How much has LeBron James’ post game improved?

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If you’ve taken a drink every time a national TV broadcaster has referenced Miami Heat forward LeBron James’ “improved post game” this season, there’s a good chance your liver hates you. After being shut down by the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals thanks, in part, to James refusing to punish the likes of Jason Kidd and even J.J. Barea on the block, LeBron went to Hakeem Olajuwon this off-season and focused on making the low-post game a much more integral part of his arsenal.

However, Grantland’s Sebastian Pruiti has a post up today that makes the distinction between LeBron having “improved” his post game and the fact that he’s embracing the low-post game more:

Even last season, before James “developed” any moves on the block, he was one of the most efficient post players in the league. He shot 53.2 percent in the post and his 1.043 points per possession there put him in the 91st percentile among all NBA players. His numbers were so good that I named him one of the five best post players in the game after the season.

This year, James’ post game is a talking point. We can’t watch a Miami Heat game without hearing how much James improved over the offseason. James even tipped his hat to his low-post evolution in an interview during Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bulls. The problem is that James’ low-post numbers are actually worse than they were last season. His 0.958 points per possession put him in the 77th percentile among all NBA players.

As Pruiti points out, LeBron is backing down his man on the block far more often than he did last season, but his post-up efficiency has suffered as a result, mainly because he’s turning the ball over more when he’s posting up this season than he did last year.

However, I see LeBron’s decreased post efficiency as a case of LeBron taking one step backwards right now in order to take two steps forward in the future. Moneyball enthusiasts will remember the curious case of Scott Hatteberg, who swung at less first pitches than any player in baseball during his prime, but absolutely crushed the ball whenever he did swing at a first pitch — when presented with those stats, Hatteberg explained that people weren’t realizing that when Hatteberg did swing at a first pitch, it was only because it was a pitch so easy to hit that not even Hatteberg could resist taking a hack at it.

Such is the case with LeBron’s post game. In previous years, James would establish mid-post position, take a few tentative dribbles, and patiently wait for the double-team to come before making a skip pass out of it — sometimes it would lead to an open shot, but more often than not the defense would have time to rotate and James’ post-up would lead to nothing more than 8 seconds of wasted time for his team. When the opponent practically begged LeBron to take him one-on-one, James would grudgingly oblige, which is what led to him having one of the best post-up PPGs in the game.

James’ post-game is still a work in progress, but that’s no longer a euphemism — James is actually putting work into his post-up game, and the progress is coming. James’ face-up jump game from the mid-post is already deadly — like last year’s ISO-heavy vintage of Amar’e Stoudemire, he can knock down the 15-footer or blow by his opponent once he’s used his strength to get solid position and can use his speed to blow by him. James’ back-to-basket game isn’t McHale-like yet, but as Pruiti noted, he has a reliable turnaround over his right shoulder and a good counter-move to the middle already, and the ambidextrous James is finally developing some confidence with a lefty hook on the low block. And as Pruiti also notes, James is now spinning to the baseline instead of the middle when he makes his post moves, which leads to slightly lower-percentage looks but also keeps James from allowing a double-team to keep him from getting a shot off.

Most importantly, James isn’t getting discouraged when a post-up possession doesn’t go his way — in previous years, James would get good position, make a strong post move, miss a bunny, and then give up on his post game for the rest of the contest and settle for launching jumpers. In the waning minutes of Sunday’s game against the Bulls, James backed down Ronnie Brewer and was called for an offensive foul. Rather than get discouraged, James came back on the next possession, backed Brewer all the way under the basket, and converted on the easy layup to give the Heat a key basket in crunch-time. No matter what the numbers say, that’s simply not a play James was comfortable making with the game on the line in seasons past.

James still doesn’t have Kobe Bryant’s balletic footwork in the post or even Shaq’s confidence in his pure power moves, but he finally seems to have made a commitment to patching up what had been a glaring hole in his game. Now, if he could just get comfortable knocking down open catch-and-shoot threes and shoot 85% from the free-throw line…

Here’s LeBron James trying on Lonzo Ball’s weirdo jump shooting form (VIDEO)

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Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point range this season. That’s up a little more than six percent from last season, and three percent better than his career average. He doesn’t need much help there this season, but you know that LeBron is always looking for ways to improve.

Including, apparently, trying on UCLA star Lonzo Ball’s shooting form.

During warmups on Thursday before the Cavaliers took on the Chicago Bulls, LeBron messed around with Ball’s awkward shooting form. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an odd draw from right-to-left, with the right-handed Ball almost shooting from the left side of this face.

Ball was a 41.3 percent shooter from deep during his one season at UCLA and will be a top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, perhaps much to the chagrin of whichever team has to deal with his dad, LaVar.

Scottie Pippen throws blame for Knicks woes at feet of his former coach Phil Jackson

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Apparently, it’s not “be kind to your former boss month.”

Bulls legend and Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen was on ESPN’s “The Jump” — the Rachel Nichols hosted NBA show on each afternoon — and the topic turned to how much the Knicks stink. And why. Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around for just about everyone on that front, but Pippen threw his former coach under the bus (transcription via the New York Daily News).

“To be honest with you, I’m going to have to go at my old coach Phil Jackson,” Pippen said on ESPN’s “The Jump.” “I think he just hasn’t put the right pieces on the floor. I give a lot of credit to Carmelo who is being very professional in getting through these 82 game season. And now he’s being benched to some degree, they’re taking a lot of his minutes away. But this team just hasn’t had it. They haven’t had it since Phil Jackson landed there. There hasn’t been any upside.”

After saying “fans would love to see Carmelo in New York and Phil out,” Pippen was asked by host Rachel Nichols if he believes Jackson “should be out.”

“Yes,” Pippen replied emphatically.

Most of Jackson’s former players have his back, most recently Shaquille O’Neal who laid blame at the feet of the Knicks’ players. The ones that Jackson assembled into a mismatched team.

Phil Jackson’s record may be 77-162 since taking over the Knicks, but reports are he isn’t going anywhere. While owner James Dolan can flip like a pancake on a griddle, the sense is that Jackson will keep collecting his $12 million annual salary and will keep trying to build a triangle-offense team. That means Carmelo Anthony likely gets moved this summer.

Jackson has seemingly fallen into the trap the Knicks have been unable to climb out of for years — since James Dolan took over as owner seemingly — of not just picking a system, sticking to it, being patient and avoiding quick fixes. Triangle, Rhombus, pick-and-roll heavy, whatever offense the Knicks use should be built around getting Kristaps Porzingis touches and playing to his strengths. Get younger players who fit that system to go around him and let it grow together. Be patient. Instead, it’s Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

Jackson deserves blame. A significant amount. So do the players. So does Jeff Hornacek as coach. But make sure Dolan gets a big slice too, this team has struggled since he was given control, and he is the one constant.

Frustrated Kyrie Irving on another ring: “And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

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Since the All-Star break, the Cleveland Cavaliers have not looked like a championship team. They have been in a malaise going 8-10 with the second-worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. The Cavs like a team that is just waiting for the games to have meaning again in the playoffs. It makes one tempted to say this will come back to bite them in the postseason, but which team in the East is going to beat them?

The Cavaliers players are frustrated with their play of late, too.  Kyrie Irving vented about it after practice, as reported by Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Obviously it was just a frustrating game and there have been a few frustrating games for all of us,” Irving said. “Just getting back to what we do, having fun with one another and being truthful with one another — we’ll be good…

And then Irving said: “You can’t rely on just thinking that one championship is enough. It’s natural for human beings to just get comfortable. To rely on just having won a championship. But if you a (competitor) you want two, you want three, you want four. And if you dedicate yourself more like you say you do, then you want more. And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

Injuries have had key players, most recently Kevin Love and J.R. Smith out of the rotation of late, and working them back in has not gone smoothly. Still, this is the same core from the team that won the title last season, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get back into a groove.

Cleveland is acting like a team that thinks it can flip the switch.

Maybe they can, but there are some powerful teams out West who seemed to have flipped theirs long ago.

 

Rumor: Bulls ready to move on from Jimmy Butler this summer

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Predicting what the Chicago Bulls front office will do this summer is a game of roulette — the ball can land anywhere and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Is Dwyane Wade coming back? Is Nikola Mirotic part of the future? Fred Hoiberg? What kind of team are the Bulls trying to build, anyway?

Then there is the biggest one: Is Jimmy Butler still part of the long-term plan? Or is he going to be moved to facilitate a rebuilding process?

Last summer when the Bulls had the chance to trade him, they kept Butler to build around him… then made some interesting choices in trying to do that. They didn’t get enough shooting, players didn’t fit well, and others didn’t develop, and the Bulls are struggling to even make the postseason.

So what do the Bulls do this summer? One exec told Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer that the Bulls were going to move Butler.

Paul George and Jimmy Butler were involved in trade rumors at the deadline, and all indications are that those conversations will resume this offseason. One front-office source told me recently that Butler is “as good as gone,” while George sounds like a player who wants out.”

Paul George wanting to contend (or if not, be in Los Angeles) is not news, but whether the Pacers decide to be serious about trading him this summer depends on a number of factors that we’re not going to get into here. This article is about Butler.

Do the Bulls want to trade Butler? Some in the front office do, some don’t. There were reports the Bulls wanted an All-Star level player for him so the team did not take a step back, but nobody was giving that up. Everyone in Chicago from ownership through management is not on the same page, which helps explain some of the stop-gap team building moves by the team. Chicago needs to decide if it wants to go for the full rebuild, which is what happens if they trade Butler. The playoffs are out of the questions for a few years if they do, but that’s not a bad thing if they draft well and commit to the plan. However, there is a sense that ownership thinks “this is Chicago, we don’t rebuild.”

All of which is to say, if the Bulls trade Butler it’s not a huge surprise. If they keep him, it’s not a huge surprise. But other teams — hello Boston — may be prepping for him to come back on the trade market around the draft.