On a team full of knockdown shooters, LeBron James is often viewed as the chess master. Strategically and skillfully he manipulates the pieces around the board, creating open looks for this deadly Cavs offense.
Quietly, however, James has also emerged as a weapon from behind the arc.
James is shooting 37.3 percent from three on 4.8 attempts per game. This mix of volume and efficiency is why 2016-17 is the best season he has ever had shooting the three-ball.
CATCH AND SHOOT
The driving force behind James’ emergence as a better-than-league-average 3-point shooter is his success in catch and shoot situations. James is shooting 45.7 percent on 1.4 catch and shoot threes per game. That is his highest percentage ever on a career-high attempts per game—even superior to his ultra-efficient 2012-13 campaign in Miami.
Let me put that 45.7 percent into a bit more context. Among the best in the business, Stephen Curry is shooting 44.3 percent on catch and shoot threes and Kevin Durant, 41.8 percent. Curry and Durant are both higher volume shooters, but nobody would even expect LeBron to be in the same conversation.
Yet here we are:
By all accounts, James’ jump shot abandoned him last season. His lack of threes-point shooting allowed teams to go under picks and dare him to beat them from the arc. The result was an unfavorable 30.9 percent from downtown—his worst percentage since his rookie season.
The most important factor in his slump was a lowly 34 percent on catch and shoot threess, placing him in the 43rd percentile league-wide.
Synergy data breaks catch and shoot opportunities into two categories - guarded and unguarded. Essentially, the goal is to determine whether or not a defender has a hand in your face when taking the shot.
Looking at James’ guarded catch and shoot data, we see only a marginal improvement from last season (36.8 percent compared to 33.3 percent). He is certainly nowhere near the career-high 45.9 percent he shot on guarded threes in his last season in Miami. In fact, he only ranks in the 31st percentile league-wide.
However, the most important aspect of this stat is the distribution. Only 43 percent of James’ catch and shoot attempts have been classified as ‘guarded,’ the lowest mark since his 2012-13 season. Unsurprisingly, that was his best season percentage-wise from deep (40.6 percent).
LeBron has completely flipped the script when it comes to unguarded catch and shoot 3-point opportunities. He is shooting 51.9 percent on such shots, which ranks 14th in the NBA. The players above him include noted sharpshooters like Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, and newly-acquired Cavalier Kyle Korver. Those below him include JJ Redick, Klay Thompson, Eric Gordon, and many, many more.
Remember this play the Cavs frequently ran for J.R. Smith?
The Cavs are running it for LeBron James now.
But it’s not only designed actions such as “AI Back” (h/t to @HalfCourtHoops for the terminology) that have freed James for open looks.
Check out this simple pick and roll that results in a wide-open Channing Frye triple.
Looks eerily similar to this Love-Irving pick and roll that creates a rhythm 3 for James.
From that clip alone, you can see how confidently LeBron steps into the shot. That confidence has led to him pulling from well behind the perimeter evidenced here by his deep dagger against Milwaukee.
The result is an entire dimension added to an already dangerous Cavs offense. LeBron is no longer the guy shooting 34.7 percent on unguarded catch and shoot threes, baited into taking the ill-advised jumper. Instead, he is knocking these shots down better than most anyone in the league—making a dangerous offense borderline unguardable.
DRIBBLE JUMPER 3s
Shooting three-pointers off the dribble has always been a staple of James’ offensive repertoire. While he has never been a 40 percent shooter on these possessions, his mix of volume and efficiency this season is better than ever.
James is shooting 36.3 percent on 1.7 dribble threes per game, the second-best percentage of his career (36.9 percent in 2012-13) but on nearly double the attempts (0.9).
Opposing defenses know that James prefers to shoot the three when dribbling to his left (38 percent of his dribble jumpers occur going left as opposed to 24 percent going right). Yet he has been successful 38.5 percent on such attempts this year, demonstrating a better feel for the shot as demonstrated here against Charlotte:
So far this season, LeBron James is enjoying the best three-point shooting of his 14-year career. While some may point to his higher percentage in 2012-13, the mix of volume and efficiency this year demonstrates actual growth. James’ nearly-unmatched success in unguarded catch and shoot situations seems to have given him the confidence to expand his range. He also appears to have better rhythm shooting threes off the dribble.
While James continues to demonstrate his skills as a facilitator, his success as a shooter creates another dimension that can eviscerate defenses. With the recent addition of Kyle Korver, this offense is well on its way to becoming an unstoppable juggernaut.
All stats accurate as of 1/8, prior to the Cavs’ game against the Suns