Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has changed his offensive style in recent years, playing noticeably farther away from the basket.
It’s only natural for James, 34, to tweak his game as he becomes a more seasoned NBA veteran. He has applied lessons from his years of NBA experience and he’s still one of the most versatile scorers and playmakers in the game. However, the trends have been noteworthy – to say the least.
Zach Lowe recently noted that James is not attacking the rim as often as usual (via ESPN):
“He is recovering from his first extended injury absence. He has reached an age where he needs to conserve energy. He ceded large chunks of the offense against Indiana in last season’s first round until Game 7. Perhaps this is the price of getting full-throttle LeBron when it matters. But his shots in the restricted area are down, and he’s taking more super-long 3s.”
James is currently averaging 2.9 post-ups per game when including his passes, per Synergy Sports Tech. That is the lowest rate for the four-time MVP since 2010-11, his first season with the Miami Heat.
It is an unusual change of pace for James, who (when including passes) averaged 5.7 post-ups per game during the postseason last year. During Cleveland’s appearance in the 2015 postseason, with passes, James actually posted up 7.9 times per game.
When the Heat won the championship in 2012, he posted up 6.3 times per game. It is unusual to see that rate as low as it is this season, especially when compared to his previous campaigns.
Perhaps this is because the Lakers often run up and down the court in a transition offense, which is different from the Cavaliers’ strategy. In Cleveland, James would sometimes walk the ball up for half-court sets, which would then allow him to post up more frequently.
However, it is also possible James is less interested in taking contact from defenders. A player deals with much more abuse near the rim as opposed to playing away from the basket.
With that in mind, it is not a surprise that the 34-year-old has taken three-pointers at a higher rate than at any other point during his career. This season, a career-high 27 percent of his total attempts have been from beyond the arc.
It is also possible that James has a newfound confidence in his touch from beyond the arc, especially considering how the league has shifted to prioritize three-point shooting.
He spoke about this increased frequency back in December (via ESPN):
“I’ve been working on my jump shot for quite a while now and increasing my range every year. For me personally, it’s weird, because I know where the league is going. But at the end of the day, I can go out there and not take a jump shot and still have an effect on the game… But I understand that you got to, at times, keep the defense off-balance, and being able to take a jump shot here, a couple 3s there, keeps them off-balance.”
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that James has actually been given so many open looks from downtown. NBA.com defines an open three as one where the nearest defender is at least four feet away. James has taken more than five open three-pointers per game for the Lakers, which is by far the most open threes James has attempted in recent years (NBA.com has tracked this since 2013-14).
But what is most shocking is how often James has hoisted the ball from deep. Dave McMenamin wrote about why James has shifted to this strategy by taking so many of these attempts (via ESPN):
“During James’ last four seasons in Cleveland, multiple Cavs sources put James’ deep threes in one of two categories: Either it was a sign of him being in a great groove, looking to land a dagger and light up the crowd, or it was just the opposite, LeBron launching from out there almost out of protest by how his teammates were approaching the game, as if to say, ‘OK, you want to play that way? Fine, I’ll just keep bombing from 30.'”
McMenamin described it as a “flex,” as if to say that “conventional rules” do not apply to him.
For this, we looked at how many three-pointers he has taken from at least 27 feet of the basket – around three feet beyond the arc depending on whether they were from the corners.
We divided that by the total amount of three-pointers he took that season to show what percentage of his long-range looks were from that far away.
Before last season, only 11.5 percent of his threes were from this range. Last season, that jumped to 21.2 percent. This season, he is taking these looks at a career-high 32.0 percent.
Owen Phillips described why this may be a smart idea for the 15-time All-Star (via FiveThirtyEight):
“That peculiarity may have to do with the way defenders guard James that far out. Generally, a player with the ball in his hands 28 feet away from the hoop is a bigger threat to drive than to shoot. That’s certainly true for James, who drives 11.8 times a game and pulls up from three only 3.3 times a game… James has muscled and blown past smaller and slower defenders on drives to the cup. Knowing they can’t match James step-for-step, defenders sag off to give themselves more room for error — to defend against the threat of a drive. That strategy made sense earlier in James’s career, when he was less of a threat from three, but this year he is making defenses pay.”
James was actually shooting 45.3 percent from at least 27 feet away last season, per Basketball-Reference. That was the best among the 38 players who had more than 55 attempts. It was a much better rate than his overall career shooting percentage from three-point range, which is currently 34.4 percent.
So even though James is one of the most dangerous post-up players in the NBA, the change in his game might not be terrible news for his productivity.
If nothing else, it might just be the next step in his evolution as a player.