Just a few months after his 28th birthday, LeBron James is on the brink of his fourth NBA MVP award, joining an elite club of four-time winners restricted to Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell. No Kobe. No Shaq. No Duncan. No Magic. No Bird. But since winning his first MVP in 2008-09, LeBron's game has evolved drastically. He's a vastly different player now than the one he was in 2011. In fact, each year he's won the MVP, he's done so in a distinctive way. LeBron is a basketball scientist and his game is his laboratory; his ongoing research is returning brilliant results in awestruck gymnasiums from Boston to Los Angeles to London.
But James is not only the NBA's most valuable player, he is also the league's most versatile player. We can clearly see that LeBron is great at basketball, but we're less astute when it comes to identifying the radical shifts in his game over time. I spoke to James in Miami after the Heat beat the Detroit Pistons, their 25th consecutive win. When I asked him what he thought the biggest change in his game has been since his rookie season, he immediately honed in on his scoring. His first word says it all.
"Efficiency. I'm just a more efficient player. I take no shots for granted. When you're a young player, you cast up low-percentage shots, and you're not really involved with the numbers as much as far as field goal percentage and things of that nature. As I've grown, I've made more of a conscious effort to become a more efficient player and I think it's helped my team's success over the years."
Over the years, James has attempted thousands of field goals, but those shots are going in at much higher rates recently. In James's rookie year he shot 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc. This year those numbers are 56 percent and 39 percent, respectively. There are two reasons for that substantial improvement in his field goal percentage: (1) He's a much better shooter now, and (2) also a larger share of his shots are close to the basket now.
James won the NBA MVP in each of his last two seasons in Cleveland. He was a great player then, but the Cavs used James as more of an on-ball point forward. Then-Cavs coach Mike Brown was often criticized for his simplistic offensive sets, which involved James handling the ball and little else. Brown — who failed to engineer an offense that optimized LeBron — was often derided as "the only coach in the NBA who could stop LeBron James." That may be unfair, but those teams failed to win a title, and when you compare his shooting patterns in Cleveland to his patterns in Miami, there are striking differences. Some of these differences have to do with changing teammates or shifting strategies, and the maturation of the player. But, no matter how you slice it, the changes are profound.
In James's last season in Cleveland his shot chart resembles that of a point guard. His clusters of shooting activity are similar to those of Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul. James was very active in front of the basket and along both wings, where his game featured a lot of off-the-dribble 3s and long 2s. Although he shot 50 percent from the field, there was virtually no post game, and aside from a cluster at the rim, there wasn't much activity close to the basket. He was perimeter-oriented.
Lost in the hubbub of James's signing with Miami were the strategic implications of integrating the league's reigning MVP into an organization with different leadership, different philosophies, and superstar teammates. James was already the NBA's Swiss Army knife — but the Cavaliers coaching staff only knew how to utilize the bottle opener. Before he landed in Miami, the Heat coaching staff was already hard at work engineering stratagems that would optimize James's unique skill set. One thing was clear: He would handle the ball less and assume a less central role on the court.
In his first year in a Heat uniform, James took fewer 3s and was much more active in the paint, but he was still spending a lot of time away from the basket. His early Miami patterns were similar to his Cleveland patterns: no hint of a post game; too many long 2s; his game was still too perimeter-oriented. And after losing the 2011 NBA Finals, James and coach Erik Spoelstra were more determined than ever to tweak their offensive approach.
According to Spoelstra, "It took the ultimate failure in the Finals to view LeBron and our offense with a different lens. He was the most versatile player in the league. We had to figure out a way to use him in the most versatile of ways — in unconventional ways. It seems like a 'duh' moment now, but we had to go through the experiences and failures together."
In the last game of the 2011 Finals, James was almost listlessly loitering beyond the arc, hesitating, shying away, and failing to take advantage of his freakish stature. His last shot of those Finals was symbolic: an ill-fated 25-foot jump shot from the outskirts of the right wing — his favorite 3-point shot location that season. The next morning, newspapers and blogs didn't forget to remind us that James wasn't a clutch player. Although few would admit to it now, countless media personalities took the opportunity to opine that LeBron James simply didn't have "what it takes" to win championships in this league.
But something was about to change.
That loss, and maybe some of those demeaning characterizations, fueled one of the greatest and most important transformations in recent sports history. James was distraught, but somehow channeled that into ferocious dedication to his craft. Spoelstra was perplexed and desperate to correct course; he told me, "Shortly after our loss to Dallas in the Finals, LeBron and I met. He mentioned that he was going to work on his game relentlessly during the offseason, and specifically on his post-up game. This absolutely made sense for us. We had to improve offensively, and one of the best ways would be to be able to play inside-out with a post-up attack."
It's no secret where and when James first worked on his low-post game. Fueled by that loss to the Mavs, he went to Houston in the summer of 2011 to learn from a master: Hakeem Olajuwon.
"I wanted to get better," James said of his decision to work with Olajuwon. "I wanted to improve and I sought out someone who I thought was one of the greatest low-post players to ever play this game. I was grateful and happy that he welcomed me with open arms; I was able to go down to Houston for four and a half days; I worked out twice a day; he taught me a lot about the low post and being able to gain an advantage on your opponent. I used that the rest of the offseason, when I went back to my hometown. Every day in the gym I worked on one thing or I worked on two things and tried to improve each and every day."
Translating new moves developed in offseason workouts into actual in-game NBA improvements is deceptively difficult. James knew that working on practice moves in the gym was only half the battle.
"The biggest thing isn't how much you work on things, it's 'Can you work on something, then implement it into a game situation?'" James says. "Can you bring what you've worked on so much and put it out on the floor with the finished product? I was happy that I was able to do that and make that transformation."
After his summer workouts, James checked in with Spoelstra to let him know about his summer project. "Spo and I had a conversation. I told him how hard I worked on my low-post game. I knew we needed low-post scoring; we were more of a perimeter-oriented team my first year here, the year we lost the Finals, and I knew I had to get better, and in order for us to get better we had to be more efficient in the low post, so I took that approach."
It worked. James emerged from that summer transformed. "When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player," Spoelstra says. "It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon's and Ewing's post-up moves. I don't know if I've seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one offseason. His improvement in that area alone transformed our offense to a championship level in 2012."
James's shot selection in the 2011-12 campaign was completely different, and completely dominant. For the first time in his career, his game was heavily asymmetric. James spent a lot more time on the left side of the court than the right, especially down on the left block, a spot that he now refers to as his "sweet spot." He took fewer 3s and spent most of his time closer to the basket. Good things happen for Miami when James is in the post and near the basket. Not only is he his team's leading scorer, he's its best passer and its best rebounder. LeBron's migration to the left block not only helped his scoring efficiency, it opened up space elsewhere for spot-up shooters like Shane Battier. When you study his most common shot locations before and after the Hakeem trip, it's almost like you're looking at two different players.
It's not hard to find people around the Heat who will tell you that the summer following that Finals loss to Dallas is what transformed James from a runner-up into a champion. Up through those 2011 Finals, James had yet to fully take advantage of his size and the inherent matchup nightmares he brings to every game. Battier says James is far better at exploiting that fact now.
"He understands that he's got a physical mismatch pretty much every night, and the best place to take advantage of that is on the block," he says. "He's worked at that. Scoring on the block is not a right in this league, you have to have a game down there, and he's worked on that. Now he's got a few moves that are really tough to stop down there."
The 2011 trip to Houston, and subsequent adjustments, obviously worked. The Heat beat the Thunder in the Finals, and LeBron was named the MVP of both the regular season and the Finals. But James wasn't satisfied. He recommitted himself to improving even more in the summer of 2012. This season, LeBron still loves the left block, but he's also introduced a few more tricks.
This season he's back to shooting 3s and fewer midrange shots.
"You know, I changed. I didn't shoot many 3s last year, I kind of played more in the post, and more in the midrange, but I felt like I worked on 3s enough this past offseason that I could make another change — and the least efficient shot in our game is the midrange shot — so I thought maybe I could move it out, improve my 3-point shooting, continue to work on my low-post scoring, and then leave the midrange to be my next journey."
James told me that when he was working on his 3s, he'd punish himself until he met a lofty set of self-enforced shooting milestones.
"It's work," James says. "It's a lot of work. It's being in workouts, and not accomplishing your goal, and paying for it. So, if I get to a spot in a workout and want to make eight out of 10, if I don't make eight of 10, then I run. I push myself to the point of exhaustion until I make that goal. So you build up that mentality that you got to make that shot and then use that in a game situation — it's the ultimate feeling, when you're able to work on something and implement it."
Last year James achieved that ultimate feeling by developing and implementing that left-block game. This season he's doing it with his much-improved long-range shot and his continued dominance attacking the basket and finding open shooters. "Our team is built around perimeter attacking, getting to the rim, and when guys clog up the paint, we're able to kick it out for 3s."
James is also a very good passer. Using optically tracked performance data from the SportVU system, we can start to visualize this vital aspect of his game. LeBron's dominance near the basket forces defenses to collapse in upon him, which opens up shots along the perimeter. The Heat decorate the perimeter with some of the league's most elite spot-up shooters, including Ray Allen and Battier. James is highly aware of the whereabouts of these teammates, and he's always cognizant of who might be open where and when. As a result, he commonly fires long passes to spot-up shooters in the corners as soon as he notices a collapsing defender.
The reintegration of his own 3-point shot is justified in part by James's newfound comfort. He's shooting 39 percent from 3-point range this season, far and away the highest such mark in his career. In Cleveland, James was frequently forced to create his own shot and rarely had good catch-and-shoot chances. That's different now. In fact, when we look at the SportVU data to see where he spends his time on offense, there are four distinct pockets of space.
Three of these areas are, unsurprisingly, on that dominant left side — on the wing beyond the arc, on the elbow, and on the block — but there's one anomalous spot on the right. James spends a surprising amount of time in the right corner, a spot usually reserved for spot-up shooters like Battier or Rashard Lewis. LeBron says, "Our offense puts me in the right corner sometimes; in one of our sets I'm kind of in the right corner, or I'm running in transition and D-Wade is handling the ball so I'm kind of giving him space." Although the sample remains small, James is hitting an obnoxious 53 percent of his shots from that right corner. The league's most overqualified spot-up shooter is hitting those shots at an elite rate and providing yet another way for his team to succeed.
Simply put, LeBron James remains both the NBA's most valuable and its most versatile player. He is acutely aware of his own game and his team's strategy. He continues to find new ways to integrate his own evolving talents with those of his teammates, and he makes everyone better in the process. While it's simple to label James a physical freak with outrageous basketball talents, that sells his progress, work ethic, and intelligence short. LeBron James is a basketball nerd who just happens to possess once-in-a-generation talent.
Special thanks to Ryan Warkins at STATS for his assistance on this story.