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Deep Trouble: Why LeBron Is Shooting More 3s Than Ever Before

Nearly half of LeBron’s shots this season are coming from long range. Is Father Time catching up? Or is the Russell Westbrook effect forcing James away from the basket?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Lakers’ starting lineup didn’t last even two weeks. Against the Rockets on Sunday, Frank Vogel replaced center DeAndre Jordan with guard Avery Bradley—a move that made the Lakers smaller and pushed Anthony Davis to the 5, where he spent so much time in the team’s championship run two postseasons ago.

Vogel said he made the switch against Houston for defensive reasons. The Lakers boasted the third- and first-ranked defenses in his first two seasons as coach, but ranked just 27th this season entering Sunday.

But with Russell Westbrook, Davis, and a non-shooting center all crammed into one lineup, the Lakers’ offense was suffering just as much. According to Cleaning the Glass, the erstwhile starting five has scored just 99.0 points per 100 possessions this season, ranking in the 18th percentile.

Nowhere are those difficulties more apparent than in the shifting shooting distribution from LeBron James. In his age-37 season, LeBron is taking a career-low 28 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Basketball-Reference. He is also taking a career-high 45 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point line—the highest 3-point attempt rate in any five-game stretch in his long career.

That migration away from the basket is part of a longer trend for LeBron: For the sixth straight season, he is taking more 3s and fewer shots at the rim. But the changes are starker this season than ever before.

As he drifts farther away from the basket, LeBron is also getting to the free throw line at by far the lowest rate in his career. Like his other shifts in shot distribution, this trend has been going on for several seasons but is accelerating in 2021-22.

Five games is a small sample, but for a player with as much history as LeBron, any new development is worth attention—especially when that new development coincides with a notable contextual change.

To wit: When he shares the court with Russell Westbrook, LeBron is taking 47 percent of his shots from distance. But when he plays without his new All-Star teammate, that figure is just 35 percent—the same proportion as last season. James’s free throw rate is also three times as high with Westbrook off the court.

A survey of how defenses are guarding the Lakers illustrates LeBron’s challenge to reach the basket with Westbrook on the floor. Here, for instance, is a screenshot of LeBron facing up Lauri Markkanen a minute into a win against Cleveland last week. LeBron should be able to bully Markkanen—and did, several times, later in the game—but settles for a stepback 3 on this play. That’s a suboptimal shot, but where exactly is LeBron supposed to go when all four Cleveland help defenders, including rim protectors Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, are touching the paint?

It’s easy to pull out a similar image from every time the Lakers have used a Westbrook-LeBron-center lineup. Here’s one against Memphis, as a promising pick-and-roll in the post sputters when LeBron is immediately surrounded by three Grizzlies defenders, including Ja Morant playing well off Westbrook. This play ends in a 3-point try for Westbrook, the least accurate high-volume 3-point shooter in NBA history.

Or here’s a clip from the team’s loss to the Warriors on opening night. Westbrook and Davis are theoretically providing spacing in the corners, but the defense isn’t worried about their shots and crashes to the paint instead. LeBron has a step on his man, but then finds his driving lane clogged by Jordan’s defender plus a heap of helping hands. The result is a Kent Bazemore miss and—without any floor balance for the Lakers—a transition opportunity headed the other way.

The cumulative effects of this cramped offense are twofold. First, LeBron is taking many more 3s because those are the looks most readily available to him. But for all his strengths, he has never turned the 3-pointer into a highly efficient shot.

In his career, LeBron’s a 34.5 percent 3-point shooter; in four seasons with the Lakers, he’s at 34.9 percent. Since he became a Laker in 2018-19, he ranks 84th in 3-point accuracy out of 109 players with at least 750 attempts. (Westbrook ranks last over that same span; Davis, if he had enough attempts to qualify, would rank second to last. There’s a reason opposing teams are packing the paint against this lineup.)

The second effect is that when LeBron decides to drive, he’s no longer scoring at will. He’s still one of the most explosive athletes in the league when engaged—but it’s harder to leverage that advantage against a thicket of awaiting defenders.

Over the past four seasons, LeBron ranked second in the league with 1.15 points per drive, per Second Spectrum. (Only Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 1.16, was better.) But so far this season, he’s scoring just 0.88 points per direct drive and struggling to convert at the rim.

That dip could well reverse over a larger sample, but it stands out nonetheless because LeBron and James Harden are the only elite drivers to decline so far this season. Everyone else is scoring as proficiently as usual.

While permanently removing Jordan from the starting lineup would help declutter LeBron’s favorite driving lanes to an extent, that step is not necessarily a panacea to these problems. Consider this play from the Lakers’ loss to Phoenix last month, when the Suns still packed the paint even with Bradley inserted for Jordan. Playing help defense against a LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll, Mikal Bridges cheats so far off Westbrook that he ends up on the opposite side of the paint—but it works, and LeBron loses the ball in the scrum.

There’s a common pattern to all these images and videos: Defenses just don’t care about the threat of Westbrook’s 3-pointer, and go so far as to actively encourage it. He’s been wide open on 24 of his 28 long-range attempts this season (86 percent), according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s one of the highest rates in the league—and Westbrook is still hitting just 25 percent of his 3s.

Highest Proportion of Wide-Open 3-Pointers This Season

Player Total 3-Point Attempts Wide Open Wide Open %
Player Total 3-Point Attempts Wide Open Wide Open %
Dorian Finney-Smith 32 28 88%
Russell Westbrook 28 24 86%
Nikola Vucevic 25 21 84%
Franz Wagner 32 26 81%
Darius Garland 30 23 77%
LaMelo Ball 51 38 75%
Minimum 25 3-point attempts

All the preseason concerns about Westbrook’s fit in a LeBron-led offense remain: He can’t impart any sort of gravity on the perimeter, nor is he a prolific cutter, nor does he screen to generate a two-man game with a ball-handling LeBron. Westbrook has set nine total on-ball picks this season: seven in one game against Memphis and two in the others combined. Bazemore and Carmelo Anthony have screened more often for LeBron.

Many of these trends may change as Vogel tinkers with his lineups and LeBron recovers from the ankle injury that sidelined him for two games. (To the latter point, however, it’s worth noting the problems described here were even worse before his injury.) The Lakers have ample time to work out the kinks with their new roster, and a host of injured wings to incorporate into the rotation. Among that group, Talen Horton-Tucker is only a career 28 percent 3-point shooter, but Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn are average from deep and Wayne Ellington is above average.

Yet it’s not just that Westbrook himself is struggling to fit in, with career-worst numbers almost across the board. It’s that Westbrook’s uncertain fit is also complicating matters for the other Lakers—most notably LeBron, who is below the league average in true shooting percentage for the first time since he was a rookie.

LeBron is in his 18th season, with more than 1,500 combined regular and postseason games on his ledger, but he has no precedent for this style of play. His shot distribution and effectiveness near the basket are key markers to watch, to signify whether the Lakers can contend for another title with a revamped roster around the stars.