There’s only one scenario in which LeBron James hustling can go wrong: It’s when he’s dashing to the free throw line. Take the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals between Cleveland and Boston this past weekend. In the third quarter, Boston’s Al Horford committed a three-second violation. It took half that time for LeBron to realize a technical foul had been called, and there he was: power-walking to the free throw line before Mike Breen could get the call out.
James’s teammate Kyle Korver had also moved toward the stripe, which makes sense since Korver, at 88.9 percent from the line this season, is the team’s best free throw shooter. But there was LeBron stepping in front of him with his back turned. The team awarded the shot gets to decide who takes said shot, and because logic is logic, the most accurate free throw shooter on the floor typically gets the ball. But there was no conversation between LeBron and Korver. There was no pleading by the Cavs sharpshooter, no objection from the coaching staff, despite it being a playoff game, and despite Cleveland being down 23 points. There was only LeBron, waiting for the ball. Right fist up, blow. Left fist up, blow.
“It’s just one of those unspoken things that LeBron steps to the line,” says ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, who has been covering James his entire career. “Now I’m not saying that over the course of time, there weren’t moments when it was brought up within the coaching staff. The Cavs, like many teams, employ an entire analytics staff.”
Cleveland doesn’t need an advanced analytics department to know that James is a career 73.9 percent shooter; a third-grader who just learned basic division is way cheaper labor. (And probably cuter.) (Not that I am advocating for child labor.) LeBron leads his team in points, assists, steals, blocks, field goals, and, yes, free throw attempts, but when someone gets T’d up, he’s no longer “doing it all” in a good way—he’s doing too much. Technical free throws, though infrequent, are the one statistic the Cavs are better off without LeBron’s involvement. It’s well-known that players like to see the ball in the hoop to get going, but how effective can that be if a quarter of the shots aren’t going through?
“[Tyronn Lue] has to play the game of: How important is it to get LeBron in a rhythm?” former Cleveland GM David Griffin told me, “and how important is the moment to you to have your best free throw shooter shoot it?”
There are 15 seasons of evidence that point to it not being Lue’s choice at all. Throughout his career, LeBron has regularly volunteered to take technical free throws. (“Volunteer” being a loose term.) His rookie year under Paul Silas, an 18-year-old LeBron took nearly a third of Cleveland’s drawn techs. He ranked 10th on the team in free throw percentage. (To this day, he’s never finished any higher than sixth.) After four seasons in the league, James had taken 41.9 percent of the Cavalier’s technical free throws and shot them at a 65.8 percent rate.
“It’s just like dad at the dinner table with LeBron,” Windhorst says. “He gets the biggest piece of meat. … There were times where LeBron would push the guy off the line. A guy would actually be on the foul line, and he would come behind him and gently shove him off. And the guy’s always going to yield. LeBron’s always going to eat first.”
But James has to be painfully aware of his inability to chew, having left more than 2,400 points at the line over his career. Windhorst, who says LeBron is “very, very cognizant of statistics,” suggested that the potential for more points might be behind him taking on the team’s free shots, à la Russell Westbrook hunting boards for triple-doubles. Aiming for higher point totals, if that is why James does it, is counterproductive stat-chasing. It lowers his percentages. It also opens the door for more of the same criticism, creating opportunities for guys like Skip Bayless to call him “LeBricks” again. At 33 years old, LeBron is somehow still getting better at his craft. But it’s strange that he is actively volunteering or claiming the right to do the one thing he’s always struggled with: He’s fought the free throw fight for years, and he’s still losing.
In 2015, LeBron made free throws his new obsession. Through the years, he’s mentioned a goal of breaking 80 percent, though on occasion an ambitious “high-80s” will come out. “Free-throw shooting is all mental,” James said then. “Obviously there is some technique, of course. But it’s mental.”
Some technique turned out to be ominous forecasting. The season after that comment, 2016-17, was LBJ’s worst-ever at the stripe. His routine varied 18 different ways. Some of those techniques included: tweaking the feet, from side-by-side, to staggered, to rocking, to shuffling, to stationary. He bent his knees, then he didn’t, then he bent ever deeper than before. He mimicked Ray Allen. He asked Kyle Korver for advice. He blew into his hands. He swiped his shorts. He rubbed the ball. Sometimes, he just stared into space like a really tall Jim from The Office. By the new year, after 14 seasons of hogging technical free throws, he stopped taking them altogether.
After the 2016-17 campaign wrapped up, Tom Haberstroh wrote in an ESPN piece revealing that a “former teammate watching LeBron closely” thought he had the yips. When asked whether it was mental—17 months after he called free throws “all mental”—LeBron responded, “Nah.” But Haberstroh found that James was “running away from the do-or-die free throw,” or situations in which he’d be forced to take the 15-footer in crunch time. This season, that shying away continued despite his claim in October that mastering them was “the last goal of my NBA career.” James certainly wasn’t shoving any teammates out of his way for free throws, let alone drawing them himself. He tied the second-fewest average attempts of his career (6.5).
But there’s LeBron, and then there’s Playoff LeBron. This postseason, without explanation, he’s been back on the line like he never left (or like he never missed 143 of his 531 attempts during the regular season). So far, he’s taken three of Cleveland’s five postseason technical free throws. To his credit, he made all three. (And in his defense, two of those were called against Lance Stephenson. Some retribution is too good to pass up.) James even broke a career high in Game 5 against the Pacers, going 15-for-15 from the line, though it was soon determined that some of his shots during that series were illegal. It turns out stepping over the line isn’t a variation one can make.
Cleveland needed all 15 of those makes to escape with a 3-point win. None of LBJ’s attempts came from a Pacers’ technical that time, but it’s not improbable that one presents itself this postseason in the final minutes of a close game—especially if the Cavs wind up facing Draymond Green. LeBron would either have to trust someone else with the ball in his hands at the end of a game or the best memory in basketball would have to forget he’s a shitty free throw shooter. Neither seems likely. After all this time, everyone has accepted that the charity stripe is the site of LeBron’s one inexplicable weakness by everyone. Everyone but LeBron, that is. Maybe, like us, he has a hard time believing he’s mortal.
All stats courtesy of NBA Advanced Analytics.