As arguably the greatest athlete in NBA history, it’s weird to think about LeBron James with the physical tools of a mere mortal. He is past his athletic prime, but he sacrificed a fraction of his speed and agility for gains in strength and power—a conversion particularly suited for small-ball since his best basketball now occurs when he plays the 4 or 5 defensively.
In Part 1 of my deep dive into LeBron’s future, I examined his statistical production and pondered where he could end up in the league’s all-time record books. Part 2 imagines how an aging LeBron will need to modify his game to counteract physical decline and extend his reign of dominance.
The first thing to consider when projecting the future of LeBron’s game is a potential improvement in his jumper. Over the last four seasons, he’s knocked down 35% of his threes and a tantalizing 40% in catch-and-shoot situations (via NBA.com/Stats). We shouldn’t assume an improved jump shot is in his future (though he’s off to a blistering start this season), but if it happens it would change the way he’s defended—and by extension, the way he plays. He’d become a more dangerous off-ball threat and at the very least he could drag bigger defenders away from the rim.
Ignoring any significant improvement to his jumper, the play-type data1 (via Synergy Sports Technology) sheds light on what LeBron’s game looks like and reveals areas for potential growth.
The hallmarks of his game to this point have been isolation, pick-and-roll ballhandling and transition. That trio has made up almost two-thirds of LeBron’s career possessions to date and will probably always be a significant part of his repertoire because of his dribbling and passing.
Those play-types also require a baseline level of speed. If LeBron can’t consistently blow by his defender, defenses may be able to put bigger defenders on him to prevent him from bullying his way into the paint. Any age-induced decline in speed would make these plays less fruitful, but there are other ways LeBron could be effective.
As he ages into more of a traditional big man, he’ll probably start using the big-man specialties more frequently: post-ups and pick-and-roll screening. Both of these play types give LeBron different ways to get the ball in his danger zones where he can capitalize on his strength, intelligence and vision.
We’ve already seen a good amount of LeBron’s dominance in the post over the last six years. With shooting around him, his post-ups are a nightmare to defend. If you send help, he has the size to see over the defense and pick you apart with cross-court bullets that find open shooters. On top of his vision and physical passing ability, LeBron is a master at manipulating the defense and timing his passes to perfection.
If you don’t send help, LeBron will get to his spot and make your defenders look foolish. Younger LeBron relied on an unstoppable, high degree-of-difficulty baseline fadeaway to score from the post. Today’s LeBron, armed with grown-man strength and a better understanding of how to draw switches2, is capable of brutalizing post defenders into submission and finishing around (or through) double-teams.
While we have seen LeBron weaponize the post-up, we haven’t seen him realize his devastating potential as a screener. The Kyrie–LeBron pick-and-roll became a key offensive action for the Cavaliers, but it was usually run with the goal of drawing switches as opposed to unleashing LeBron as a roll man. He only finished 49 possessions as the screener last season but he scored 1.429 points per possession (96th percentile3 per Synergy) on those plays.
LeBron isn’t even a particularly good screener (yet) in terms of consistently making good contact, but the Cavs’ spacing combined with his ridiculous IQ generates easy looks on those plays. He’s already shown glimpses of his screening versatility, scoring from a variety of screening situations:
For more inspiration on how Old LeBron could influence his team’s offense, I decided to look at some of the most versatile offensive bigs in the league today. By doing this, I noticed three major areas that could yield dividends for LeBron in the future: the dribble hand-off, the short roll, and the elbows.
All three of these actions can be effective with limited athleticism and would give LeBron the ability to make read-and-react plays against a compromised defense. The way he’s used moving forward will be partly dictated by his environment (teammates and coaching)4, but all of the aforementioned play types are examples of how an athletically compromised LeBron could still be a problem for opposing defenses.
For LeBron to continue making an impact at the highest level, he can’t be a defensive liability. This should probably be his biggest area of concern. Small-ball has exposed defenders with bad footspeed and his offensive skills won’t stop him from becoming a defensive liability if he ever gets too slow to hang defensively on the perimeter.
As a traditional big defender, however, we’ve already seen promising signs. He’s too strong to get bullied in the paint and that should only continue to improve as he redefines his role. In terms of rim protection, most of what we’ve seen is him rotating over as a weak-side defender, but he does this very well. Finishing over, through or around him in the paint is no easy feat. More importantly, he consistently makes the right decisions and deciphers plays quicker than most. His physical gifts may wane, but he’ll always be one of the smarter players in the league.
Over his career, LeBron’s versatility has redefined how we think of basketball greatness. He started his career as a point forward and may end it as a point center. To prolong his dominance, he’ll have to hone a new set of skills. We might start to see signs of this evolution this season depending on how much the Cavs play Kevin Love at center.
For me, the most enjoyable aspect of LeBron James’ career has been watching him solve problems. The San Antonio Spurs stumped him by walling off the paint and forcing him to shoot jumpers, but he eventually found ways to dictate terms instead of having them dictated to him. Playing alongside other All-Star-caliber teammates like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was a major adjustment, but they all figured out how to tweak their roles in order to maximize team success. In his recent battles against the Golden State Warriors—basketball’s version of the Kobayashi Maru—he’s had to control every second of the game for his team to have a chance at victory (and I still don’t really understand how he won in 2016).
Unlike the previous Labors of LeBron, his ultimate challenge—a battle against Father Time—is one he’s destined to lose. The only question is: when? I don’t know how long he’ll be able to stave off basketball mortality. I just know I can’t wait to watch him try.
1. The Synergy data only goes back to the 2004/05 season, so his rookie year isn’t captured in these numbers. It’s also worth noting that these Synergy numbers only reflect plays LeBron has finished (i.e. shooting, drawing a foul or committing a turnover). These stats don’t account for LeBron’s passing which is a fairly large hole in the data.^
2. The “drawing switches” part is a crucial aspect of his success. Even if LeBron is eventually defended full-time by centers (because he’s too slow to blow by them), he should still be able to wreak havoc from the post whenever he gets mismatches.^
3. For reference, he was more efficient as a roll man than Rudy Gobert (1.38PPP), Karl-Anthony Towns (1.23PPP), Hassan Whiteside (1.20PPP) and Clint Capela (1.14PPP) last year, albeit it a much lower volume.^
4. If we’ve learned one thing about LeBron James, it’s that he’ll control his environment. As long as he’s surrounded with shooting and at least one other primary ball-handler, Grandpa Bron should continue to be a headache for NBA defenses.^