Let’s play a game. Forget that LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat via an hour-long ESPN special was one of the biggest PR disasters in recent memory. Forget everything about how James’ choice to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami rather than stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago or New Jersey represented him taking “the easy way out.” Forget about how some of LeBron’s lackluster performances in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals caused people to question if he’s capable of performing in big games.
Forget about whether he’s a man, the man, THE MAN, or whatever else on the Heat. I’m not saying those aren’t legitimate concerns, because they are, and have been and will continue to be addressed on this website and many others.
All I’m asking is this: for however long it takes you to read this post, put aside your feelings about LeBron James, the man, and think of LeBron James as a basketball player. Because if you can compartmentalize LeBron’s off-court behavior and his on-court performance, you’ll find some things worth taking a look at.
For just a second, think of LeBron James as he is on the court. He’s walked away with the past two NBA MVP awards, and he may be the most dynamic talent to ever play NBA basketball. And after seven years in Cleveland, he’s going from a supporting cast made up of role players and fringe all-stars who only existed to support his gifts to playing with one MVP-caliber player, one All-NBA(maybe 2nd or 3rd team, but still) caliber player, and a series of highly capable role players surrounding the three of them. Forget LeBron’s legacy for just a minute: how will LeBron’s “superfriends” cause him to change his game? Let’s take a look at some of the potential differences in LeBron’s game next season:
Difference #1: More Lebron off the ball
Most people think that LeBron James will score less next season, but might average 10 assists per game/a triple-double because he’ll have better teammates to pass to. But consider the following: In the 2007 FIBA Qualifiers and 2008 Olympics combined, LeBron averaged .183 assists per minute while surrounded by the best players in basketball while playing against non-NBA competition. During the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron averaged .221 assists per moment while playing with his teammates on the Cavaliers against other NBA teams. What did shoot up when LeBron was surrounded by elite talent was LeBron’s scoring efficiency: LeBron shot 65.4% from the field during his last two international stints, as compared to 50.3% over the course of the 09-10 season.
For a long time, the conventional wisdom about LeBron has been the following: he’s darn good as he is, but he’d be unstoppable if he had a consistent jump shot. It’s true that LeBron becomes less stoppable with every improvement in his jump shot, but a consistent jump shot wouldn’t make him unstoppable. Why not? Since LeBron makes around 70% of his shots around the basket and 75-78% of his free throws, teams will always try to force him into taking long jumpers. And no player in the NBA makes over half of his long jumpers. Not one. When you consider that most NBA players take most of their long jumpers off of assists rather than off the dribble, it becomes even more apparent that LeBron will never be “unstoppable” in a one-on-one situation, because no perimeter player ever can be.
Why do I mention this? Because when LeBron gets the ball on the weak side against a defense that isn’t loaded up against him, he’s as close to unstoppable as it gets. He’s 6-8, 260 pounds, his top speed is as fast as any other player’s, he can change directions at full speed, he’s completely ambidextrous around the basket, and he can change directions while going full steam. If he catches the ball in stride and the defense is looking somewhere else, they have no chance of stopping him.
According to Synergy Sports, LeBron took 125 field goal attempts off of a “cut” last season, and converted 101 of those attempts. That’s an 81% conversion rate. That, folks, is the definition of unstoppable, and that’s how LeBron shot 65% from the field in international play. LeBron is great at scoring in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. He may be just as good at making plays for other in those situations. But he’s unquestionably at his most effective when he can build up a head of steam and attack the rim against a defense that isn’t waiting for him.
If Wade and Bosh can put enough pressure on defenses next season to let LeBron spend significant chunks of game time lurking on the weak side and striking when one either Wade or Bosh demands the defense’s attention, his scoring/efficiency splits could look absolutely freakish — I’m talking about 25 PPG on 55% shooting from the field, or a 65-67% True Shooting Percentage. True Shooting% isn’t as sexy as averaging a triple-double, but making baskets while missing few of them is how teams win games.
(PS — Don’t forget how good of a spot-up shooter LeBron can be. Because of the degree of difficulty on his three-point shots, LeBron has never had a great three-point percentage, but he’s a very good natural shooter who can be deadly when given time to set his feet. In the 2007 FIBA games/2008 Olympics, LeBron shot 36/65 from beyond the arc, a conversion rate of 55%. The international three-point line is shorter, but 65 threes is a significant sample size, and LeBron made over half of his threes in international play. LeBron off the ball is freaky, freaky stuff.)
Difference #2: More playmaking from LeBron?
This will be interesting to see. There’s no doubt that LeBron has the ability to put up huge assist numbers if he’s trusted to be the primary playmaker — he averaged 10.5 assists per game in February, when Mo Willams was injured and LeBron was the de facto point guard for the Cavaliers. With Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller (the latter went 50-99 on “spot-up” threes last season) surrounding him, LeBron certainly has teammates more than capable of converting his assists.
And with Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo, and Eddie House being the Heat’s point guards, LeBron will be relied as the primary playmaker for much of the time. I just wonder how things will shake out with LeBron and Wade as the playmakers; Wade may be as good or better than LeBron as a playmaker, and there’s no doubt that LeBron is Wade’s superior on the weak side. In short, LeBron could average a 10 APG with his new teammates, but it may not be in the Heat’s best interest to have him do so. And I’m not sure if LeBron is quite as stat-obsessed as Wilt Chamberlain was when Wilt passed up scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity because he decided he wanted to lead the league in assists. Also, don’t forget that the Cavs roster, while decidedly less talented than the Heat’s roster, was constructed of players who were supposed to be effective playing off of LeBron.
Difference #3: More LeBron in the post?
This is another scenario that could go either way. On the one hand, Chris Bosh is a better post-up threat than LeBron has ever played with, and Wade initiating plays could mean less of James in the post. Additionally, LeBron needs to put in serious work on his footwork in the post to become as effective on the blocks as he is on the drive.
In the past, LeBron spent his summers with Team USA or Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent working on his game. With LeBron’s free agency/Miami PR campaign this summer, he may not have put as much work into his game as he did in summers past, and his priority when he did work on his game may be assimilating his game with Bosh and Wade’s rather than adding new facets to his own. (At least LeBron postponed the filming of his scripted movie, which would have been a “decision”-level PR blunder.)
On the other hand, there are two reasons why LeBron may go to his post game in Miami more than he did in Cleveland. First of all, Pat Riley and Mr. Wade likely have LeBron’s ear like no player, executive, or coach in Cleveland ever did. If they tell LeBron he needs to go to the post more, he’s more likely to listen to them than Mike Brown or Mo Williams. After all, Riley did coach Magic Johnson, who utilized the post game beautifully. That fact won’t be lost on LeBron. With LeBron’s size, strength, explosiveness, and ability to use either hand around the basket, he’s a dynamo in the post waiting to happen — he’s just never seen a compelling reason to make post-up scoring a primary element of his game. Part of that is on James’ lack of faith in his teammates’ ability to be effective if he got fronted in the post and the ball didn’t get to him, and part of that is on his own lack of post-up fundamentals. The former won’t be a problem in Miami, so we’ll see if he’s willing to work on the latter.
Second of all, LeBron did post up a fair bit in Cleveland, but he preferred to wait for the double-team and pass instead of try to go all the way and score. His Cleveland teammates usually didn’t convert when LeBron kicked it out, but that could well change in Miami. If James forces a double-team in the post, it’ll be awfully tough to stop Bosh or Wade if James kicks it out to them. LeBron’s always had the ability to be one of the best post-up players in the NBA if he wanted to be, and that will be just as true in Miami as it was in Cleveland.
Difference #4: More LeBron on the break
The glacial Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Shaquille O’Neal were the starting centers during LeBron’s seven years in Cleveland, and Mike Brown’s defensive system didn’t encourage the kind of gambling that leads to fast-break opportunities. Because of that, LeBron got to show of his almost unprecedented ability in the full-court rarely, although he was highly successful when the Cavaliers did get a fast-break opportunity. With Wade and Chalmers being two of the most successful defensive gamblers in the league, Bosh being a great athlete for a power forward, and the small but fast Joel Anthony likely to start at center for the Heat, Miami should be a smaller, more athletic, and faster team than any of LeBron’s Cleveland squads were.
It’s open to debate whether a relatively small lineup is the best way to match up against teams like Orlando, Los Angeles, or Boston, but the Heat should be much “faster” and give LeBron more opportunities to get out on the break than he ever received in Cleveland, and that will be a good thing for the fans.
Those are about all the differences I can think of for right now. LeBron and Wade will be one heck of a tandem on defense, but that’s a whole different post. Also, I originally thought LeBron would spend a lot more time at the four in Miami than he did in Cleveland, but with Bosh and Haslem both on the roster I doubt that’ll be the case. Say what you will about LeBron, but there’s no arguing that it’ll be interesting to see what LeBron’s game will look like alongside Wade and Bosh next season.