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The New, Unchanging LeBron James

Wizards v/s Heat 03/30/11

via flickr | Keith Allison

Consecutive championships and record-setting regular seasons later, it’s sometimes hard to remember the time when many wondered whether LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could ever successfully coexist. But James and Wade tossed that concern aside what seems like for good a couple seasons ago, specifically one year after its tipping point in that vexing loss to Dallas in the 2011 Finals. The following campaign was the original months-long showcase of ball-movement, cutting, pace, and space that’s come to mark Miami’s distinct identity in its quest for a three-peat.

James and Wade are in perfect on-court sync now, even as their career arcs continue trending in opposite directions. Much has been made of Wade’s decline since their first and only unsuccessful season together, and the crux of that narrative rings true: At 31 years-old and playing on ever-balky knees, Wade is hardly the force he was three seasons ago. But the Heat, obviously, can manage with this updated and outdated version of Wade, and that gradual shift of role and responsibility began taking place in 2011-2012. Though he mightnot even be the player now that he was just that short time ago, Wade and the Heat have continued adjusting to find ways to maximize his effectiveness.

Erik Spoelstra famously utilized pie charts in January 2011 to educate his players on their scoring tendencies, and the importance of such measurements has only grown in importance as Miami learns to play with a more limited Wade. Indeed, Spoelstra and his captain have focused on that metamorphosis more than ever so far this season. Recently, each have openly discussed from where on the court Wade should attempt the majority of his shots, not only to save his body from additional wear and tear, but boost his efficiency as a secondary scorer within a James-centric offensive attack, too. And though Wade’s type and degree of success has varied so far this season – units featuring Wade and bench players have performed above historic norms, it should be noted – that constant emphasis is sure to serve the Heat well going forward.

A corollary of Wade’s development as a scorer is what that means for James. Perhaps more than any other player in the league, the two-time defending MVP is conscious of efficiency. After scoring 39 points on 18 attempts from the field in a win against the Mavericks last week, at first it seemed ridiculous when James opined that he’d “put up 60…easy” if he matched Rudy Gay’s recent 37-shot opus. But the numbers – as ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh told us – bear that optimism out, and it should come as no surprise given James’s still-increasing reliance on taking shots that come with the biggest expected yield.

Easily lost amid LeBron’s new prowess as a shooter from just inside the arc last season is that he settled for those shots less frequently than ever before. Similar shifts reside across the entire floor from season-to-season; James hunts for the most efficient attempt first and foremost.

LeBron Dist 3

More shots from the restricted area each season. A steady decline in mid-range jumpers since 2012. A growing percentage of corner three-pointers.

This all goes to show that James isn’t just a better player than he was three seasons ago, but a smarter one, too. The Heat’s offensive style subsists on this type of thinking, with LeBron a threat as penetrator and post-up option before anything else. Drawing extra defenders to the ball is crucial to a system so dependent on finding open looks from three-point range, and that attention comes most willingly to James the closer he is to the basket. Related: LeBron ranks fourth and first, respectively, in attempts (78) and accuracy (79.5%) from the restricted area.

But what might be most impressive and important about James’s new shot chart is that it’s come while Wade has worked to make his look the same. This is where those redundancies that sparked concern of this union from the beginning come back into play. James and Wade, no longer close to equals, nevertheless operate most comfortably from essentially the same spots on the floor: at the rim and in the post. In theory, this pairing could prove ever-problematic as Wade enters twilight and LeBron’s efficiency soars. These aren’t normal superstars, though, and Miami not a normal offense; versatility and adaptability rule the day in South Beach.

That considered, it’s not shocking LeBron’s shot-chart is almost unchanged from its season-long look with Wade on the floor. A few percentage points exchange from above-break three-pointers to the rim in that scenario, a byproduct of having a playmaker like Wade at his side. But with his partner in crime on a strict diet of playing time – James is playing 15.6 minutes per game without Wade this season as opposed to 12.4 in 2013 – it would be easy for James to stray from his addiction to mining for the most valuable shots. He mostly played that way in Cleveland, after all, and pull-up jumpers are easier on the body and the brain than forays to the paint or patience that leads to catch-and-shoot threes. LeBron, however, cares not for convenience these days.

Lebron dist without wade 2

More shots from the restricted area each season. A steady decline in mid-range jumpers since 2012. A growing percentage of corner three-pointers.

James’s chart is almost independent of any on-court influence now, be it the presence of Wade or four ancillary teammates. That certainly wasn’t the case in 2011 and not even last season, either. This is what the league has feared most with LeBron for years – not just the physical or just the mental, but an amalgam of the two. Driven by Wade’s deterioration, Spoelstra’s urges, and a seemingly undying quest to become the greatest player of all time, he’s finally reached that perfect symbiosis. And as we’ve assumed it would be for so long, it’s a scary, scary combination.

LeBron’s better understanding of expected value via certain spots on the floor makes him a more devastating scorer and Miami a more devastating offense. It’s that unrivaled proficiency – James ranks first in PER and his team first in offensive efficiency – that’s allowed the Heat to overcome a typically underwhelming start to the season defensively en route to a 7-3 record. And should these exalted levels be sustained, it’s what could drive them to a third consecutive championship this summer, too.

*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com/stats.

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Jack Winter