One story dominates every postseason. It is the one thing every national pundit has focused on since LeBron James first stepped into the Playoffs. When will he have his Michael Jordan moment, when will he take over a Playoffs and win a ring, ascending to the throne that was given to him when he was a high school senior.
The narrative the last five years has been James’ inability to get to the promised land — despite two trips to the Finals in his career, three MVP awards and four trips to the conference finals — and more recently his inability to play well in big moments.
Never mind the battles against Gilbert Arenas early on in his career where James constantly and consistently finished games off with big shots. Never mind the final 25 points he scored against the Pistons in dethroning their Eastern Conference dynasty in 2007. Never mind the game-winning shot in Game Two against the Magic and the way he willed his team to a Game Six with one of the most breathtaking finishes to a game in Game Five. Never mind what he did to close out the Bulls in Game Five of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals as the Heat erased a late deficit.
Never mind the facts that James has performed in the clutch in the Playoffs. The story, that seems to play out in just about every game to the delight of the talking heads and national media, is that James cannot and does not perform late in games.
Everyone has a theory about why James has this perception and why he seems unable to finish when it comes down to a jumper — like it did at the end of regulation of Sunday’s Game Four in Boston. Some people’s theories deserve more weight than others. So when Nuggets coach George Karl spoke to Jim Rome about James’ struggles, you listen a little more intently:
“And he is not a natural jump-shooter. He’s kind of a self-made jump shooter. He makes the ball go in, the ball goes in, but it’s not pretty, his balance isn’t perfect. It’s not going to look like Kevin Durant or Ray Allen. It goes in but at the end of the game that extra extra special player… Sometimes I don’t know if he trusts his jumpshot. He needs to get to the rim. If you take away the rim, he’s probably going to pass the ball more often than not.”
It is an interesting thought. Rarely do you see star players get all the way to the basket for game-winning shots. Typically they pull up at the elbow hoping the threat of the drive will create enough space for a good look that goes in as time expires. You don’t want to leave any time left for the other team’s best player to get a shot off.
And so, inevitably that leads to a jump shot. And that has never been James’ forte.
Since James entered the league, his jump shot was his biggest question mark. Everyone saw that he would grow into his body and become an absolute bull. The question was whether he would develop a jumper to complement it. James has greatly improved his jumpshooting, his field goal percentage has increased every year of his career but one, going from 41.7 percent his rookie year to an astounding 53.1 percent this year.
On jumpers outside 10 feet, James shot 39.9 percent this year, up from 39.6 percent last year, up from 36.5 percent from his MVP season in 2009 and up from 32.3 percent his rookie year. James is not a super efficient shooter from these ranges — most of his attempts still come at the rim where he is still the biggest threat — but he is much improved.
Karl’s premise is likely a correct one. James is not a natural jump shooter. It is the one part of his game he has had to constantly improve time and time again. He has greatly improved since entering the NBA and it has made him more than just an elite player.
But these clutch situations make or break legacies. And they often come down to those jump shots described above — the pull up 3-pointer or the elbow jumper.
It is not like LeBron James is bad late in games. According to 82games.com, James was 17th in the league in points per 48 clutch minutes, with clutch defined as fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than five points. James posted 33.2 points per 48 minutes in clutch situations. He shot 38.6 percent from the floor but added 9.6 assists per 48 minutes in the clutch, proving that he was more effective as a playmaker. Most importantly, the Heat were +7 per 48 minutes in clutch situations with James on the floor.
If playing in close games are really 50/50 propositions (most statisticians would say they are), James and the Heat had a positive impact on the floor.
Of course, James is behind Anthony Morrow and Rodney Stuckey in points per 48 minutes in clutch situations. Most people view points and shots as the end all-be all of the clutch and believe James should be at the top. For comparison’s sake, Kobe Bryant scores 36.3 points per 48 minutes in clutch situations and shoots 32.7 percent and Dwyane Wade scores 27.9 points per 48 minutes in clutch situations while shooting 37.8 percent.
You expect shooting percentages to decline in clutch situations with offense degenerating into one on one showcases. James’ field goal percentage is about in line with his season average for jumpers. So maybe James is not so bad.
Perception is everything though when it comes to James. Fans want to see him take and make the final JUMP shot. That is not James’ game. Perhaps he needs to change his paradigm and try to bully his way to the rim more in these situations where he is much more efficient and comfortable. Otherwise, more often than not, you will see James fall to his average on jump shots. And that means a lot of misses when the game is potentially on the line.