Here’s the first article from contributor Russell Simon.
The full circle of LeBron James’s basketball life was completed last week. By finally reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—a rainbow littered with the corpses of close but not close enough seasons in Cleveland and Miami, James was able to deliver ridiculously dominant performance after ridiculously dominant performance en route to the Larry O’Brien trophy.
He was able to dominant the way he did because he changed his offensive game. Look at chart to the right, created by Kirk Goldsberry and Matt Adams for Court Vision Analytics. LeBron has become an absolute monster near the basket—even more so than in the past. According to Goldsberry and Adams, 88% of LeBron’s shots in the
regular season were either from close or midrange. During the 2011-2012 season, LeBron averaged .4 more points per game then he did in the 2010-2011 season and raised his three point shooting, field goal, and rebounds per game percentages. LeBron took one less 3 pointer a game this season compared to last, but took about the same amount of shots, showing that he wasn’t going to settle for 3s as much. That helped him raise his true shooting percentage (what shooting percentage would be if 3 pointers and three throws were calculated into a regular shooting percentage) one whole point from 59.4 to 60.5%. This may be small, but it was a career high for him.
LeBron also made the left block his go to spot on offense. He was at his most consistent offensively by getting the ball close to the basket either passing to an open man or taking a high percentage shot. The Celtics series was a perfect example of how the new LeBron carried the Heat to victory (Game 6 not withstanding. That was a barrage of jumpers that we’ve never seen from him before). The Heat were down 3-2 in that series, and LeBron wasn’t getting into his sets offensively. Far too often, he was catching the ball near the 3 point line—too far away from the basket for his liking. This resulted in only an average of 7 free throw attempts a game for LeBron during those losses. But during the 4 wins in that series, LeBron caught the ball at the left block over, and over, and over again, getting to the line on average 14 times a game.
This transformation puts opposing teams in a serious quandary. Teams now have to make the impossible choice whether to guard LeBron heavily up on the block, or give LeBron tons of space in the areas in which he is least effective. Both of these choices are doomed to failure. It is impossible to guard LeBron heavily down low. We saw this in the Finals, when James Harden tried to impede him when LeBron was trying to get into the lane without the ball. This either ended with LeBron getting the ball on the block and taking right to Harden, or a foul being called on Harden. Given the propensity of NBA officials to call ticky tack fouls on players, guarding LeBron with this strategy is a double whammy—teams are put into foul trouble, all while Lebron is barely even touched. The other strategy is potentially even worse, because giving LeBron space means he just gets a ten foot head start on his way to a full on assault on the basket. It can lead to posterization, humiliation, devastation, and perhaps someday decapitation.
I’m here with another way. I’m here with a strategy that can potentially give teams a fighting chance (no pun intended as you will soon discover) at stopping LeBron. It’s been used in the past. Throughout the 1990s, this strategy helped strong teams assert their will.
It was a strategy built on protecting the paint at all costs. It worked for the 1993 New York Knicks—a team built on grit and toughness, with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Smith, and Anthony Mason as the centerpieces. That team went 60-22, and they did so by playing tough, aggressive basketball. According to a New York Times article published just before the start of the NBA playoffs in 1993, the Knicks had 12 flagrant fouls during that season, while the league average was only 3.8. Charles Oakley himself committed six, including an incredible stretch where he averaged a flagrant a week.
Fast forward back to 2012. In the Finals, LeBron destroyed the Thunder near the basket. He got to the line eight to nine times a game while rarely being knocked down. The Thunder lost in 5. Who knows what would have happened if someone on the Thunder had fouled him hard nearly every time he went to the basket.
This strategy—let’s call it Hack-A-Lebron—can work better then what the Thunder did. If teams actually made a concerted effort to not give LeBron any easy buckets by adopting a defensive strategy based on intimidation and toughness, it would force LeBron to earn his buckets from the free throw line. LeBron is better at hitting lay-ups and dunking then he is at hitting free throws. In the series against Indiana, he was 72.5% from the charity stripe. In the Conference Finals he was even worse, going 65% from the line. There’s also the added psychological affect of knowing contact is coming, something that could potentially play with LeBron mentally and affect his game. (Just maybe?)
LeBron has said over and over again that he plays his best basketball when he is happy and carefree, giving the world the mental image of a once in a generation athletic beast frolicking through a dandelion field while reading the Hunger Games. He once told Rachel Nichols, “I play the game fun, joyful, and I let my game do all of the talking.” Is it possible that LeBron could eventually become annoyed, and mad, by receiving constant contact from defenders? Not likely. He’s too cool on the court. Remember the game in the regular season where Russell Westbrook got the ball stolen by Wade on a crossover, Wade passed it to LeBron on the break, and Westbrook just took him out from behind when he went up for an easy two?
LeBron just walked away after it happened. He didn’t react and he didn’t noticeably up his game. He didn’t try and punish the Thunder for the foul. There were no revenge shots. Not to take anything away from what became a virtuoso 34-point performance, but he reacted in a far different way than Metta World Peace or Rasheed Wallace would’ve. LeBron isn’t a player to get angry over fouls.
Westbrook only received a flagrant 1 for that foul, but at some point repeatedly egregious fouls will result in ejections and suspensions. Teams will have to adapt their Hack-A-LeBron strategy away from over the top flagrants, and more towards fouls that simply prevent him from getting a shot off. LeBron had a plethora of and-one opportunities in the playoffs simply because when players fouled him, LeBron was still able to have a good look at the basket. Preventing him from getting a shot off is no easy task though, as all of his and-ones prove. He’s just too big and too fast.
Hack-A-LeBron can work for teams with great depth, especially at the forward position. That 1993 Knicks team I mentioned earlier had eleven guys who could play: Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason, Doc Rivers, Rolando Blackman, Charles Oakley, Greg Anthony, Tony Campbell, Hubert Davis, and Herb Williams. Any team in 2012 that goes 11-deep has an insurance policy for hack a LeBron. A team like the Dallas team that won in 2011 immediately jumps out as a modern era example of a team with that kind of depth. That team was absolutely stacked, with J.J. Barea, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry, Deshawn Stephenson, and even Brian Cardinal getting minutes in the Finals. That team didn’t need to play Hack-A-LeBron, but they could if they wanted to, because they had guys off the bench that could step up.
Teams may want to try putting a power forward on LeBron more often. The Heat don’t have strong bigs, so teams could sacrifice a player in the paint to matchup with LeBron. Power forwards, while not having LeBron’s speed, can get into the paint to Hack-A-LeBron. Inside-outside forwards like Serge Ibaka proved to be an effective defensive weapon against LeBron in the Finals. Although Ibaka lacks the lateral speed to keep up with LeBron, hit shot-blocking ability made up for it. Unfortunately, Ibaka didn’t guard LeBron often enough. Not every team is blessed with a shot-blocker like Ibaka, but as more and more freakishly athlete power forwards come into the league (Anthony Davis, Perry Jones III), they’ll prove to be a challenge for LeBron. They’re big enough to prevent shots on the perimeter, fast and lanky enough to block shots, and strong enough to commit hard fouls.
I must admit, I kind of feel as though I should be wearing a Saints hat and a Motorola coaches headset a la Greg Williams. But while Hack-A-LeBron certainly is not a totally ethical policy, the course of basketball history has included many teams that played this rough, aggressive style. The Chuck Daly’s Piston’s of the 80’s, the Knicks of the 90’s, and the teams that put Shaq on the line constantly in the early 2000’s all played with a style similar to the one I am advocating. We are in a new era in the NBA—LeBron’s era. It’s an era that’s gone soft by way of the official’s whistle, but NBA teams can fight this by using a strategy of good old Hack-A-LeBron.