The Evolution of LeBron
The Evolution of LeBron
The enduring image of last year’s NBA Finals is a seemingly apathetic LeBron James kind of hovering beyond the 3-point arc, almost refusing to cross it on offensive possessions. I’m not sure why, maybe nobody is, but for whatever reason many of us concluded that he was “out of it” or “withdrawn” or “not big enough for the moment.” From a spatial perspective, basketball apathy or fatigue manifest in similar inaction that resembles athletic loitering; the grown-up version of picking dandelions out in right field. In the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron was camping out in places usually reserved for spot-up shooters; his spatial signature in those finals was more Kerr/Hodges/Paxson than it was Jordan/Pippen.
In the 2012 NBA Finals this was definitely not the case. LeBron was an entirely different player this time around. LeBron owned the best real estate on the floor.
The spatial signature of LeBron James has changed; his 2012 contrails appear in more aggresive spots; his heat maps cluster near the rim. Nobody can characterize the new LeBron as deferent, withdrawn, or afraid of the moment. LeBron’s game has improved. It’s not whether he’s clutch now or not; it’s just that he is smarter, more confident, and a better basketball player. The spatial structure of his game is finally aligned with his strengths; in visual form, the changes are striking. LeBron’s old shot charts (2006-2011), are drastically different from his new shot charts (2012); it’s almost as if we are looking at 2 different players:
Where he shoots:
The clusters above reveal the most common shooting locations of LeBron James. You can see the differences right away. Fewer 3′s and less symmetry. 23% of the old LeBron’s field goal attempts were 3-point shots. That number this year is down to 12%. If shots are any kind of proxy for spatial behavior, then LeBron spends a lot more time inside the arc nowadays. To be blunt, that’s where he belongs. Spot-up shooters are hugely important in the NBA, but they’re not that hard to find; forces of nature like LeBron who can create great shots close to the hoop are less common. The realization that LeBron was wasting time and energy behind the arc is one of the reasons the Heat are NBA champions today. Great things happen for Miami when LeBron has the ball inside the 3-point line. For example, LeBron is Miami’s best rebounder, plain and simple. He averaged 10 per game this postseason; not many rebounds occur beyond the arc. When LeBron shoots a 3-point shot, he is less able to help his team rebound if he misses, which he does 63% of the time.
LeBron has made himself and his team better by changing two things: where he shoots and how efficient he shoots. As a whole the NBA is a 22/38/40 league, meaning 22% of NBA shots are 3′s, 38% are midrange attempts, and 40% are close range attempts. This past season, LeBron was a 12/47/41 shooter, meaning relative to league average he shot a lot more midrange shots, and a lot fewer 3-point shots; however, between 2006 and 2011, LeBron was a 23/37/40 shooter, which is almost identical to the NBA average. Everyone knows that the new LeBron takes fewer 3’s; not everyone knows he takes a lot more midrange shots. (click for the full version of the image below)
Most of LeBron’s midrange shots occur on his left side. He has always preferred getting his first touches on the left, but with his “new” and improved post game, this effect is even more pronounced. LeBron loves the left block for a good reason: he is incredibly efficient in that area. LeBron was in the top 5 in the NBA in FG% from the two areas highlighted below. This makes him a deadly post player.
His ability to score from the post is an obvious asset for the Heat, but there are less apparent advantages of his newfound post presence: it keeps him – the team’s best rebounder, and the team’s best passer – in more “relevant” areas. In general, good things happen for Miami when LeBron is closer to the basket. Outside of 8 feet, LeBron is an unexceptional NBA scorer; he’s a 37% 3-point shooter, and a 42% midrange shooter, which are both slightly above league average.
There’s nothing incredible about the shot chart below, with the exception of his prowess near the basket:
All of this leads us to this: What we talk about when we talk about the new LeBron:
1. He shoots fewer 3′s. In the teal and green circles above, the old LeBron loved to shoot. The new LeBron still shoots there, but much less frequently. When he does shoot there, he is more efficient now.
2. He is a beast near the basket. In the black and magenta zones, the new LeBron is dominant and getting better. He is among the best in the NBA in these areas, which is why Miami loves to post him up on that side.
3. He is simply a better shooter now. His shooting numbers are up everywhere, but particularly in those black and magenta areas.
Both LeBron and the Miami coaching staff deserve credit for the improvements we are seeing. LeBron has become a better player; by becoming a better midrange shooter and a better post player, LeBron has gone from a great scorer to a virtually unstoppable one. The coaching staff has wisely adapted to these evolving strengths and tailored offensive sets that emphasize them. It’s clear that LeBron’s game is an evolving entity. He has the work ethic, and the talent to continue this trajectory. He is already the best player on the planet, and may be for some time.
Congrats to the Miami Heat and LeBron James.