LeBron James has rediscovered his outside shot, but it hasn't saved the Laker offense

In his 21st season, LeBron James' outside shooting efficiency has climbed to a level he hasn't displayed since the pinnacle of his career with the Miami Heat. But why hasn't it been enough to rejuvenate a mediocre Laker offense?

Feb 23, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) shoots
Feb 23, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) shoots / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this month, a week after the league's annual trade deadline, substantiated rumors dropped about LeBron James in a manner that had never happened before in his career. The Golden State Warriors, the same franchise that was his fiercest competition in four straight NBA Finals, made an attempt to acquire the 39-year-old forward. While a trade never came to be, it may be both a harbinger of how James views his future in Los Angeles and a reflection of how unimpressive this season has been for the Lakers.

A couple of weeks prior, on Jan. 30, LeBron posted a single emoji on X/Twitter that went viral across the league: an hourglass with only a few remaining grains of sand. At the time, most of the basketball community interpreted it as James' signal to the Lakers front office to make a move to upgrade the roster for title contention. Earlier that night, they'd lost to the floundering Atlanta Hawks to fall to 24-25 on the season.

In the stretch of his career when he was a perpetual figure in the NBA Finals, the opposing defensive game plan was consistently rehearsed: force LeBron into settling for long jump shots. Save for his final two years in Miami, James was never a 40 percent outside shooter — the consensus point of delineation between above-average and elite shooting in the NBA.

In the nine seasons he was an Eastern Conference champion, James reached that 40 percent mark twice. For the remainder of this stretch, he shot between 31 and 38 percent, with the majority of them below the league average of roughly 36 percent. Prior to this season, James had only been a prolific outside shooter when he was afforded an offensive co-pilot in Dwayne Wade.

Lakers-era LeBron hadn't been successful so far in that regard either — his 3-point efficiency ranging between 33 and 36 percent for the first five seasons he wore the purple and gold. But, so far, this season has been different. James has taken 272 3-pointers (the 64th most among all active players this season) and made 40 percent of his attempts, according to NBA Stats. Combine this high-volume outside shooting with his customary efficiency inside the arc and the result is LeBron having one of his most impactful offensive stretches in his 21st season.

LeBron James has changed his approach to 3-pointers this year

And this season is about how LeBron has changed his shot diet. According to tracking data from Second Spectrum, James is having his most efficient outside shooting season since the league began collecting and sharing this data in 2013-14. On catch-and-shoot opportunities, defined as a jump shot where a player possessed the ball for two or fewer seconds and took no dribbles, LeBron is shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc (for a 67 percent effective field-goal percentage). The closest comparable season in terms of efficiency was his last in Miami when he shot 44 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers with a 61 percent effective field-goal percentage.

Interestingly, LeBron's pull-up shooting, which requires a player to take one or more dribbles on the similarly-defined attempts as catch-and-shoot above, has never been worse. Instead, he's decidedly removed these higher-difficulty attempts — which used to make up more than half of all his 3-pointers — and he's replaced them with higher-percentage catch-and-shoot opportunities.

As impressive as James' individual offensive prowess has been this season (and throughout his career), the Lakers haven't looked like a competitive team on that end of the floor through their first 59 games. They rank as the league's 17th-best offense, according to Cleaning the Glass, averaging 116 points per 100 possessions in a season when offensive efficiency has exploded league-wide.

These Lakers have displayed the aptitude of a capable offensive team, without the consistency to build credibility as a postseason threat on that end of the floor. They've shot a respectable 57 percent from the field, which would have ranked second-best league-wide just five seasons ago, and have the ninth-best free-throw rate so far this season. Like James, the Lakers haven't had trouble putting the ball in the basket.

Instead, their offense has been hampered by losing the possession battle. The Lakers have turned the ball over at a league-average rate and grabbed the second-fewest offensive rebounds, behind only the trifling Wizards. The Lakers have struggled to grab second-chance opportunities in the past few seasons after proving to be dominant on the offensive glass during their title run in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. That team featured elite rebounders — Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, to name two prominent ones — whereas the current roster is constructed to maximize spacing in the half-court.

In minutes featuring either Anthony Davis or Christian Wood as "the big", which comprise the majority of the team's possessions this season, the Lakers have looked to maximize the number of higher-percentage looks at the rim. And, so far, it's worked. The Lakers take the third-most rim attempts of any team, comprising 36 percent of their field-goal attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But, that spacing comes at a cost of fewer offensive rebounds. Offensive rebounding is on one end of the pendulum which is transition basketball. If a team is more aggressive sending players to grab offensive putbacks, they'll have fewer men back on defense were that rebound to be secured by the opponent. In theory, the Lakers could juice their offensive rebounding numbers by risking allowing opponents additional opportunities in transition. So far this season, the Lakers have forfeited a league-average number of transition opportunities — an indication that they aren't committed to a particular strategy on either end of the metaphorical pendulum. If the Lakers would like to advance outside the play-in tournament, they'll need to develop a coherent identity here.

With 23 games remaining and only four games separating the Lakers and the fifth-seeded Phoenix Suns in the loss column, they'll be motivated to be aggressive down the final stretch of the regular season. The basketball world knows LeBron doesn't settle to compete at less than the highest level, and even though they were able to reach the conference finals last season as a play-in team, that path inherently offers a slimmer chance of success. There are reasons to be optimistic about the Lakers down the stretch: they're an efficient scoring offense with a superstar forward having one of the best shooting seasons of his career.

On the other hand, LeBron hasn't, at least to this point in his career, been a drag on any NBA offense. In this final critical stretch it will be the play from the rest of the rotation that determines whether the Lakers ascend to the competitive portion of the Western Conference standings or fall into the play-in tournament for a second year in a row.

This is the pressure that comes from being LeBron James' teammate. You are expected to contribute to winning when the stakes are highest. Over the next month and a half, we'll find out if the Lakers have what it takes to elevate their offense out of mediocrity, secure their birth in the Western Conference postseason, and revitalize the franchise's championship prospects.

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