LeBron James' constant evolution should allow him to age well


LeBron James did something unexpected last year: He got to the rim more than ever. That’s just not something players with the mileage James has accumulated typically do, but perhaps it will help preserve him for the tail end of his career.

James took 45.9 percent of his shots from within 2 feet of the rim last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, a giant leap over the previous year, when he took 33.2 percent of his shots at the rim. For his career, James has taken 34.8 percent of his shots at the rim, a fairly high number and also a good idea, since he’s converted 72.5 percent of those shots. James averaged 25.8 points a game last year, but bucked the NBA trend by shooting 19.9 percent of his shots from the 3-point line, down from the previous two years.

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This is not what usually happens when a player hits the kind of games- and minutes-played numbers that James has. Then again, James has never followed trends. That is why he tops our stacked list of the best small forwards in the NBA at age 31, the oldest player to be the best at his position. As good as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and others are, they still are striding toward a standard set by always-evolving LeBron.

Because James came out of high school, there are few players to use as career comparisons, but the two obvious ones are Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

When Garnett was lined up with James in terms of minutes played, after the 2009-10 season, he was 34 and had three good — though injury-prone — seasons remaining. Garnett did not have the explosiveness required to get good looks near the rim, so his game began a migration to the elbow and beyond. He took 26.3 percent of his shots at the rim in 2010-11, a drop from 27.8 percent the previous year, then saw a steady decline over four years: 19.2 percent, 17.1, 16.3 and 14.7 in 2014-15.

Garnett remained effective only because he typically made 46 to 48 percent of his midrange shots.

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Similarly Bryant drifted away from the basket when he was around James’ minutes level. He took 21.2 percent of his shots at the rim in 2010-11 before dropping to 15.2 percent and 13.2 percent. (Bryant did have an uptick to 21.1 percent in 2012-13, but plummeted back to 9.3 percent last year).  

That’s typical. As a player ages and becomes less athletic, he does more settling for jumpers than working for shots at the rim.

But James bucked that trend last season, and we’ll have to see if he continues to do so next year. He d

id not operate as a post-up player all that much last year, instead getting his offense from the pick-and-roll and in transition.  Though he has proven to be a good roll man — something that could be exploited more with a full season of healthy Kyrie Irving — the bulk of his offense came from ballhandling in the pick-and-roll, where James averaged 0.88 points per possession, in the league’s 78th percentile.

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He also scored 1.32 points per possession in transition, tied with Kevin Durant for the league lead among players with 200 transition possessions.

Put it all together, and James spent last year picking his spots for easy baskets. He will still try 3-pointers, still take long 2-pointers when necessary (though he continued a four-year trend of setting a new career low in 16 foot-to-the-arc long 2s). Mostly, though, James tried to let his teammates space the floor last season, and took advantage of the room he had to get to the rim out of the pick-and-roll and in fast-break situations. He did not force much, and wound up shooting 52.0 percent on the year.

POSITION RANKIGNS: Point guards | Shooting guards | Small forwards

Again, that’s not traditionally how we’ve seen players age. But James is not a traditional player, and maybe his approach will be better for him as he gets older (James will turn 32 on New Year’s Eve). Keep an eye on whether he keeps making things easy on himself this year.