LeBron James Backing Down Expectations

At various stages in our lives, people start expecting things of you based on their own arbitrary, or completely unrelated, views of how things should be.

It can start with innocent queries and evolve from subtle jabs up to pointed statements poorly disguised as caring questions. Either you hit a certain age when people decide to take all of five minutes to sum up your life and demand more, or people around you begin to reach various milestones and suddenly it’s your fault for not playing catch up?

Where are you going to college? My brother is having a wonderful time at university. Don’t you think it’s time to go back to school?

Do you have a job yet?

Are you dating anyone?

When do you think you’ll get married? We can’t wait to go to your wedding. How long have you been together, again?

How soon do you think you’ll have kids? Being a parent is so rewarding. Our kids could use someone to play with. We would like grandchildren at some point. Aren’t you running out of time?

In part because progress gives anyone a bit of an ego boost, in other parts because those moving forward with their lives can often think it their responsibility to pull you along with them, as if you are doing something wrong by simply standing still, expectations are raised that have little to do with who you are and where you are in life. Often, but not always, people want confirmation that they are doing or have done the right thing. Validation.

For years now, LeBron James has dealt with this. Only not from family or a small group of friends, but from a million people that think they know better.

When is he going to start posting up? Why doesn’t he dominate on the blocks like Jordan and Kobe?

Well, he just did. Has been dominating, in fact, for much of these playoffs. But Game 4 of the NBA Finals was such a magnificent performance for James that not a soul on earth watching his patient evisceration could logically think to deny him what is his: a post game.

Though they provided for some nice storytelling moments, James’ leg cramps in the fourth quarter, and the subsequent shots he somehow managed to hit, mask what he was doing in the three quarters before. With Kevin Durant marking Mario Chalmers, James set up shop on the blocks against Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden and showcased years’ worth of work.

This would normally be the place where we give you the numbers. Where we tell you where James ranks among his peers, at all positions, and just how exceptionally efficient he is in the post. But the numbers have been there, been impressive, for almost three seasons. There’s nothing left they have to say.

This is just something everyone needed to see.

In the beginning, before James even arrived in Miami, his post game was an effective diversionary tactic. He would receive passes, wait for a quick double team or simply for the help defender to shade towards him, and kick the ball back out. Sometimes it was an assist. Sometimes it was a pass that led to an assist. But more often than not, things played out too quickly, his teammates getting enough space to make a move, but not to take advantage of an open shot.

Now, the point-forward is also a forward-point.

“The biggest thing for him in the post is now he’s become that same playmaker that he was on the perimeter,” Dwyane Wade said. “Now he’s becoming it in the post as well is a dominant force. And he’s continuing to get better down there. This is really the first year that he really, really got down there, and he’s made a huge improvement in one season.”

“He’s just putting himself in a position to not only get himself opportunities to score, but to make his teammates better,” says assistant coach David Fizdale, who was been the man behind the scenes helping both James and Wade with their post games.

“What he’s figured out is the more aggressive he is, the more fear he can put in the defense. The more he goes at them early with his scoring, he knows now that everything is set up on his aggressiveness. That’s when he can start making those other decisions getting people open shots, drawing fouls and getting the ball from one side to the other forcing the trigger where he moves the ball. It may not be his assist, but he’s just created opportunities for others on the weakside. That’s just him playing really good, winning basketball and really seizing the moment.”

In the beginning, James lacked both patience and positioning down low. It was one pass in, one pass out. One probing, tentative move to the rim and a dribble back out. Posting up James was less a possession and more of an attempt. If it worked, it worked. But it was something to try, not something to rely on.

Now, he posts up almost as much as he runs a pick-and-roll, even more when he has a matchup advantage such as Sefolosha or Harden. He posts, he re-posts, he attacks, he reads, he resets and he attacks again.

“You can see he’s really being patient,” Fizdale said. “He’s taking three, four, five dribbles to get the position that he wants to do what he wants down there.”

“He’s reading situations,” Erik Spoelstra added, “Whether they’re coming down and trapping him or if they’re not he’s being very patient and making sure he gets an opportunity in the paint either for himself or create an open shot for someone else. We’ve continued to try to establish that.”

In the beginning, James was raw. He was bigger and stronger than most anyone he tried to post, and he played as such. Pure power was on display, shoulders were lowered and elbows were up as he tried to muscle his way into the paint. He was a bullet, but a bullet can be stopped. When the defense swarmed, he had no counter moves.

He had few moves in general. There were things he would do, and things he would pull off, but it was out of sheer talent. There was no package, no repertoire built off muscle memory he could rely on under pressure.

Eventually, in his first year with Miami, he began to learn how to write short rather than try just about everything. How a concise toolset could help rather than limit. With Fizdale, he worked on a simple drop-step counter when the defense had the middle covered. He worked on hook shots, including one of the sweeping, running variety of which he’s attempted about two dozen over the past two seasons. In the meantime, he switched to more of a face-up, off-the-dribble post game, catching with his back to the basket, turning, using a rocker-step to free himself for a jumper.

It was enough to help, just not enough to anchor an offense. In the 2011 NBA Finals, his timeline was moved up but the post-game wasn’t ready. He was expected to do things he wasn’t ready for. Things take time, especially when they don’t come naturally. But when we see a little of something we like, we want more. Now.

“You have to put a lot of work in,” Wade said. “It’s something that doesn’t come as naturally as his ability to take people off the dribble. It’s a lot of work that you’ve got to put in. No one is afraid of the work, but you’ve got to go through the trials and tribulations of it.”

So arrived another offseason. James sought help, but the work was his, and this year his work in the post doubled. He fought for deep position. He had moves. A turnaround jumper here – the move many had been waiting to see based on expectations based on Jordan and Bryant, which you can see plenty of in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston – and a step-through move there. Baseline spins, controlled power moves to the middle, drop-steps and hook-shots. Learned through repetition in quiet gyms as the cameras slept.

“It’s a confidence knowing that he has things that he can go to to score down there,” Fizdale said. “So that allows him to be patient. That allows him to be calm. He’s not wondering what he’s going to do. He knows he has stuff he can go to if he needs to score.

“It’s just the confidence in knowing, ‘I can get to my right shoulder fadeaway. I can get to my left shoulder jump hook.’”

Even as James progressed, even deep into this season, his was often and either/or post game. He would destroy with that turnaround one game. He would have incredible footwork in another. He would spend one game picking apart an aggressive defense with passing. He would draw fouls on overmatched opponents.

But there was a lack of balance. And that’s what makes his Game 4, and much of the rest of this series, against the Thunder so special. There it all was, every clip you’ve just watched, all on the same night, in the first and second half, high post and low.

As much as most of the world is nodding along saying, ‘I told you it would work,’ this doesn’t belong to any of us. The only person who got James to this point is himself. At his own urging. On his own timeline. The author of his own story. An achievement regardless of expectation.

“It was a part of my game that I feel needed to be worked,” James said.

“You can say there are a lot of different things and reasons why, but the biggest reason is that he wants to,” Wade said. “He wants to because he understands that he has an advantage there with his height, his ability to pass and also the ability to score over the top of guys.”

And nobody else, not even the coach that worked most closely with him on his post game over the last two years, gets to take credit.

“Some things we worked on, some things he’s just playing with feel,” Fizdale said. “Everything he’s doing down there isn’t developed. It’s just his greatness. It’s easy for me to sit up here and say we worked on all this stuff, but we only worked on a couple of things. The main thing is making sure he’s got that wide base, he’s balanced and that he’s aggressive.

“Anything outside of that that he does is just his greatness taking over when he puts himself in that position. He earned this. This is his.”

Support for this story provided by Synergy Sports.