On the far end of the Miami HEAT’s bright yellow practice court, LeBron James can usually be seen trying to match Ray Allen, free-throw for free-throw. Sometimes they’ll finish practice off with a game of Around the World, which James has won twice in the last week, but free-throws always come first. Ray, then LeBron. LeBron, then Ray. Occasionally there is a disagreement over the count – these are not guys that lose very easily – but there they are next day, back at the same spot, with assistant coach David Fizdale fielding rebounds.
We don’t know who wins or who loses – you can assume Allen, but remember that James has beaten him at three-point contest – but we know they take this seriously. A career 74.7 percent free-throw shooter, James has never hit the 80 percent mark for a regular or post season. And it’s just about the only benchmark the four-time MVP has yet to hit after topping 40 percent from three this year.
If James has a weakness, it’s hitting, not getting, free-throws. And he knows it.
“I need and I want to shoot in the 80s,” James said during the HEAT’s week off. “That’s my next goal, my free-throw shooting.”
As it turns out, the Path to 80 has James not only trying to match Allen free-throw for free-throw after practice, but trying to match Allen’s mechanics in games in the second round of the playoffs.
While James has dealt with bouts of leaning-forward-itis on his free-throws before, at times taking a big step into the paint after releasing the ball, the defining trait of his form has been the deep knee bend and dip just before the shot – and after three dribbles and a spin of the ball. James looked more upright and on-balance than he had earlier in his career, but the results still left him well short of 80. Since Allen has said before that he is always willing to dispense shooting advice but only to those that come to him asking for it, it appears the results of this season led James to the Oracle of the Stripe.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, trying not to get him to dip” said Allen, a career 89.4 percent shooter. “That dip is what puts the ball in a weird position. It’s interesting because his mechanics, if you watch them when he misses – I’ve studied him shooting them a lot – that dip puts him in a bad position to where he starts trying to move the ball in different places and he ends up missing in different places. We’ve talked about it. He understands it. I just watch him and try to give him information and he seems like he has better confidence.
“I don’t know if he adopted my routine, I think he just goes to what’s comfortable for him. Looks good. He missed two free throws [last night] but he looks like he has a greater deal of confidence when he’s on the line. Just how he shoots it looks a lot more fluid. Our little free throw games, they’re definitely helping him.”
While we only have a single game’s worth of evidence and nine attempts, you be the judge of whether or not James looks more fluid at the line. We’ll start with James’ old form, then the new, then split-screens with both and finally a comparison to James' sensei.
James still holds the ball longer than Allen once he’s given the ball a little spin, but the key, Allen says, is the ball remains stationary.
“At least he’s not confusing his body too much where he’s doing a lot of moving on the free throw line,” Allen said. “He keeps the ball right at the basket.”
There are two things to keep an eye on moving forward: whether James can maintain this form and whether the free-throws fall at an increased rate. The former, however, is almost more important than the latter at this point. With only a few games a week during the playoffs, we probably won’t build up enough of a sample size to prove the effectiveness of James’ new form. But as long as James can maintain a consistency in his approach, we can let the shots fall where they may.
“The other thing I told him, I said, ‘Sometimes you can have great form and you just miss,’” Allen said. ‘”You didn’t do anything wrong, you just sometimes miss.’”