On the court, LeBron James is acutely self-aware of his game in a way few, if any players, in league history have been. It’s allowed the Lakers star to consistently adapt, not just as the league has evolved, but as Father Time has begun to chase him down.
It also allows him to be self-critical of his own game, as he was during his exit interview following this season. While LeBron had one of the best scoring seasons of his career, he still saw ways he could improve to become more efficient on that end as well.
When asked what he wants to improve upon this upcoming offseason, LeBron pinpointed a very specific part of his offensive game that has tailed off in recent years.
“I want to get to the free-throw line,” James said. “So I want to figure out how to trick the refs. I want to figure it out. I need to figure it out... I’m in the top of the leaderboard in field goals in the restricted area and things of that nature, and I’m in like the bottom tier of free throws per game. I got to figure it out.
“Listen man, I’m going to figure it out. I used to be up there, man. I used to be up there, pre-Miami. Pre-Miami I was in the leaderboard in free-throw attempts.”
This past season, James averaged just six free throw attempts per game despite adapting his game to playing in the post more. In playing small ball center this season, LeBron ranked fourth in the league in points in the paint per game (minimum 50 games played) at 14.3 per contest, ranking only behind Ja Morant, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Despite that, James’ free throw rate dipped to a career-low 27.5%. It’s only the second time in his career his free throw rate has been under 30%, the other season coming in 2019-20. It’s been a figure that has trended downward since James’ departure from Cleveland.
As James notes, when he was in Cleveland before his Miami trip, his free throw rate was 50.6%, and he ranked third in the league in free-throw attempts. Predictably, his overall attempts and rate have gone down since his physical prime, but it’s strange, given how his game changed this season — those 14.3 points per game in the paint were a career-high — that James’ free throw numbers did not rise up accordingly.
Part of the change is simply a difference in how he is officiated versus other players. Similar to when Shaquille O’Neal was in the league, LeBron’s size and strength serves as his biggest disadvantage in earning trips to the line, as contact that is called on normal players isn’t called on him. In that sense, making it a point now could be part of controlling the narrative heading into next season.
But making a point to try to get to the line more would have a positive impact on James. It’s easier points to score next season that wouldn’t require him to shoot a career-high in 3-pointers like he did this season to get buckets. And the ripple effects of drawing fouls on teams is impactful as well, from getting opponents in the bonus earlier to limiting his defenders’ ability to stay on the court due to foul trouble.
In short, James recognizing he needs to get to the line more is a positive, and another example of his hyper self-awareness being on point yet again. And starting the narrative that he doesn’t get enough free throws isn’t a bad place to start.