Despite having the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Cavs have problems. The Wine and Gold's trademark defense has disappeared in recent weeks, injuries to Mo Williams and Delonte West have caused stress in the backcourt, the trade of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and the insertion of Antawn Jamison into the lineup have caused some (hopefully) temporary disarray in an already inconsistent rotation. The team's 72.5-percent average from the free-throw line is 28th in the league, and despite having a +1.6 differential, the Cavs are still turning the ball over an unacceptable 14.4 times a game.
The one constant through the struggles has been LeBron and a campaign that has him as a favorite to win his second MVP award. He's averaging 30 points, 7.1 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game. He's shooting career highs in field-goal percentage (50.3) and true-shooting percentage (60.8) and in general has been awesomely dominant. But he's not beyond reproach, and for all the improvements in his game, his shot selection, specifically on three-pointers and deep jumpers, has been problematic this year.
Last week's loss to the Nuggets provides a good case study. LeBron's 43-13-15 line is impressive, but look deeper. LeBron was 12-16 from the field within 10 feet of the basket — just about where you'd expect him to be — but was just 3-17 from everywhere else, including 1-9 from behind the arc. Four of those misses came in overtime, including the last-second shot where LeBron slipped. Two more came in the fourth quarter and specifically, during the last 5:30 of the game, when the score was either tied or close.
Sometime in the last minutes of that Nuggets game, TNT went over to the analysts, and Mike Fratello was asked what the Cavs were going to do. His response — and I'm paraphrasing — was, "Well, if LeBron wants to shoot a three-pointer, that's what he's going to do. It certainly looks like he feels like he's got something there."
LeBron was one for nine on threes. But Fratello is right about this: If that's what LeBron wants to do, that's what he's going to do. LeBron ranks fifth in the NBA in most threes attempted — 286 so far this year. His 35.3 shooting percentage on threes, however, ranks 77th.
Make sense? Probably not, especially when you have Boobie Gibson (ranked second in percentage), Anthony Parker (6th) and Mo Williams (8th) on your roster.
Kelly Dwyer expounds on LeBron's three-point attempts per game at Yahoo! Sports: "Making 35 percent of your 5.2 three-pointers a game means you're creating just a little over one point per possession. This year, 312 points for every 298 possessions. That's not what you want. The Detroit Pistons, the NBA's 25th-worst offense, score at about the same rate: 103.7 points per 100 possessions. Even as an aside, five possessions per game amongst the dozens that LeBron uses up, this still hurts the overall picture.
"The Cavs average 91 possessions per contest, and while five out of 91 might not seem like much (especially considering that he does right for a huge chunk of those other possessions), it's still enough to hurt. And that's not even considering the scads of long two-pointers LeBron takes."
The LeBron apologists are predictable. They will say that he's taking so many threes and jumpers because he has to bail out the team at the end of the shot clock. Or it's important for him to take jumpers to set up his drives and keep his defender guessing. Or he has to take jumpers to save his body, because of the physical toll that comes with jumping into defenders in the paint each and every possession down the floor.
And while that's all true to some degree, 10.4 low-percentage shots isn't efficient offense, especially since so many other aspects of LeBron's game are high-percentage. And bailout shots are not what's padding those career-high numbers in attempts from beyond the arc. Too often, especially in the fourth quarter, the Cavs' offense disintegrates, and LeBron pounds the ball for an entire possession before hoisting a shot. Nothing that could be remotely considered an offense is run, and you can't tell me that's the best shot the Cavs can get in close games, especially when LeBron can get to the paint whenever he wants, is a magician at finding open teammates and has developed a nice little post game.
Is it the Cavs biggest problem? No. With the playoffs and plenty of critical games looming, is it something you'd want LeBron to address before we play the Magic or Celtics or Lakers? Absolutely.