LeBron James, Free Throws, and Everything

March 19th, 2010 by John Krolik


“This was the overgrown kid whose friends often teased him about his big ears, the often quirky player whose unorthodox free-throw shooting style — arms extended straight up above his head in follow-through, eyes following the arc of the ball instead of focusing on the rim like most shooters would — left his cousin Maverick mystified that those free throws ever went in.”

-Ryan Jones, King James: Believe the Hype!

LeBron is a lot more skilled than he gets credit for, which is a theme I think I’ve addressed on this site a number of times. However, there is no good reason why a player with LeBron’s natural talent, shooting ability, and work ethic has never shot 80% from the free throw line in his NBA career.

LeBron at the free throw line is maddening. Because of the way defenses load up on LeBron and how much better LeBron is going to the basket than settling for jumpers, he might have to work harder for his baskets than any other players in the league. Then when he gets to the free throw line and has an unguarded 15-foot shot, a shot tons of players can make regularly, the NBA’s best player is merely above average, and some nights he’s downright iffy.

Nothing makes me crazier than LeBron missing a free throw. Even if the Cavs are up 12 in the fourth quarter, I will involuntarily stop my foot and yell if LeBron misses a free throw. It drives me crazy to see free points clang off the rim.

Every Cavs fan can go through all the different free-throw routines LeBron has gone through since arriving to the league. The Stackhouse knee-bend. The wrist-kissing. Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst’s book, which has a chapter devoted to free throws, pointed out how he changed his entire stance from the line one season. His stroke is much cleaner now, but it still looks to me like he’s got some lateral movement in his elbow that isn’t present in his jumper, and the ball seems to have a left-to-right screwball motion on his free throws.

How did this happen? Personally, I blame America. There is a reason why the USA dominated the 2008 Olympic Basketball Tournament while finishing 11th out of 12 teams in free-throw percentage, and I think LeBron may illustrate why.

Look again at the quote at the top of this post. LeBron shot 71.1%, 59.3%, and 67.8% from the line during his last three seasons in high school. If high-school LeBron had a weird stroke from the line, you don’t admire its quirkiness. The correct response there is to immediately overhaul that stroke, because he’s still in high school and he will likely end up taking over 10,000 free throws over the course of his NBA career. Unfortunately, because LeBron was already part of a big-time basketball machine at 15, it wasn’t in anybody’s interest to have LeBron take a big step back to overhaul his free throw stroke in the hopes he would take two steps forward in the future.

Because of his once-in-a-generation talent, one could say that LeBron should’ve felt the responsibility to fix his fundamentals on his own, but he didn’t. Whether you think LeBron nobly succumbed to the win-now pressure around him or lazily refused to put the time in at the gym, the fact is that LeBron has been forced to overhaul the most basic shot in basketball while playing at All-Star level in the NBA, and that has caused him some problems.

If LeBron was a better free-throw shooter, it would help in two major areas. First of all, it would give LeBron more confidence to drive to the basket, which is a good thing. LeBron may be the best player ever at driving to the basket, and he’ll only go there more if he’s absolutely confident in his free-throw stroke. I don’t think he shies away from contact at all now, but being better at the free throw line couldn’t hurt in that regard.

Second, LeBron could help the Cavs out in late-game situations if he was an absolute free-throw cooler. The Cavs have had trouble getting the ball to Mo Williams in late-game situations, and LeBron is big and fast enough to almost always be able to get the ball on inbounds plays. LeBron is shooting 82% from the line in “clutch” situations, but Cavs fans and coaches could enjoy some more peace of mind if LeBron was closer automatic from the line. This wouldn’t make everything perfect, however. If someone held a gun to my head and told me that I needed to name four players to make a free throw for my life, the first names I would think of after pondering the oddness of my possible mortality would be Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, and Dirk Nowitzki — two of those four guys have blown finals games with missed free throws in recent years.

(Actually, who am I kidding? I will always freak out when LeBron shoots big free throws. I still can’t believe I didn’t collapse and die when LeBron was on the line at the end of regulation during game four of the Magic series last year. I’m glad I didn’t. I’m not too picky about how I go, but I sincerely hope I’m not on Cover It Live when my time comes.)

Anyways, it would be cool if LeBron was better at free throws. Here are some numbers to demonstrate that:

(Theoretical extra wins are Cavs losses that would have been wins if LeBron had shot the theoretical percentage from the line — for example, if LeBron shot 5-10 from the line in a game the Cavs lost by four, he would get a theoretical win if he shot 80%)

Current LeBron: 76.9% Free Thow Shooter

Points Per Game Average: 29.9

True Shooting: 60.6%

Theoretical Extra Wins: 2 Ties

If LeBron Shot 80% from the Free Throw Line:

Points Per Game: 30.2

True Shooting: 61.2%

Theoretical Extra Wins: 2 Ties, 1 Win

If LeBron Shot 85% From The Line:

Points Per Game: 30.7

True Shooting: 62.3%

Theoretical Extra Wins: 2 Wins, 2 Ties

If LeBron Shot 87.5% From The Line:

Points Per Game: 31.0

True Shooting: 62.8%

Theoretical Extra Wins: 3 Wins, 1 Tie

If LeBron Shot 90% From The Line (Ghost of Mark Price FTW):

Points Per Game: 31.2

True Shooting: 63.3% (!!!)

Theoretical Extra Wins: 4 Wins

If LeBron Shot 95% From The Free Throw Line (Now I’m Just Sort of Bored):

Points Per Game: 31.8

True Shooting: 64.3%

Theoretical Extra Wins: 4 Wins

If LeBron Shot 100% From The Free Throw Line:

Points Per Game: 32.2

True Shooting: 65.4%

Theoretical Extra Wins: 4 Wins

So, by any realistic measurement, the most possible games LeBron has lost with his free-throw shooting this year is four. If interested, those games are the Cavs first game against the Bulls in November, the Cavs’ game against the Nuggets in January (which wasn’t actually as close as the final score), The Sundiata Gaines Game (no link necessary), and the Cavs’ recent OT loss to the Nuggets again. Three of those games could have gone either way a number of times, but free throws could have helped the Cavs avoid that situation. I could go on with some pseudo-scientific stuff I’ve spent too much time on (if the Cavs have a 6% chance of losing a game because of LeBron free throws, I think that means there’s a 35% chance they’ll lose one game in a seven-game series because of LeBron free throws), but ultimately I have neither the confidence in the math or the confidence in the reasoning behind the math to make that a worthwhile endeavor.

Instead, here are some videos of really good free throw shooters. I know it’s way easier to hit free throws in a practice situation, but this is still hypnotic to watch:

And here’s Mark Price, whose jumper still gives me chills. Zero wasted movement. What a thing of beauty. Although I’ve gotta say you know you’re a white guy if taking a charge makes your YouTube highlight mix.

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