By consensus, LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. But for all of LeBron’s open court dominance and mastery as the ball handler in pick and rolls (two scenarios that capitalize on his otherworldly vision and unstoppable power going to the rim), in the half court he remains a jack of all trades, master of some. That’s where some careful study of his small forward counterpart’s play on Sunday night, Carmelo Anthony, could provide an instructive example.
Let your teammates do the work.
Carmelo Anthony does a great job of not asking for the ball until he establishes the position he wants. Rarely do you see him chase the ball or dribble for five seconds to get to his spots. Instead, Carmelo works without the ball to establish position in his favorite places on the court, and trusts his teammates, especially Billups, to find an angle to feed him the ball. He’ll actually refuse the rock until he can get it where he wants to begin his move, whether that’s on the wing or on the block. The effect is that Melo often needs two dribbles or fewer to score once he receives the ball. One of LeBron’s worst habits is that he will relinquish excellent position in his eagerness to get the ball. Or, even if he catches the ball in a position of power, he’ll immediately surrender it by dribbling out to the perimeter to get a better view of the court–a position that for him, seems to feel more powerful.
Moving without the ball doesn’t always mean racing around the court or cutting directly to the basket. LeBron already does those things well, especially in the context of a set play. But there’s significant room for improvement in the more subtle art that combines spacing, positioning, patience, and trust.
Don’t bail out the mismatch.
On Sunday, when Carmelo Anthony was cross-matched with either a big guy or a smaller, quicker player, he did a great job of sticking with his “drive first” game plan (not always the case for the jab step king). Carmelo’s insistence on catching where he wants enables this attacking style. Against smaller players who can stay in front of him, like James Jones, Carmelo likes to contact then spin for either a short jumper, or, if he can get his pivot foot around the smaller player, a layup. Against bigger players, Carmelo will often at least threaten to attack the hoop before pulling up or shouldering past his defender.
LeBron, on the other hand, still has a tendency to settle for his step back jumper against players ill suited to keep him from getting inside. This is partly because LeBron typically has a live dribble against the mismatch, often after a switch initiated by a pick and roll. If the big sags off him, driving is complicated even further by other defenders sinking into the lane in anticipation of a drive. Yet on Sunday night, isolated against Rony Turiaf on the left wing, James opted for a twenty foot step back. He’s likely comfortable with this move in part because no one can really bother his release. But however impossible to prevent, the move puts little pressure on the defense to lose its shape or rebounding position. Of course, when he has it going, as he did when he poured in 51 against the Magic by taking twenty jumpers outside of ten feet, he can get that shot whenever he wants.
When Bill Walker checked James, LeBron stayed in ball handler mode, instead of punishing the mismatch by posting inside.
Both of these areas could use work, but it’s easy to understand why neither has become a mainstay of his game. For starters, he’s not a pure scorer like Carmelo, he’s a pure creator. As with Chris Paul and other ball dominant point guards, the freedom to over-dribble is vital to James’s stellar passing skills. And in Cleveland, where the Cavs’ offense was predicated on the simple principle of James being a permanent mismatch off the dribble, there was little need to learn these off-ball skills. Hanging onto the leather isn’t a bad habit if good things regularly come from it. But it also meant quick, long players like Tony Allen could stymie the Cavs’ offense and their superstar despite a glaring disadvantage in size and strength.
Now in Miami, James has the freedom, and indeed the responsibility, to shore up these relative weaknesses and expand his off-ball game to make things easier for himself and his talented teammates. It’s happening, but this growth will take time. Indeed, LeBron’s skills are probably more advanced at this point than his comfort level using them. And with the game on the line, he understandably has a tendency to revert to what comes naturally. That is, in order for off-ball maneuvering to allow James to catch in his comfort zones, he has to be comfortable in those areas in the first place.
What’s scary is that according to Synergy’s research, James is already a more effective scorer than Anthony in isolation and in the post, and has been progressively showing more confidence and comfort on the low block. His footwork is rudimentary, but the results are devastating.
James has the unique ability to excel as both the shot-hunting gunner and the pass-first point forward. But he can get in trouble when he holds the ball on the perimeter because it affords well organized defenses, like those of the Bulls and Celtics, the opportunity to load up on keeping him from getting to his favorite spots via the dribble. By relinquishing the rock when he wants to score, he’ll become an even tougher cover. If you can imagine that.