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…