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The LeBron James Running Hook

by Couper Moorhead

Two years ago, we didn’t quite know what would happen when LeBron James got the ball in the post. We knew he was efficient, that his entire body of work would reflect one of the best back-to-the-basket games in the league, but there was consistent aesthetic for observers to expect.

Largely because James was working on so many different facets of his post game at the same time – and because James is talented enough to effectively utilize moves he hasn’t even come close to perfecting – it never seemed as though he owned any particular aspect of it. James was laying the foundation for a building that remained indistinguishable, with little for observers to latch on to. We had the blueprint, but the product was mush. Devastatingly effective mush, but still mush.

Predictably, after James’ success in the post on the big stage last season, his down-low game has gained widespread acceptance. Attached to it has been the popular illusion that James’ post-game popped up over summer, that it was simply a matter of willing oneself to accomplish something new and not the result of hours and days and months and years of work.

Stories don’t begin when we happen to notice them. You might only realize you love someone when it becomes incredibly obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s also the moment you began to love them. It’s nice to think that we go about our days in a state of total awareness, but it doesn’t work like that. The world doesn’t stop for us.

The iceberg rule applies. While what we see in games appears grandiose, the majority of work put in by players lies beneath the freezing water. James’ post-game recently bobbed to the surface, but it was formed on the ocean floor, and now we’re on a similar, if smaller, journey with finding James’ signature move.

While James will likely never resort to a single move often enough to logically label it a go-to, there will inevitably be assets that become more recognizable than others, if only because they provide a link to the past. He already has a turnaround jumper that recalls those of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and this season people have taken notice of a running, sweeping hook shot that has many invoking the names of Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson.

They’re just taking notice a few years too late. Here’s what assistant coach David Fizdale had to say about the running hook in the spring of 2011.

“That’s something he wants to make a part of his game,” Fizdale said. “But once he gets it, that’s going to be one of those [moves] people will be teaching other kids down the line. Where people say, ‘Man, The LeBron James running hook.’”

James wasn’t just working on the running hook then, he was continuing his work, doing research, crafting theory and testing it in the laboratory.

“I’m still working on it each and every day,” James said. “I sprinkle it in every now and then, I’ll get better at it by the time of the playoffs.”

He would break it out every so often, but it would come seemingly at random on lonely winter nights on the road. There’s no anticipation for post-moves the way there are for other moments, no gasp as the ball sails toward Ray Allen open in the corner or nervous energy as James and Dwyane Wade embark upon a 2-on-1 fastbreak. Reach down for a glass of water as James posts-up against Toronto in January and you’ve already missed six percent of his running-hook attempts – in his career.

But James was still working on that running hook, whether we noticed or not. Don’t just take my word for it:

What you just saw was LeBron’s entire body of work, give or take a few buried in miscellanea. The first record we have of James taking a running hook is with Cleveland in early 2010, and in the two subsequent years he took about five a season. They often went in, too – by unofficial count James is 9-of-14 on running hooks in his career.

So why didn’t he take more of them, if he was so good at it?

He only made two out of his first six, for starters, as is expected of any move a player is attempting to translate from practice speed to game speed. Just as James’ post-game has grown and evolved over the years, so have the individual pieces of it, and James has made seven of his last eight running hooks.

But it’s also a situational move. Whereas Kareem could and would pivot into his skyhook from any point on the floor, including spinning baseline with it, James prefers to attack the middle of the floor. The hook will come out to play if he meets traffic in the paint, but he’s also not likely to draw a foul in doing so. The shot may be iconic, but it’s just part of a developing package.

“It’s not a huge, important shot,” James said. “I have so many shots, so many ways that I can score, but I just like adding things to my game that I can always go to, and be comfortable with if I take it.”

And defenses don’t exactly want James getting into the paint. Just look at how the Clippers played James last week:

There’s nothing special about this coverage, apart from James drawing the attention of every player on the floor. Defenses regularly shade a guard down from the top of the key to try and dissuade James from any painted-area venture, and there is often a big man on the other side of the floor waiting anxiously to provide help. Over the years, this type of defense could persuade James to make a quick pass out to the wing in anticipation of a double team. Now, aided by the HEAT’s exceptional spacing, James forces guards who are threatening help over the top to make a decision – if they aren’t going to commit the second defender, James is polished enough now to attack when given the smallest window.

That’s why, with five defenders staring at him in the second image featured above, James still got his running hook off. Drilling it.

Can we say James has added the running hook to his arsenal? Sure, but he began doing so years ago. Pretending otherwise for the sake of a story does two things:

1. It diminishes the work James has put in over the years. James didn’t just figure out that a post-game could be valuable to him at some random point last season. If a light bulb went off, it went off long before he won a championship. And then he had to spend years figuring out the nuances of a completely different way to see the floor, breaking some old habits in the process.

2. It promotes the idea that players, even guys as good as James, can just up and decide to add a skill and suddenly use it in games. There’s a difference between guys choosing to play a different way and doing what they were already capable of and players trying to expand their game into new territory. Once you see something in a game, you’re already deep into that particular tale. Remember the iceberg.

Rarely do we get to watch a player as talented as James. Even rarer still do we get to watch a player who uses that talent to constantly improve himself. Long after James retires, you’ll be telling stories about how he added a new move one season or started playing in the post more in another. But remember that these stories span years, and they’re already good enough as they are – we don’t have to make our own edits to beef them up.

Legends are fun, but there’s no reason they can’t be accurate.