With the Lakers and Jazz tied at 96 in the closing minute of the fourth quarter, Rudy Gobert found himself stranded on an island. A desolate, unforgiving space inhabited only by him, the burning glare of the audience in the arena and at home, as well as the man who has ruled this lethal, craggy rock for the last 19 years — LeBron James.
For Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner and human fly-swatter, he was, in this particular moment, out of the shallow end; drowning in water so deep and unfamiliar, not even his 7’9” wingspan could help him swim out of it.
On the perimeter switch, James maintained his hang dribble in his right hand, scouring for an opening, just one misstep needed from the center whose entire career has consisted of stopping the ball from going through the net.
The threat of James’ drive forced Gobert to shade his left hip, taking away the blow-by option. Then, Mike Conley suddenly floated in from the right, doubling as a life-preserver for Gobert. With only five seconds now left on the shot clock, and the sense of a season-long anxiety inside The Crypt reaching a boiling point, James was left with no other option but to let it fly.
The result: a swish, a direct hit, and a seven-foot battleship sunk in the depths with all of the other previous visitors to James’ habitat.
Although this sequence could be portrayed as further proof of where a player like Gobert may struggle when it counts the most, James taking that shot given the alternatives has historically almost always been perceived as a win for the defense.
But while never considered his strong suit, the frequency of his 3-ball has been the part of James’ arsenal that has steadily climbed the most with age. In fact, since the 2015-16 season, the percentage of James’ shots that have come from behind the arc has increased every single year.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 34% of James’ shot profile has consisted of 3-point attempts this season. Not only is that mark exactly double the rate it was during the 2012-13 campaign (17%), but is also a career high. The question of “why” the uptick mostly revolves around the new roster, inclusion of Russell Westbrook, and also, James himself.
Like most players, Westbrook’s strengths — and limitations — impact each of his teammates’ games in specific ways. For James, Westbrook’s arrival has had a direct correlation to James posting his lowest usage rate since 2016, as well as his lowest assist percentage since 2006.
Westbrook’s ability to soak up possessions like a sponge, even if the results have been mixed at best, has allowed James to move off-the-ball, and let him delegate to others more than has usually been the case in his career. This has been a yearly objective since James has arrived to Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, this has also put James in murky situations where due to Westbrook’s perimeter deficiencies — as well as clunky lineup configurations with other non-shooters — James himself has had to step into the spacer role (38.2% of his shots are threes with Westbrook on the court, vs. 35.2% with Westbrook off, according to PBP stats) instead of the set-up man. For James, it’s a role that has produced mostly just mediocre results.
Although James is actually posting his highest conversion rate around the rim in years (77%), he has also been less bashful than ever about letting it fly from deep. Whether it’s a matter of filling in the gaps for his teammates, an attempt to preserve his body from the hits that come with taking it to the rack, simply a current preference, or all of the above, James’ affinity for the long ball feels more like the new normal rather than a blip.
If the season up until this point is any indication of what we can expect from James down the stretch, then how well he’s actually able to convert his perimeter looks could prove to be critical for the Lakers’ chances in making a late run.
On the year, James has done relatively well in this regard, especially by his previous standards. His 32% conversion rate on above the break chances in particular, would be a career best mark. His shooting consistency overall however, and when it comes to crunch time (31% shooting from three in fourth quarters this year), will likely need to better than average to free up space for his teammates and himself.
This is especially the case when it comes to the team’s screening game. As has mostly been the trend throughout James’ career, defenses have opted to go “under” on ball-screens in an attempt to encourage his jumper rather than allowing James to get downhill. The bait of open space will likely continue to be offered up if James keeps snagging it and failing to make defenses pay for giving it to him.
However, if James can for not staying attached to his hip on a regular basis, this could for opponents to adjust, allow him to turn the corner, and, in the process, draw help defense, which will create number advantages for the Lakers.
There has already been some correlation to good James’ shooting performances and Lakers’ wins. On the season, James is shooting 36.1% on his 3-point chances in the team’s victories. And in the losses, James has finished his looks at a below average rate of 34.5%. While that discrepancy only equates to about one extra made three, that single bucket could turn out to be the difference for a team who has lost games on the margins all year.
With the recent news that Anthony Davis will be out at least four weeks due to a “mid-foot sprain” suffered in the team’s win over the Jazz, James will need to be on point even more so in order to give the team a chance to make some noise.
Davis’ absence will likely mean even more defensive focus from the opposition for James, more minutes logged at center, and an even greater responsibility to be better than great — from inside and outside.
The inclusion of the 3-pointer to James’ toolkit could be a dangerous weapon if harnessed and sharpened to a point of reliability. The difficult step-backs and head-scratching bombs from near half-court will likely be better served if seen only in moderation.
However, further embracing the in-rhythm looks — and capitalizing on the space created by his teammates or defenders darting under screens — could represent the exciting next chapter of James’ career, with these final games of the season serving as it’s prelude.
The man in solitude, forever waiting on his island for that next trespasser. Only now, he may have multiple ways to sink them.