One of the major trends this season for LeBron James has been the decline of his jump shot. He's never been a dead-eye shooter, but his decline this year has been notable. For the season, James is shooting 29.2 percent from three - his lowest total since his rookie year way back when he was 19 - and he's shooting 6.2 percent worse from deep when compared to last year.
LeBron, though, is still having a great season and were it weren't for a certain someone who plays for the Warriors and wears No. 30, he'd be in the thick of the MVP discussion. LeBron, as a way to counteract his jump shot becoming less effective, has largely abandoned the mid-range game altogether.
Last year, LeBron took 36.9 percent of his shots in the mid-range and 36.6 percent of shots at the rim. That's not a very efficient way to distribute shots for a player who is best playing downhill.
This year, LeBron has flipped those numbers. He's still taking 30.9 percent of his shots in the mid-range, but he's taken 49.3 percent of his shots at the rim. He's also taking six percent fewer threes (excluding corner threes, where his percentages are roughly the same) than he did last year.
The result has been that LeBron is shooting 51 percent from the field, although his true shooting percentage has roughly stayed the game. Last year, he shot 48.8 percent from the field while still trying to operate heavily in the middle of the floor.
LeBron scoring more at the rim is a net positive for the Cavs. At his worst, LeBron wastes possessions by dribbling away the shot clock and firing up a jump shot. At his best, he uses his size and speed to bully defenders, get optimal position and either score or get to the line. Whether he's attacking in isolation, posting up or cutting off ball, James is most effective when he's inside.
How far this ultimately goes depends on how committed Tyronn Lue is with using James in different ways. He can still being up the ball and initiate the offense - and that's definitely something the Cavs should do - but he can give the Cavs some variance if he comes off the ball as a cutter.
Take this play from Sunday's win against the Hornets for instance. Here, Matthew Dellavedova brings up the ball and James heads off toward the left corner. As Dellavedova drives to the opposite corner, LeBron cuts with the help of a sort of lazy J.R. Smith screen. When he gets across, he's fed a pass inside and scores an easy two points.
This type of set simply makes James harder to defend and it's not that hard to run over and over. Even the players who are actually able to defend LeBron at a high level - think Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler - are going to have hard time defending LeBron when he cuts across the lane and gets a chance to establish position close to the rim.
Even when teams can contest James' shot, James getting inside makes the Cavs harder to defend overall. If he gets doubled inside, LeBron can pass out to a shooter - Dellavedova, Smith, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Channing Frye, etc. - who might be open for a three. If they don't have an open shot, said shooter can a) either re-post James or b) swing the ball around the perimeter in search of an open three. By simply getting James looks inside, the Cavs' offense becomes less bogged down and harder to stop.
This isn't to say that James won't stop shooting jumpers and that he won't occasionally jack up a lazy jumper. A player who operates in isolation as much as James does is going to take bad jumpers from time to time. LeBron also has a habit of settling for long twos when teams switch a big onto him in the pick and roll.
But for the most part, LeBron has stopped taking so many mid-range shots and is instead doing most of work inside where he's a lot harder to defend. And when he's harder to defend, so are the Cavs.