As you may have noticed, the Cleveland Cavaliers kind of stink right now, and there are many things—Kevin Love playing some of the worst ball of his career, their extremely leaky defense, an old and shallow bench—one can point to while trying to explain why. But one of the more alarming developments in the Cavs' season is the fact that LeBron James hasn't looked all that LeBron James-ish so far, particularly when he's trying to finish at the rim.
This play was probably the highlight of James's Christmas Day performance in a loss against the Miami Heat:
It's a brilliant play, one that's hard to imagine anyone besides LeBron James—who always seems to be playing with a top-down view of the court, precisely aware of every player's position—pulling off successfully. There's also something, I don't know, off about it. The play starts with him blowing easily past his defender, something we've all seen plenty of, and yet it does not end with James plowing straight through the rotating defender's chest, muscling in a layup—or maybe even a dunk!—and then flexing after the foul is called, something else we've all seen plenty of. Instead, it ends with LeBron, just for a brief moment, hanging in the air and looking unsure of what he wants to do before his genius snaps back into place and he sends the pass out to the three-point line.
Again, that was a great play, but that brief, unsure moment means something, I think. So does the fact that so far this season, LeBron is shooting 67 percent on shots at the rim—a full 12 percentage points lower than his mark from last season. According to NBA.com, James is shooting 47 percent on drives to the hoop this season, a drop-off of 16 percentage points from what he put up last year. That's a lot!
According to Synergy Sports, last year's version of LeBron was more or less the most lethal player in the league around the rim. On non-post up shots around the basket, he created 1.50 points per possession. (Out of players who took at least 100 shots around the basket, only Dwight Howard was more productive.) He was also a nightmare when driving to the basket out of Iso situations last season, creating 1.13 points per possession when going to his right, and 1.12 when driving to his left.
This year, all of those numbers are down. He's getting just 1.17 points per possession on non-post up shots around the rim, good for 30th in the league among players who have taken at least 100 such shots. He's still doing OK when driving to his right, creating 1.03 points per possession, but he's been a disaster when going to his left, creating just .75 points per possession on 58 such plays.
These numbers would maybe not be all that alarming for a normal player, but this is LeBron James! This is the guy who has spent his career throwing himself into rotating defenders and scattering their bones all over the court. This is the guy who is supposed to have no regard for human life when driving toward the rim.
It's because LeBron is such a goddamn genius that the Cavs have been able to maintain a top-five offensive rating—he's still creating 10 team points per game on drives, thanks in large part to beautiful kick-out passes like the one in the video above—but it's still deeply strange to watch him go at the rim game after game and be unable to finish. At some point, maybe not even all that deep in the playoffs, the Cavs are going to run into a defense good enough to defend the drive-and-kick, and they are going to need LeBron to be a destroyer again, not some guy who can be turned away from the rim by a rotating small forward.