to mention take some of the load off him).

But the first thing Presti has to do is keep Westbrook — and that means offering him a five-year, roughly $220 million extension. Royce Young if ESPN has the details on how that works.

After signing an extension last summer in the wake of Durant’s departure, Westbrook can sign another in the ballpark of $220 million over five years this summer. Westbrook is signed through the 2017-18 season, with a player option on the following year, but the Thunder would obviously like to have a longer commitment from their franchise player.

The expectation is that they will make the offer, but should Westbrook decline, all that talk of stabilizing the franchise would get a little more wobbly, and with only a year guaranteed, talk of trading him could spark again. It will certainly be alarming for the front office, especially after what it went through with Durant.

It’s hard to imagine Westbrook walking away from that money — it’s about $75 million more guaranteed and one more year than any other team can offer. That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table, I don’t care how much you make in endorsements. (If Westbrook left, signed a max deal elsewhere for four years, then signed a max deal for that fifth year later, he still would get roughly $35 million less than signing with the Thunder now.) Once Westbrook is locked into place, Presti can start looking to reshape the Thunder roster.

But if Westbrook pauses and doesn’t sign, the NBA rumor mill will be moving at the speed of Westbrook in transition. The Thunder wouldn’t want to lose Durant and Westbrook for nothing, it would set their rebuilding process way back, so Presti would have to consider trades. However, because Westbrook is a free agent in 2018, he would almost have a no-trade clause — no team is going to give up much to get him without an under-the-table understanding he would re-sign in that city.

Expect Westbrook to agree to the extension in OKC. Because he likes the team — remember, he signed that extension last summer (which got him a healthy pay raise) — and because it would make him the highest-paid player in the NBA, and that would feed his ego (and pocketbook).

Once he does, Presti’s real work begins.