LeBron James Winning At The Rim

Photo Credit: Chris Trotman

Four Miami HEAT players are on the left side of the court, leaving LeBron James quite literally isolated on the right with the ball. Time is tick, tick, ticking away. There’s less than ten seconds left and the HEAT are down one to the Orlando Magic, having surrendered a 20-point third-quarter lead.

What does James do? For that matter, what does James’ defender do?

It depends on who you ask. A few weeks ago in Wright Thompson’s profile of Michael Jordan as he turned 50-years old – a wonderful piece of writing and one of the best profiles in recent years, so be sure to read it – Jordan had this to say of a hypothetical matchup with James:

"So if I have to guard him," Jordan says, "I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right."

While Jordan was embellishing on the frequency with which James takes jumpers after driving left, he wasn’t wrong about the tendency. According to Synergy Sports, which tracks every single NBA possession and then logs how often something happens, James has taken a dribble jumper about half the time when driving left out of an isolation – as opposed to taking a runner or going straight to the rim.

Of course, when James drove right last season he was more likely to take a jumper in that situation as well. This year he regularly gets to the rim after going right, but we’re dealing with a sample size of less than 200 possessions. A jumper here or a runner there can have a dramatic effect on the percentages, making it tough to read too much into the numbers at this stage of James’ evolution as a basketball player.

What we do know is that allowing James to get to the rim from any direction, in any situation, is Code Red for any defense. And that’s exactly what Orlando allowed to happen – as if they had much of a choice – when James went left.

Here’s the setup after the HEAT run a few off-ball screens to get James and Chris Bosh running their bread and butter:

“We just went with a high pick-and-roll with Chris and LeBron,” Erik Spoelstra said. “LeBron didn’t get it on the initial option, so he just kind of spaced it.”

The primary action fails because the Magic don’t try to get too cute with their defense, having DeQuan Jones switch off Bosh after the screen. So Jones, the 6-foot-8 rookie, is left on an island to fend for himself. And James holds the conch.

While Spoelstra did try to run an action – not all late-game isolations begin the same way – the HEAT are left with what amounts to a hero-ball possession. This is a negative term for many, but it also implies a certain degree of safety. Among the 50+ players with more than 100 isolations this season, only six turn the ball over less than James, so Spoelstra knows he is going to get a shot off. And because James scores at least one point on half of his isolations, Spoelstra knows he is likely to get an efficient shot off as well.

James is going to control this possession, but there are still decisions to make. To shoot, or to drive?

The raw numbers tell us that when James has driven left – going to the middle of the floor in this possession – and made it to the rim, he is 30-of-51 over the past three seasons. He also scores over a point per possession when he drives baseline from either side, so there’s really no bad option. Practically any choice James makes is a good choice simply by association with James. But he’s also not clicking through a database as he sizes Jones up. Here, he is informed by context, and the context is that James had missed consecutive three-pointers just a minute earlier.

“I had just settled for two threes before that, so I had no intention of shooting another jumper,” James said.

Well then. Decision made.

But which way to go? If James is set on attacking at the very instant shown in the image above, his only real option is to go right. But he waits, sizing up his prey as he is wont to do, and this patience – remember, with seconds to go and the HEAT losing – allows his teammates to do some work for him. First Bosh hightails it to the left block in order to draw a defender away from James, and then Wade does the same in cutting to the rim.

By waiting a couple of beats, James has gone from having two help defenders to his immediate left to having the high side of the paint cleared, only Al Harrington remains on the weakside elbow. Now, if James drives right it’s between him and Jones, but if he goes middle he has either a penetrating lane into the paint or a direct pass for an open Shane Battier three should Harrington help into the middle too far.

James didn’t have to do anything to affect the spacing on the floor, and now it’s his turn. He chooses the middle.

Look at the two Magic defenders underneath the basket. E’Twaun Moore is so preoccupied with Wade’s cut – Bosh said after the game that he didn’t even realize Wade was behind him – that he has turned his back to James and the ball. Meanwhile, Arron Afflalo was drawn down to the block by Bosh and while he is the natural help defender in this situation on any dribble drive, Moore is in his way.

By the time Moore gets turned around, James is at the top of the restricted circle -- inside which he's shooting better (77.3 percent) than anyone since 1996, including Shaquille O'Neal -- having beaten Jones with a crossover dribble and blown past Harrington in the process.

“That last one, with the IQ that he has, the possessions before that he took the threes, this one he said, ‘I’m not going to let you off of the hook. I’m going to make something happen, get to the rim,’” Spoelstra said. “And it’s either going to be a bucket, foul or he’s going to kick it to somebody wide open. He took it into his own hands.”

James scores. The Magic have no timeouts left – having used one in the first minute of the second half. And that’s the ballgame. One of the league’s elite one-on-one players taking advantage of the subtle shifts of his All-Star teammates and getting to the rim with the game on the line. The score would be the eighth game-winning shot of his career (in the last five seconds), fourth such layup and first such shot with the HEAT.

No, one drive doesn’t prove Michael Jordan wrong or make a small sample size of possessions any more meaningful, but it does drive one point home: when you’re defending LeBron James one-on-one in 2013, you aren’t trying to push him to a less-efficient zone, you’re simply trying to survive.