In 2010-2011, LeBron James connected on 33.0% of his three-point attempts. In 2011-2012, that number jumped to 36.2%. This past regular season, it surged to 40.6%. In his recent piece on Grantland, Kirk Goldsberry attributed LeBron’s improvement (both in three-point field goal percentage and field goal percentage overall) to increased shot location efficiency – a greater emphasis on corner three-pointers and a re-distribution of mid-range shots to the three-point line and the areas closest to the hoop, in particular. And, naturally, we’ve seen this correlate with his career highs in shooting percentages both inside and beyond the arc.
It’s easy to see why two-point shooting LeBron James’ efficiency has skyrocketed, especially in light of Goldsberry’s revelations – he’s taking easier shots closer to the hoop and mostly eliminating mid-range jumpers. But with three-point shooting LeBron, who has improved by seven percentage points over the last two seasons, there has to be something more there. A three-pointer is inefficient if it’s heavily contested or off-balance; driving at Roy Hibbert – despite being mere inches from the rim – is mostly a bad idea. It’s all a matter of shot location in context, which is to say how the shot was taken and defensed.
Applying these two concepts to all of LeBron James’ three-pointers over the last three seasons helps to reveal the missing piece to explain his three-point shooting improvement: it’s always been a matter of balance.
As a primary ball handler, LeBron’s three-point attempts occur in various play types: spot ups, isolations, pick-and-rolls, dribble handoffs, transition, off the dribble, and so on – which is to say that his shots vary in difficulty, and therefore technique. But it’s the great shooters who are able to minimize these departures and generally stick to basic shooting principles – land with parallel feet, stay on relative balance. It’s with this latter part, the balance, that LeBron James has typically struggled, and divided himself into two completely different three-point shooters: the balanced LeBron James and the off-balance LeBron James.
LeBron James No. 1: On-Balance
LeBron James is perfectly capable of shooting on-balance. Take a look at these freeze frames of James shooting a three against Memphis back in 2010: his feet are parallel, his hips remain squared up and he’s mostly perpendicular to the floor. Everything looks right.
With no defender even remotely challenging, LeBron nails the shot.
In fact, when LeBron James shoots it on-balance and uncontested, he’s more than a good three-point shooter; he’s a great three-point shooter. Over the last two seasons, he’s shot a scorching 59.5% (25-42) in these situations.
Yet that raises another question: what about when James is under defensive siege? 71.3% of his looks from distance since 2010 have been contested. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise for a player of his caliber, who is unlikely to find himself wide open all that often. Still, LeBron has proven himself capable of not deviating (technique-wise) in spite of pressure. We’ll use this shot against Houston from earlier this season as an example:
Notice that all the same markers as his wide open look from above are present here. The feet, the lack of angular body distortion, the follow through. All of this with Chandler Parsons closing out with a hand up.
So what about this LeBron? Though he’s not quite as lethal (contested shots are naturally more difficult), he’s still shooting a more than healthy 45.5% from deep over the past three seasons. In summary, here’s how insanely talented on-balance LeBron James is as a three-point shooter.
Notice the spike in his on-balance/contested percentage this past season, as well as the ’10-’11 to ’11-’12 jump in on-balance/uncontested shots – more on that later.
LeBron James No. 2: Off-Balance
Off-balance LeBron James isn’t just one type of shooter. Analyzing his shots reveals multiple subsets containing similar elements, the most pervasive of which is an excessive backpedal.
(Note: statistics were not compiled for each off-balance variation, but for off-balance shots on the whole.)
1. Backpedaling LeBron
It’s common for shooters to float backwards after landing on a jump shot. A shooter’s feet most often land in front of his takeoff spot, causing a slight backwards body lean. In the two examples of on-balance LeBron above, you might have noticed that he wasn’t completely perpendicular to the floor when he landed; his feet were slightly edged forward, his back somewhat tilting. This is completely natural on any jump shot, and lends itself to a slight backpedal to regain complete balance.
An extended backpedal, however, is a clear indication of a serious balance problem. Here’s LeBron missing a shot against Orlando earlier this season in which he backs away rather quickly. Be sure to keep your eyes on LeBron instead of the ball after he releases the shot.
The backpedal is not a root problem in itself; it’s symptomatic of a deeper flaw throwing LeBron’s entire balance out of whack. If we freeze his form on landing, the defective technique reveals iteslf. Notice the sharp angle of his body lean:
He’s a few inches from falling over backwards completely. Also notice the slight bend at the knee; his lower body has moved forward completely, while his upper body has remained stationary. If you have room to spare, try jumping forward with your feet while keeping your upper body in place. On landing, you’ll probably backpedal. That’s what LeBron is doing here. His upper and lower body are disjointed and do not move in tandem with each other. It should come as no shock, then, that he misses the shot. (A fix might be not jumping so far forward.)
It’s fair to surmise that LeBron backs away more often under pressure – crowding a shooter’s space makes him want to back away. And the numbers support this hypothesis, too: since 2010, approximately 76% of his contested looks have been off-balance, as opposed to 24% on-balance. But this shot isn’t just any run-of-the-mill fadeaway. In a prototypical fadeaway, the feet land behind the takeoff spot to create space. Here, LeBron’s feet are usually moving forward in spite of crowding. It’s his upper/lower body disconnect that’s generating the balance problem. This is partially evidenced by the consistent existence of backpedaling even in his uncontested looks. It’s a core problem of his shooting technique on the whole.
Just take a look at how far he skates away from the three-point line despite a healthy amount of room between himself and the defender.
2. One-Foot LeBron
This one is pretty simple: sometimes LeBron lands on one foot.
And now in real time:
As for the why, it’s tough to say. While at times he reverts to the one-foot landing on fadeaways or heavily contested looks, other times he’s all by himself. But it would seem that it’s further proof of the systemic lack of balance in LeBron’s jump during his jump shot.
Also: it happens more often than you think. More than 1/4 of his attempts (26.0%) since 2010 have been one-footed.
3. Transition-Shooting LeBron
Nearly every one of LeBron’s three-pointers in transition follows the same rubric: lean in, use the right foot to corral forward momentum on landing. Here’s an example:
Because he’s not quite stopping on a dime, the weight of his body carries his entire frame forward. To compensate and not overshoot the ball, all of the pressure lands on his protruding right leg. And that would be fine, if his goal were not to run forward anymore. But the goal, presumably, is to make the shot. While the forward leg serves its weight-transferring purpose, it makes his frame as a whole more wobbly. There’s less width to absorb the landing, and he’s more prone to falling off to the left or right side. If you’re a HoopChalk vet, you might remember that Jason Kidd is similarly unsuccessful with this type of shot.
So: what do the numbers say about off-balance LeBron James overall? Here’s how it breaks down, any time he one-foots it or backs away or kicks out his leg:
Which is a fancy way of saying that LeBron James shoots the ball poorly when he’s off-balance, but slightly better when his off-balance shots are uncontested as opposed to contested. No shock there. What’s particularly cringe-worthy is that his worst shot – the off-balance/contested three-pointer – is also his most frequent. 54.2% of his three-point attempts since 2010, in fact. The contested portion is understandable: as mentioned earlier, defenses tend not to leave LeBron James open. And even the reliance on off-balance looks is partially defensible, too: sometimes it’s tough to maintain balance under pressure. But it’s certainly possible – remember that he’s 44-107 (41.1%) on contested/on-balance 3s over the last three seasons.
Okay, fine. But why is LeBron getting better?
Now that we’ve dissected his shooting form, let’s get back to our original purpose: figuring out where this new iteration of LeBron James came from. Anecdotal evidence – mostly from LeBron himself – tells us that he jacked up thousands of shots over the summer and came out a better shooter. Yet it’s nearly impossible to replicate in-game conditions in a practice situation. Before we decipher what really changed, let’s rank LeBron’s shots by percentage:
1) On-Balance/Uncontested: 52.9%
2) On-Balance/Contested: 41.1%
3) Off-Balance/Uncontested: 34.2%
4) Off-Balance/Contested: 33.4%
It’s pretty clear, then: LeBron James is a better shooter when he’s on-balance, independent of whether or not he’s contested. That’s backed if we parse the data this way:
Keep your eye on the total column at the moment. His shots rank:
1) On-Balance: 45.7%
2) Uncontested: 41.3%
3) Contested: 34.4%
4) Off-Balance: 33.6%
Again, there’s a greater discrepancy between on and off-balance than there is between uncontested and contested. This further suggests that balance, and not contests, is the key.
Okay, last chart. This time, we’re looking at LeBron’s three-point shots by attempt to track what percent of his attempts have been on-balance/off-balance/contested/uncontested each year – which is to say, we’re testing the hypothesis that, because balance matters more than contests, LeBron James’ improvement stems from more on-balance jumpers taken. Pay attention to the year-to-year percentage progression.
From 2010-2011 to 2011-2012, the only significant increase was in his uncontested looks. His on-balance/off-balance attempts remained the same. And with the LeBron James shooting narrative, this makes sense: Remember that in that offseason, James and Spoelstra had a renewed focus on effiency of shot selection from distance. He was taking less three-pointers, and so it is only natural for him to be more likely baited into three-pointers only when they were uncontested.
Now let’s look at 2012-2013: LeBron’s three-point attempts jumped from 137 to 232. While this is partially lockout driven – extending the season from 66 to 82 games – this past regular season still saw a higher three-point total from James on the whole. And that makes sense from what we know, anecdotally: this past offseason, James focused on three-point shooting and made a point of nudging his mid-range game outside the arc.
But look at those contested looks: 65.7% of his 3s in ’11-’12 were contested, compared to 71.5% this past season. He actually took more bad shots this season by that metric, and it can be easily argued that LeBron’s shooting this season was actually less efficient. Looking at his on-balance looks, you’ll notice that they jumped by four percentage points. So, to recap: both LeBron’s on-balance and contested looks rose, all while his overall percentage jumped. Balance, it would seem, is of more importance.
But here’s why the balance matters so much more than the contest: LeBron is so much deadlier, percentage-wise, when he’s on-balance, that even the slightest shifts in percentage will skew his numbers in a favorable manner. And given what we know about his offseason work, we can even put on our best educated guess hats, for a moment. Remember that spike in his on-balance/contested percentage this past season?
That’s where all the gym work paid off: because he’s more likely to shoot on-balance in uncontested situations – and we can presume that the large majority of shots taken in a practice gym are on-balance – it managed to leak into contested situations too. Not only did his percentage of made shots in this category rise, but it rose from 13.9% to 19.4% in terms of shots attempted. He was shooting more contested looks on-balance and making more of this type of shot.
Yet it didn’t pay off in off-balance situations, because typically off-balance shots aren’t practiced. The data reflects this theory, as his off-balance numbers – both contested and uncontested – remained steady throughout each of the last three seasons.
We can even explain the 2010-2011 to 2011-2012 on-balance/uncontested jump through the LeBron narrative – fewer shots (17) in ’11-’12 led to a higher percentage (58.8%), but work in the gym – specifically with on-balance/uncontested jumpers, as is typical with gym work – maintained that percentage with more attempts (25) the following season.
And so LeBron James is a better shooter because of better balance.
Let’s finish with a scary thought: even in this year of the improved three-point shooting LeBron James, he’s still taking an exorbitant number of contested and off-balance shots. If he were to clean that up even more, he’ll become even deadlier from deep.
Statistics used only from regular seasons. Shot totals and percentages vary from standard databases because extraneous three-point attempts, such as half-court shots, were excluded.