Set to enter his 21st season and inching ever closer to age 40, it’s difficult to ask for more from LeBron James. But if he and the Lakers hope to make another deep playoff run, more is exactly what it will it take. Specifically, as it relates to his 3-point stroke.
On the surface, James put up his usual gaudy numbers this past season despite the extracurriculars with the roster, a new head coach and a slew of injuries that riddled the team. One of those major injures was his own.
In what would later be revealed to be a torn tendon in his right foot, James still expedited his way back onto the court and averaged 24.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists in the postseason.
Despite Father Time breathing down his neck, James looked mostly like he always has.
However, when looking closer at James’ on-court play over the course of the year, his perimeter shooting was a subject that often got swept under the rug even though the misses piled up.
When removing garbage time and heaves, James made just 33% of his 3-point attempts this past season — his lowest conversion rate since the 2015-16 campaign. James’ inaccuracy also proved to be more costly given he led the Lakers in total 3-point attempts this past season despite playing in just 55 games.
To make matters worse, those shooting woes only worsened in the postseason. According to Cleaning the Glass, James made just a quarter of his above-the-break chances and 26.4% of his 3-point attempts overall (31/112) in the playoffs.
Regardless if it was result of the lingering effects of his foot injury, a poorly timed cold stretch or simply fatigue, defenses quickly picked up on James’ slump and steered him further and further away from the paint in each series.
This was exemplified by only 39% of James’ shot attempts coming at the rim in the playoffs. For context, this was his lowest postseason mark since 2014, and only the third time (regular season and playoffs) he’s posted a rim frequency percentage below 40% since 2010.
The defense accomplished this feat though two methods. When James was off the ball, the opposition sagged off of him to show defensive help at the nail position of the floor. Naturally, this defensive slotting not only clogs driving lanes with an extra body in the center of the court, but also, lays down a red carpet for the open shooter to let if fly.
This strategy was most prominent in the Lakers’ first-round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies, where James was often put in the shoes of the open shooter. The results of which were not pretty.
According to the league’s tracking data, James made just 20% of his catch-and-shoot threes and hit only one of his ten wide-open attempts against the Grizzlies.
While the Lakers weren't drastically hindered by James’ inability to torch teams when they opted to leave him open, it could prove more costly when projecting forward.
With the emergence of Austin Reaves as a credible lead ball-handler and having other reliable creators on the team, James may look to delegate his offensive responsibility in the final years of his career. He already loosed his grip on the steering wheel in the playoffs, as he posted his lowest usage rate (27.8%) since 2004.
Because of this, James’ catch-and-shoot efficiency could be an important swing skill that will help the Lakers’ spacing — and perhaps, even extend his own career by reducing some of the bone-crushing drives to the rim.
This is already a role in which James has begun to operate in as a whopping 63% of James’ made threes this past season came via an assist from a teammate — the 2nd highest mark of his career only behind his rookie campaign. In the playoffs, that percentage jumped up to 77%
Beyond exploiting his catch-and-shoot struggles, the other route teams attempted to take advantage of James’ jumper came when he was on the ball.
As the ball-handler in pick-and-roll possessions, defenses either swam under the pick or switched onto James with the hope he’d settle for the outside look. It was a gameplan the Denver Nuggets followed religiously in their sweep in the Western Conference Finals.
Although James had a strong overall series and was able to cause damage in the paint against Denver, the shooting factor once again turned its ugly head as his pull-up game sorely was off.
James would go on to miss his first 13 attempts from three in the series, with his first make not coming until late in the 3rd quarter of Game 3. And overall, would shoot just 17.1% on his pull-up/off-the-dribble 3-point attempts in the playoffs. Abysmal numbers the Lakers and James can not see a repeat of.
Even if he was not alone when it came to missing the mark this past season and in the playoffs, James’ floor-spacing is arguably the most important swing-skill on the team.
If he’s able to convert his chances off of the catch at a respectable clip, defenses may not overly help on his teammates’ drives. And if he’s able to burn the opposition when they cheat under screens against him, teams will be forced to chase over and suddenly James has a head-start going downhill.
Amongst the star duo, it likely will also be up to James to offset the spacing limitations that come with sharing a frontcourt with Anthony Davis.
While the center has showed his range in the past, the 3-ball has been non-existent in recent seasons to a point where between he, James and a player like Jarred Vanderbilt, the Lakers would need to again overcome a lineup with three well below average shooters.
Losses in sports are rarely ever viewed through the lens of learning lessons. This is especially true if those losses happen to the Los Angeles Lakers. However, it is often in defeat when reality is most crystalized, and when flaws are most apparent.
James’ jumper may ultimately not be the thing that makes or breaks the Lakers’ chances of getting back to the NBA’s promised land, but if he continues to shoot like he did this past year, it could be the obstruction that stonewalls them right as they reach the finish line.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.