How LeBron James Became Stephen Curry (#GotBitcoin?)
He’s shooting more 3-pointers, longer 3-pointers and trickier 3-pointers. The best player in the NBA has adapted to basketball’s evolution. How LeBron James Became Stephen Curry
In the summer of 2015, not long after the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, LeBron James was in the gym. He was searching for ways to improve his sublime game. And he was paying special attention to one skill in particular.
“He was making a conscious effort to become more of a shooter,” said David Griffin, the former Cavaliers general manager. “He was very cognizant of the fact that extending his shooting range and becoming a threat from three would extend his career.”
There used to be a way to make James slightly worse at basketball: make him shoot. He wasn’t a bad shooter. He just wasn’t a great shooter. It was smart defense to dare him into a shot if only because that seemed like a better idea than letting him try anything else with the ball in his hands.
But the NBA was changing. The league was in the early stages of a strategic insurrection, and the most important attribute for a basketball player after the revolt was no longer his size or strength. It was his ability to shoot. This was a profound shift in the history of the sport. The player who personified it was the same player who would emerge as James’s unlikely foil.
The improbable rivalry between Stephen Curry and LeBron James has ushered in a golden age for the NBA. They have been the yin and yang of basketball for almost five years now, and there have been classic shots, iconic blocks and conspiracy theories debunked by astronauts during their run. But the latest plot twist in the ongoing saga of the league’s two reigning superstars may be the most surprising development yet.
LeBron has become more like Steph.
James isn’t the same player that he was five years ago. He’s not even the same player that he was last year. He’s made the 3-pointer a bigger part of his game than ever before.
It was hard to see as it was happening. But once you look it’s harder to miss. James’s remarkable transformation was years in the making and the reflection of a basketball landscape that existed long before he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. The best player of his generation was stuck in an era that was defined by a hole in his game. The sport was evolving away from him. And so he adapted.
This is the season that James finally came around to the most potent weapon in modern basketball: the pull-up 3-pointer.
Curry was the pioneer of the pull-up 3-pointer. By choosing to shoot off the dribble, he changed a sport forever. The powerful effects of his phenomenally difficult shots turned an undersized, overlooked guard into a transcendent NBA talent. There is still no one else like him.
But now there’s another player in Stephen Curry’s statistical realm: LeBron James.
Curry and James are both taking four pull-up threes per game this season. Curry is making 45% of them. James is making 40% of them.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. James made 30% of his two pull-up threes per game in 2016. His shooting percentage ranked 19th of the 21 players who took as many of these shots as he did. He was closer to Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook than Curry.
There are 12 players this season with similar numbers to his. Curry is still No. 1 in terms of shooting percentage. James is now No. 2.
The pull-up 3-pointer isn’t nearly as effective as the plain old catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. But it’s more disruptive. The players who can build their games around pull-up threes have become irreplaceable. They are the root of a problem that defenses are still trying to solve.
In this season of peak efficiency, Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker have the most impact on their offenses, according to ESPN’s real plus-minus metric. They happen to share a basketball superpower. Those same four players shoot the most pull-up 3-pointers in the league.
Curry was the most valuable player in part because he exploited the most value from his shots off the dribble. But his signature pull-up 3-pointer was also perfect for James.
James has always liked using a gather dribble to get into his rhythm. Now he seems to have fully embraced the pull-up 3-pointer. And this season is the first time that he’s reaping more value from shooting off the dribble than shooting off the catch. It may go down as the most significant cosmetic alteration to his game he since he picked a side in his strained relationship with headbands.
A pull-up jumper from James used to be worth about 0.83 point per shot, according to Synergy Sports. But not anymore. The return on those shots increased to 0.89 two years ago and 0.97 last year. It’s a mind-blowing 1.14 this year.
Why it happened is not exactly a mystery. James started taking more of the shots that are worth more.
Threes were as cool as soup when he entered the league. They still accounted for only 13% of his shots as recently as 2012. But it was around the time of his first title when NBA teams started crunching the numbers, and their calculations showed that three is greater than two.
James was in Cleveland when he rethought his shot distribution to take advantage of the math. He made a habit of practicing at the same basket as Kyle Korver and Channing Frye and used his teammates as sherpas. “He gravitates toward people who do something better than him,” Griffin said. “Three-point shooting was a real issue for him. It was something he cared a lot about.”
James now relies on threes for nearly 30% of his shots. That percentage is by far the highest of his career. It’s also higher than Kevin Durant’s this season.
He’s not only taking more 3-pointers. He’s also taking longer 3-pointers.
The sheer quantity of shots that James is taking from 27 feet and beyond is bordering on the absurd. But all those deep threes serve a purpose. They are the basketball equivalent of a polygraph test: They keep the defense honest.
James shot 8% of his threes from several feet behind the line three years ago, 16% two years ago and 21% last year. He’s up to 35% this year through Tuesday’s games.
It turns out there’s another player launching 35% of his threes from intergalactic distances this season. LeBron James knows him pretty well by now. The guy’s name is Stephen Curry.
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