Much of the news surrounding LeBron James these days stems from his budding feud with the Los Angeles Lakers. But at the end of the day, the superstar is still going to suit up for the Purple and Gold and try to turn this difficult season around.
Among all the issues facing LA this season, James’ overall numbers aren’t one of them. The King is proving that even at 37 years old, he is one of the NBA’s premier players. Yet his age has also forced him to alter his playing style over the years, none more so than in his 19th season.
The Lakers are exiting the All-Star break at 27-31, a far cry from where many expected them to be. While LeBron isn’t fully responsible for their losing record, he also holds the key to turning things around. However, it would require the future Hall of Famer to revert back to some of his older methods that previously made him dominant.
LeBron James has become reliant on the three-ball
As the Lakers trudge their way through a disappointing campaign, James can’t say the same thing. Entering Friday, the 18-time All-Star is averaging 29.1 points, the fourth-most in the NBA, on 52.2% shooting. His points-per-game are the highest they’ve been since 2009-10, and a big reason why is a reliance on three-point shooting.
Through his first 15 seasons, LeBron took approximately 3.9 three-pointers per game. But since coming to LA in 2018, the four-time MVP is tossing up 6.5 threes a game. This season, the King is attempting a career-high 7.9 triples for the nine-seed Lakers.
Despite not being considered a three-point shooter until recently, James is now in the top-20 for three-point attempts. And while he still has a way to go to take as many threes as someone like Stephen Curry, he is averaging more attempts than true shooters Trae Young, Klay Thompson, and Jaylen Brown.
But this begs the real question: Is James knocking down enough threes to warrant all the attempts?
Through 41 games, LeBron is hitting 35.3% of his threes. That’s a little ahead of his 34.5% career average but worse than seven of his previous seasons. But it is higher than 10 players in the top-20 attempts list.
The Lakers would benefit from LeBron taking less threes and attacking the rim more
LeBron James is a supremely-skilled basketball player, that we know for sure. Among his gifts is his body, which at 6-foot-9, 250 lbs. makes him one of the most unstoppable forces in NBA history.
That’s of course assuming he uses it to his advantage.
During his early years, James was a freight train crashing toward the basket. Nowadays, he has rebranded himself as a delicate three-point shooter who isn’t exactly elite at shooting threes. And it’s costing the Lakers in the win column too, as the Purple and Gold have dropped four of the five games where the King attempted more than 10 three-balls.
Instead, LeBron and the Lakers would be better served by James attacking the rim and initiating contact. Despite being fourth in the NBA in scoring, the 37-year-old is only getting 5.6 free-throw attempts per game. To put that into perspective, everyone in the top-10 is averaging 6.0 attempts or more except James and Nikola Jokic. Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s two highest per-game scorers, are each averaging over 11 free-throw attempts a night.
While LeBron is an OK 74.8% from the stripe this season, it’s still his best percentage since 2013-14. The more he uses his size and strength for scoring in the paint and getting fouled and the less he wastes it on fadeaway threes, the better off LA will be moving forward.
LeBron should focus on dominating the post while Anthony Davis is on the mend
LA has an uphill battle for the final few weeks of the season. The Purple and Gold will be forced to navigate without Anthony Davis as he recovers from a mid-foot sprain suffered just before the All-Star break.
With the Lakers’ best big man out for a few weeks, don’t be surprised if head coach Frank Vogel deploys LeBron at the 5, similar to what they experimented with during AD’s sprained MCL earlier this season. But if that happens, James should focus his strength down low rather than beyond the arc.
In the games Davis missed from Dec. 19 through Jan. 23, James averaged a whopping 32.5 points per game. But he also took 8.0 threes and made less than 3.0 of them, more than guys like Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum. This time around, perhaps LA would be better served by LBJ taking advantage of mismatches down low than settling for inefficient shots from 30 feet out.
For LeBron’s entire career, his numbers were always good enough to carry rosters to championship levels, no matter how flawed they may have been. With this year serving as the exception, perhaps it would be worth it to sub out a few threes and make defenders sweat down low, just like the good old days.
What do the Lakers have to lose?
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.