LeBron’s Annual To-Do List, Part 1: The Post Game

December 1st, 2009 by John Krolik

Whom The Gods wish to destroy they first call promising. – Cyrill Connolly, via Moneyball.

Watching LeBron James evolve over the seasons is at once thrilling and sobering. Since 2005-06, LeBron James has been one of, if not the best, player in the NBA each season, by virtue of his pure dominance. Because of his unprecedented athleticism, size, speed, court vision, and ability to drive to the basket and finish in traffic seemingly at will, LeBron’s pure production over the early part of his career has been off the charts. This much is hardly news.

However, what LeBron is has always been overshadowed to a degree by the idea of what he someday might become. Part of that is The Fetish of Skill at work. LeBron’s game has been, and will continue to be, based around his¬†unparalleled¬†ability to get to the basket off the dribble and finish at the rim, pass, and use his size to get rebounds, steals, and blocks. There’s certainly skill involved in doing all of those things, but for most those things don’t fit the traditional definition of a “skill,” for whatever reason. (Just why is a whole other theory; maybe I’ll be back on FD soon with that one.)

Part of this is a lot of fun. Cavs fans get to watch a great player, maybe the best in the NBA, maybe even one of the best ever down the line, and still get to dream about all the ways he could get better, like he’s leveling up in a video game.

On the other hand, there’s a sad truth: A Perfect LeBron James does not exist, and probably never can. More than any player since Magic, LeBron is capable of playing all five positions on the floor, and LeBron even has greater range on his jump shot than Magic did. But the fact that LeBron can do all things means that the perfect version of LeBron James is one who does all things at once, which is impossible. If LeBron takes his game to the block and refines his skills as a four, people will say that his perimeter game is lacking. If he locks down his outside shooting and starts picking teams apart from the outside, people will say he’s not using his size. If he does both, people will say he’s dominating the ball too much instead of getting his teammates involved. Every spectacular block or steal is a one-on-one defensive assignment that LeBron is neglecting.

Add that to the fact that LeBron’s narrative has been one of unrealized potential since he was 17, and you can expect to continue to see articles and podcasts about LeBron’s flaws even as he puts up record-setting numbers, at least until he wins a ring. But here’s the thing. As much as those articles can lose the forest in the trees by focusing not on what LeBron does but on how he does it, none of them are actually all that wrong in their assessments.

Even with LeBron’s immense production and the huge strides he’s made shoring up his weaknesses since he came into the NBA (and even since he was a legitimate MVP candidate), there are still holes in LeBron’s game that dreams can fill.

And so, after 500 words of caveat, here is the beginning of my list of what LeBron, great as he is, could still be doing better, starting with an entire post devoted to LeBron’s much-maligned post game.

Back in 2007, when the Spurs completely neutralized LeBron and swept the Cavs, a big problem was that the Spurs walled off the paint and made LeBron shoot contested twos, which he bricked time after time. Most of his limited offensive success came later in the series, when he started backing Bruce Bowen down into the paint and getting right under the basket. His footwork wasn’t good enough, and he usually ended up slopping a shot up, but he was able to get enough points just using sheer force in the post that Cavs fans assumed it would be a matter of time until he shored up that post game and started dominating elite defenses by sealing off double teams and destroying them in the post. Well, it’s now the 09-10 season, and Cavs fans are still waiting.

Part of me feels bad for even writing this. Yes, LeBron could stand to improve his post game. In other news, Shaquille O’Neal is not a fantastic foul shooter. Honestly, this has been discussed to such a degree that it’s almost embarrassing to mention it, let alone put it at the top of this list. But alas, it happens to be true. With LeBron’s size, strength, leaping ability, and ability to finish with either hand around the basket, there’s no good reason why he can’t punish teams from the low-block, especially when he’s way too fast for any frontcourt player to guard. With that said, here’s my attempt to at least have a few original insights into this issue.

1. When LeBron’s on the court, at least for the vast majority of the game, he never stops being a passer. And it’s clear that he’s just not as comfortable making plays from deep in the post as he is making them from further out, where he can see the defense better and there’s more room in the paint for cutters. LeBron doesn’t score very much in the post, but what he does do all the time is start backing his man down, wait for the double-team, and immediately pass to the open man, either hitting the man up top or skipping it all the way to the corner for a three. It’s not terribly effective, honestly, because he tends to hesitate a little too much and get the double 10-15 feet out, where the defense can still recover.

But it’s clear a big reason LeBron doesn’t like to get deep in with his back to the basket is that he loses some of his passing angles when he does it, or at least isn’t comfortable with the ones he has when he’s down there. Any triangle offense enthusiast will be more than glad to tell you that assists rarely come from the low-post; much more often, what comes out of the low post is “the pass that leads to the pass” or a “hockey assist.” LeBron’s much more comfortable trying to make the home run play on his own than he is giving his team a slight advantage and hoping they work it out. Given the relative dearth of offensive talent LeBron’s always had around him, this strategy is somewhat understandable.

There are a few case studies to back up the theory that LeBron doesn’t post because it would hurt his passing. Before Pau Gasol came into the Laker lineup this season, Kobe Bryant kept the Lakers winning by unleashing some of the most dominant post play ever seen by a perimeter player. (Commenters, please refrain from the party line and saying this was due to Kobe spending several hours with The Dream this off-season. That may have been a factor, but age, years developing that post game, and the reality of the Lakers not having Gasol had a lot more to do with it. It makes a nice story, but there’s a lot more at work with Kobe’s love of the post this season. How did Rondo working with Mark Price go, or, for that matter, The Dream working with Thabeet?) However, Kobe’s assists also plummeted; Kobe’s assist ratio was half of what it was the previous year, and he only averaged 2 assists a game despite leading the league in usage rate. (Now that Gasol is back, Kobe’s assists have come back up to a respectable level.)

On the Cavs this season, one of the reasons Shaq hasn’t fit into the offense all that well is that he is so confident in his ability to score from the block that he often attempts to gather the ball and power through a double-team when it comes rather than pass out, despite his lauded passing ability from the post.

Kevin McHale is generally regarded as having the best post moves of all time. He was also nicknamed “The Black Hole.” If you watch old film of McHale, a lot of what McHale is doing to score in the post is making a quick, decisive move to score instead of waiting for the defense to react, or snaking around or over a double-team. Both of those things are admirable qualities in a player whose chief duty is to get the ball in the post and score, but LeBron has far more playmaking responsibility than almost any other post player.

It is by no means impossible to be a great passer while utilizing the post-up game. After all, Magic and Marc Jackson posted up all the time. But it does require a certain kind of comfort and understanding of angles that very few players possess, and LeBron does appear much more comfortable making plays further away from the basket or on the drive, when he can see the defense better.

2. Another issue is lack of motivation to go to the post. One of the most frustrating things about LeBron’s post game, or lack thereof, is that he allows himself to get pushed off of deep post position way too easily. Either LeBron has some sort of weakness in a muscle group we don’t know about, or he’s so comfortable catching the ball in the 18-20 foot range and driving from there that he isn’t particularly interested in working hard to keep low-post position and risk the pass not getting to him. Again, there is an explanation for this behavior. There’s a reason post play has been dying off since the hand-check rules were passed: it’s a lot easier to go around defenders than it is to shoot over them nowadays. And LeBron is one of the best ever at going around guys. Even still, if LeBron wants to make his post game into a weapon, and he should, he needs to start by showing a desire to actually get the ball in the low post.

3. My final, hopefully unique thought on LeBron’s mythical post game: Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have the prettiest post games of any perimeter player ever, and it helped them stay dominant into their 30s. LeBron James should absolutely NOT try to emulate what they do. LeBron should not try to play the post like a perimeter player. LeBron is a big man who plays on the perimeter, and he should demonstrate that on the block. Heck, he’s bigger than Leon Powe, and Leon Powe is a beast on the block. I do not want to see LeBron develop a pretty post game. I want to see LeBron develop an ugly post game.

Bucher recently described Kobe’s amazing post game as being “the old man at the YMCA,” but I think about it a different way-Kobe is a great starting pitcher. He’s throwing 4 pitches, he’s mixing up his arm angles, he’s changing speeds, he’s working both sides of the plate, he’s keeping his defender off-balance at all times and exploiting the tiny edge that gives him. That’s what a great perimeter player in the post should be.

LeBron should not be a starting pitcher in the post. LeBron should be a dominant closer. Heat, hellacious breaking ball, change-up to keep the hitter honest. Look at Pau Gasol, the best post-up big man in the NBA today. He doesn’t have a huge bag of tricks, but he’s got enough moves to keep the defense from sitting on one, and each move is deadly. Hook with either hand, evil spin to the basket when the defender tries to take away his hook, counter-pivot move around the basket when his man beats him to the spot, turnaround to keep his man honest. That’s pretty much it. And it works. Very well. Heck, Shaq’s been dominating his whole career with a baby hook over his left shoulder, a modified baby hook over his right shoulder, and a counter-spin. To use another inter-sport reference, it’s the difference between watching Tony Jaa in a movie and Anderson Silva in an actual fight. This stuff does not need to be all that pretty to work well.

When you’re a physical specimen like LeBron, basketball should not be chess. The defender does not have 15 minutes to react to LeBron’s move. He’s got less than half a second. Three or four simple but effective moves from the post, and LeBron’s not going to be able to be stopped.

Which brings me to my main critique of LeBron’s current post game: he’s trying way too hard to be pretty. He’s trying all these tricky fadeaways and modified hooks from the mid-post, when he should be taking one or two extra power dribbles, getting to where he can go over either shoulder, and draining easy bunnies all day long. He’s falling into the Fetish of Skill and trying to impress with the most intricate post moves he can pull off instead of going back to the basics, focusing on his footwork, and creating easy shots. One of my chief arguments for LeBron as basketball’s best player over the years is that the most valuable skill in basketball is not the ability to convert difficult shots, but create easy ones. LeBron needs to remember that when he posts up, and use his athleticism and size with some footwork to get layups in the paint instead of trying to use his skill to drain tough shots from 8-14 feet.

A final thought to drive this all home: look at this highlight vid of Kevin McHale, who, as previously mentioned, has the best post moves of all time. He is not making pretty shots, at all. He’s using beautiful footwork to get easy, ugly shots. LeBron doesn’t have McHale’s serpentine wingspan, but with his leaping ability and quickness, he could be getting a lot more of these looks than he thinks he can right now. For big men, the post game is all about what’s happening from the waist down, not how nice of a shot you can make with your upper body’s shooting mechanics. LeBron needs that lightbulb to go off before he becomes a force in the post.

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