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What will LeBron's game look like in Miami?

Aug 23, 2010, 12:00 PM EDT

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Let’s play a game. Forget that LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat via an hour-long ESPN special was one of the biggest PR disasters in recent memory. Forget everything about how James’ choice to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami rather than stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago or New Jersey represented him taking “the easy way out.” Forget about how some of LeBron’s lackluster performances in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals caused people to question if he’s capable of performing in big games. 
Forget about whether he’s a man, the man, THE MAN, or whatever else on the Heat. I’m not saying those aren’t legitimate concerns, because they are, and have been and will continue to be addressed on this website and many others.
All I’m asking is this: for however long it takes you to read this post, put aside your feelings about LeBron James, the man, and think of LeBron James as a basketball player. Because if you can compartmentalize LeBron’s off-court behavior and his on-court performance, you’ll find some things worth taking a look at.
For just a second, think of LeBron James as he is on the court. He’s walked away with the past two NBA MVP awards, and he may be the most dynamic talent to ever play NBA basketball. And after seven years in Cleveland, he’s going from a supporting cast made up of role players and fringe all-stars who only existed to support his gifts to playing with one MVP-caliber player, one All-NBA(maybe 2nd or 3rd team, but still) caliber player, and a series of highly capable role players surrounding the three of them. Forget LeBron’s legacy for just a minute: how will LeBron’s “superfriends” cause him to change his game? Let’s take a look at some of the potential differences in LeBron’s game next season:
Difference #1: More Lebron off the ball

Most people think that LeBron James will score less next season, but might average 10 assists per game/a triple-double because he’ll have better teammates to pass to. But consider the following: In the 2007 FIBA Qualifiers and 2008 Olympics combined, LeBron averaged .183 assists per minute while surrounded by the best players in basketball while playing against non-NBA competition. During the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron averaged .221 assists per moment while playing with his teammates on the Cavaliers against other NBA teams. What did shoot up when LeBron was surrounded by elite talent was LeBron’s scoring efficiency: LeBron shot 65.4% from the field during his last two international stints, as compared to 50.3% over the course of the 09-10 season. 
For a long time, the conventional wisdom about LeBron has been the following: he’s darn good as he is, but he’d be unstoppable if he had a consistent jump shot. It’s true that LeBron becomes less stoppable with every improvement in his jump shot, but a consistent jump shot wouldn’t make him unstoppable. Why not? Since LeBron makes around 70% of his shots around the basket and 75-78% of his free throws, teams will always try to force him into taking long jumpers. And no player in the NBA makes over half of his long jumpers. Not one. When you consider that most NBA players take most of their long jumpers off of assists rather than off the dribble, it becomes even more apparent that LeBron will never be “unstoppable” in a one-on-one situation, because no perimeter player ever can be. 
Why do I mention this? Because when LeBron gets the ball on the weak side against a defense that isn’t loaded up against him, he’s as close to unstoppable as it gets. He’s 6-8, 260 pounds, his top speed is as fast as any other player’s, he can change directions at full speed, he’s completely ambidextrous around the basket, and he can change directions while going full steam. If he catches the ball in stride and the defense is looking somewhere else, they have no chance of stopping him. 
According to Synergy Sports, LeBron took 125 field goal attempts off of a “cut” last season, and converted 101 of those attempts. That’s an 81% conversion rate. That, folks, is the definition of unstoppable, and that’s how LeBron shot 65% from the field in international play. LeBron is great at scoring in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. He may be just as good at making plays for other in those situations. But he’s unquestionably at his most effective when he can build up a head of steam and attack the rim against a defense that isn’t waiting for him. 
If Wade and Bosh can put enough pressure on defenses next season to let LeBron spend significant chunks of game time lurking on the weak side and striking when one either Wade or Bosh demands the defense’s attention, his scoring/efficiency splits could look absolutely freakish — I’m talking about 25 PPG on 55% shooting from the field, or a 65-67% True Shooting Percentage. True Shooting% isn’t as sexy as averaging a triple-double, but making baskets while missing few of them is how teams win games. 
(PS — Don’t forget how good of a spot-up shooter LeBron can be. Because of the degree of difficulty on his three-point shots, LeBron has never had a great three-point percentage, but he’s a very good natural shooter who can be deadly when given time to set his feet. In the 2007 FIBA games/2008 Olympics, LeBron shot 36/65 from beyond the arc, a conversion rate of 55%. The international three-point line is shorter, but 65 threes is a significant sample size, and LeBron made over half of his threes in international play. LeBron off the ball is freaky, freaky stuff.) 
Difference #2: More playmaking from LeBron?

This will be interesting to see. There’s no doubt that LeBron has the ability to put up huge assist numbers if he’s trusted to be the primary playmaker — he averaged 10.5 assists per game in February, when Mo Willams was injured and LeBron was the de facto point guard for the Cavaliers. With Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller (the latter went 50-99 on “spot-up” threes last season) surrounding him, LeBron certainly has teammates more than capable of converting his assists. 
And with Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo, and Eddie House being the Heat’s point guards, LeBron will be relied as the primary playmaker for much of the time. I just wonder how things will shake out with LeBron and Wade as the playmakers; Wade may be as good or better than LeBron as a playmaker, and there’s no doubt that LeBron is Wade’s superior on the weak side. In short, LeBron could average a 10 APG with his new teammates, but it may not be in the Heat’s best interest to have him do so. And I’m not sure if LeBron is quite as stat-obsessed as Wilt Chamberlain was when Wilt passed up scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity because he decided he wanted to lead the league in assists. Also, don’t forget that the Cavs roster, while decidedly less talented than the Heat’s roster, was constructed of players who were supposed to be effective playing off of LeBron. 
Difference #3: More LeBron in the post?

This is another scenario that could go either way. On the one hand, Chris Bosh is a better post-up threat than LeBron has ever played with, and Wade initiating plays could mean less of James in the post. Additionally, LeBron needs to put in serious work on his footwork in the post to become as effective on the blocks as he is on the drive. 
In the past, LeBron spent his summers with Team USA or Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent working on his game. With LeBron’s free agency/Miami PR campaign this summer, he may not have put as much work into his game as he did in summers past, and his priority when he did work on his game may be assimilating his game with Bosh and Wade’s rather than adding new facets to his own. (At least LeBron postponed the filming of his scripted movie, which would have been a “decision”-level PR blunder.) 
On the other hand, there are two reasons why LeBron may go to his post game in Miami more than he did in Cleveland. First of all, Pat Riley and Mr. Wade likely have LeBron’s ear like no player, executive, or coach in Cleveland ever did. If they tell LeBron he needs to go to the post more, he’s more likely to listen to them than Mike Brown or Mo Williams. After all, Riley did coach Magic Johnson, who utilized the post game beautifully. That fact won’t be lost on LeBron. With LeBron’s size, strength, explosiveness, and ability to use either hand around the basket, he’s a dynamo in the post waiting to happen — he’s just never seen a compelling reason to make post-up scoring a primary element of his game. Part of that is on James’ lack of faith in his teammates’ ability to be effective if he got fronted in the post and the ball didn’t get to him, and part of that is on his own lack of post-up fundamentals. The former won’t be a problem in Miami, so we’ll see if he’s willing to work on the latter. 
Second of all, LeBron did post up a fair bit in Cleveland, but he preferred to wait for the double-team and pass instead of try to go all the way and score. His Cleveland teammates usually didn’t convert when LeBron kicked it out, but that could well change in Miami. If James forces a double-team in the post, it’ll be awfully tough to stop Bosh or Wade if James kicks it out to them. LeBron’s always had the ability to be one of the best post-up players in the NBA if he wanted to be, and that will be just as true in Miami as it was in Cleveland. 
Difference #4: More LeBron on the break

The glacial Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Shaquille O’Neal were the starting centers during LeBron’s seven years in Cleveland, and Mike Brown’s defensive system didn’t encourage the kind of gambling that leads to fast-break opportunities. Because of that, LeBron got to show of his almost unprecedented ability in the full-court rarely, although he was highly successful when the Cavaliers did get a fast-break opportunity. With Wade and Chalmers being two of the most successful defensive gamblers in the league, Bosh being a great athlete for a power forward, and the small but fast Joel Anthony likely to start at center for the Heat, Miami should be a smaller, more athletic, and faster team than any of LeBron’s Cleveland squads were. 
It’s open to debate whether a relatively small lineup is the best way to match up against teams like Orlando, Los Angeles, or Boston, but the Heat should be much “faster” and give LeBron more opportunities to get out on the break than he ever received in Cleveland, and that will be a good thing for the fans. 
Those are about all the differences I can think of for right now. LeBron and Wade will be one heck of a tandem on defense, but that’s a whole different post. Also, I originally thought LeBron would spend a lot more time at the four in Miami than he did in Cleveland, but with Bosh and Haslem both on the roster I doubt that’ll be the case. Say what you will about LeBron, but there’s no arguing that it’ll be interesting to see what LeBron’s game will look like alongside Wade and Bosh next season.

  1. Robj - Aug 23, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    If the coach plays his cards right either Lebron or Wade will be on the court at all times. Add in Chris Bosh and they’re just too good.

  2. Just In Bee Bah - Aug 23, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    We are not in Cleveland anymore sir. The team was not constructed to find ways to get Lebron the ball. Alas, there is only one ball and Lebron would be lucky to touch the ball on 20% of the team’s possessions. Less ball means less everything, stats, prestige, everything. They will win but it will come at the price of individual success just like your favorite examples from FIBA ball.

  3. Yosef - Aug 23, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    20%?? Really? Where did that number come from. I imagine it’ll be Wade, then Lebron an EXTEREMLY close second as far as touches go on this team, followed by Bosh, and then whoever else. But to even think that Lebron would only touch the ball 20% of the time, that’s just…ignint dawg. DWade and Lebron are playmakers, you want the ball in their hands as much as possible

  4. ron - Aug 23, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    in cleveland lebron held the ball for 10 seconds befor he even made a move. he then either took a jump shot traveled or drove to basket. he wont change for anybody. ego is way to large. dont you remember he even tried to grab last rebound from teammate once to pretend he got triple double which the leage rescinded.thats what kind of guy he is. oh by the way bosh 18 and 9 for career. he is way over hyped. all of a sudden miami thinks he is god.kobe , gasol is better duo.

  5. adnan james - Aug 23, 2010 at 2:33 PM

    this is by far the silliest article i have read in my life…
    Wade Rules

  6. steve - Aug 23, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    i have to agree. this is wades team, always will be. lebron is now a sidekick.

  7. lee - Aug 23, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    krolik you have the best stuff on lebron. you know his game better than anyone, and thank you for leaving all of the off the court stuff to the espn writers. keep it up buddy.

  8. gaze - Aug 23, 2010 at 5:53 PM

    Pretty good article. The one thing that I wonder if you’ve considered is the fact that all the questions you’re asking about how to best play James have to be asked about Wade, and then the answers have to be synthesized. Because James and Wade are basically the same player. There are a few differences, and LeBron is the bigger version, but essentially they both do everything– literally everything– on the basketball court. So because they are so similar, determining how to play them comes down to mere nuances of their games. But, if they just look at one of them and try to maximize just his strengths and fit the other one around him, then that’s a colossal waste of talent.
    But, I appreciate your alternative perspective. Most commentators are suggesting that Wade will be the scorer and James will be this Magic Johnson/ Scottie Pippen hybrid. But, as well as Wade creates for others off of penetration especially as well as he plays pick-and-roll, it’s conceivable that he could be the double-digit assist guy while LeBron is the one scoring 25+….

  9. dylan - Aug 23, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    This is good stuff, Krolik. Still read your stuff in on the Cavs blog.
    One interesting thing you mentioned: “Pat Riley and Mr. Wade likely have LeBron’s ear like no player, executive, or coach in Cleveland ever did. If they tell LeBron he needs to go to the post more, he’s more likely to listen to them than Mike Brown or Mo Williams.”
    I read posts, usually from angry clevelanders and Kobe lovers, about LeBron’s selfishness with the ball (i could not disagree more). LBJ will feel like he’s part of family with his good friends, veterans, and Pat Riley. I know this isn’t golf, where the mental game is almost everything, but thinking clearly and positively can only help his game. Watch out.

  10. Ken - Aug 24, 2010 at 12:01 PM

    Both Wade and Lebron are too good to let ‘Whose team’ problem get in the way. I think it will come down to the match up of the game. I think Lebron has match up advantage almost every single game, not so with Wade. So Lebron will have to recognize this and keep Wade in the loop. But I think they both will gladly take a back seat if the team is winning.

  11. Whorelando - Aug 24, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    People act like LBJ is unstoppable, and that he can just go into the post and naturally score. That is not the case, LBJ is as stoppable as everyone else. Stop fellating a guy who has 0 rings

  12. James - Aug 24, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    The biggest “problem” the Heat will have is deciding who they run the offense through. However, I think the Heat will copy the Chicago Bulls’ model and utilize James as a point forward (like Pippen was), and allow Wade to assume Jordan’s responsibilities. This would allow the Heat to take advantage of James’ exceptional playmaking abilities. The Heat have an incredible amount of potential. Even if you consider James-Wade to be a full tier lower than Jordan-Pippen (which at this point is probably accurate), Bosh is an offensive post-up player those Bulls’ teams never had.
    Everyone wants to compare James and Jordan, but the real comparison is James and Pippen. Same position, same height, similar skillsets. James is a superior scorer, but Pippen was a superior defender. Wade is much more akin to Jordan than James is, with both his style of play and leadership abilities, as well as his tendency to step up his game when it matters.
    Despite that incredible potential, I think the Heat are one year away. All the other top teams in the NBA are bringing back their entire rosters with just a few tweaks (the Lakers, magic, Celtics and Thunder), and chemistry matters in the NBA.

  13. chris - Aug 24, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    Finally. An article about LeBron and basketball. There’s been way too much nonsense and haterade written, tweeted, and spoken about LeBron. Thank you!

  14. Jay - Aug 24, 2010 at 5:20 PM

    If you want to talk about LeBron off the ball, all the stats are well and good, but first LeBron has to put in an effort off the ball. I know Krolik watched Cavs games last year as did probably a few people reading this. The Cavs version of LeBron off the ball was one of the more passive players in the NBA. How often did he set screens? How often did he cut with an intent? How often did he run around defenders to spot up? Not very often at all. When LeBron did not have the ball in his hands, he spent most of his time lurking around the 3 point line and standing still until someone passed the ball back to him. Usually his method of getting the ball back would be backing out to 30 feet, then once he got the ball, backing up some more before bull rushing the paint.
    If he wants to utilize all of what Krolik says he can do off the ball, he has to become more active and not mentally check out of the game the second the ball leaves his hands. I’m not a LeBron hater, I just see no reason to believe he can do it until he proves otherwise.

  15. AJ - Aug 24, 2010 at 6:51 PM

    Good point Jay, he mentions in the article that LeBron off the ball happened 125 times through the course of the season, meaning he only cut and went to the rim 1.5 times per game while he was playing off the ball. That number may increase with Wade handling the ball well, but what happens in the game when Wade doesn’t dish to LeBron and takes a couple bad shots in a row, or vice versa? Will he still stay motivated to do the little things like cutting to the rim and working if he doesn’t think Wade will hit him? I agree that playing with friends will bring out the best, and for LeBron that’s a scary venture. However, I don’t know if friends with this much talent will create the best team atmosphere. At the very least, I can see the ball moving between the hands of Bosh, Wade and James bout 90% of the possessions, and the rotation and role players won’t get enough touches to get into the game. If they’re the only ones playmaking and moving the ball, it’s going to be awfully difficult to find any kind of rhythm. Thanks for the real basketball post though, because everything being about Las Vegas clubs and what he had for dinner are just obnoxious.

  16. Bob (DDL) - Aug 24, 2010 at 10:37 PM

    John, I’ve basically been pondering the points that you’ve brought up since the Decision back in July, and in my # crunching the most prominent factor I see is Lebron’s scoring efficiency, as you pointed out. We’re probably in store for what could be the most efficient high volume scoring season ever, and 65%+ TS is definitely in play, as well as an absurd overall level of efficiency.

  17. luffy - Aug 25, 2010 at 1:37 AM

    LBJ will play good no doubt about that… in the regular season that is… I think the Celtics will smoke them in the playoffs and set-up another Lakers-Celtics finals, classic…

  18. luffy - Aug 25, 2010 at 1:42 AM

    Lakers 3peat in 6 games over the Celtics. Go Lakers…
    I admit though that the East is much more exciting to watch than the West…

  19. george - Aug 25, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    I think Spoelstra will be the key to Heat success. This heat team has the talent and mix of players to be absolutely disruptive. They can change their entire offense from possession to possession. James, Wade, or one of their points could bring the ball down on on successive plays with each presenting a different set of problems for a defense. They will be impossible to defend on fast breaks and they have possibly the best pick & roll combination’s in NBA history, with outside shooters that are excellent. But,it will take some great coaching to assure that they know when and how to execute and keep mixing it up. Otherwise, the other powerhouse teams will could outscore the heat because they can exploit them in side with larger more talented centers.

  20. HoopsHoops0801 - Aug 25, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    Enough already…….

  21. SunTzu - Aug 25, 2010 at 1:17 PM

    If you watched the olympics than you’ll know what expect from this team. It wont be an VERY EXPLOSIVE AND EXTRA EXCITING TEAM like we imagine aka NBA JAM. These players together play very sly and sneaky … a lot of half court offense and slow pace for setup of a lot of plays, i guess we arent putting into account their baskeball IQ when we mention their offense. One thing i have notice about Lebron is that he dosent like handling the ball all the time unless the team is struggling or on a hot streak, which would appear to be all the time to an untrained eye. The cavs played very well team ball but could not stand on their own hind legs during pressure and just dished the ball off to LBJ in tight situations. Reason why he couldnt do anything game 5, he was trying to force his team to play. I think he did this just to have players that could hold their own but dont be surprised if you see a lot of the Role Players scoring a lot of points. If anything these guys will play as the “saftey points” for their team mates during tough situations, other wise they are going to try to force their role players to score most of the points during the 2nd and 3rd.

  22. truth speaker - Aug 25, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    Your comments have envy written all over them. Sorry your Cavs wont scare anyone anymore.

  23. Ignarus - Aug 25, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    I’m happy you pointed out that Lebron is actually a really good spot-up shooter when someone ELSE is able to get HIM the ball. Combine that with his ability to charge the basket and we’re going to be looking at a terrifying weak-side Lebron attack.
    Not to mention that Chris Bosh is quick getting to the rim for a 4/5 and has a reliable midrange J that he can shoot it from the weak side…
    And it doesn’t hurt to have Mike Miller and Eddie House ready to shoot the long ball off the catch…
    It’s silly how much this team is built both to force guys to pack the paint and to punish them for doing it.
    Heck, Lebron’s big enough, so is it that much of a stretch to see him d-ing up Howard in the post in the clutch? He played the 5 in FIBA and only gives up a few inches…

  24. hemlock09 - Aug 27, 2010 at 6:05 PM

    Krolik, you just made it so that I have to bookmark this site to catch your stuff. You’re one of my favorite hoop writers. Keep up the great work, glad you’re branching out of Cleveland a bit.
    I’m very interested to read anything you have on the Magic this year. Their blogger was awesome but I think he might have gotten picked up by the local paper. I see every Magic vs Heat game as being Dwight Howard vs Foul Trouble. If he can avoid getting 2 in the first, then the Heat will struggle against them. If he has to sit though, it won’t be pretty.

  25. david - Aug 29, 2010 at 2:34 PM

    I am sick of hearing about Orlando. Dwight Howard is a great player but Miami has LBJ WADE & BOSH. the rest of the Orlando supporting cast is good not great. VC is not a good defender and Wade took his lunch money in the playoffs when he was in NJ. Lewis was terrible in the playoffs this season. Jemeer Nelson is a good little player but again Miami has 3 Stars and other good players to surround them with.
    The only team that can beat this team would be LAL. I still cannot see anybody beating Miami if they play together and make the most of the talents each player has.
    The only way that this doesn’t work is if these guys decide to take turns going One-on-One rather that playing for each other.

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