LeBron James had an unforeseen nightmarish season from the free-throw line in his 14th year in the league, going well below his career average of 74 percent into the worst clip of his career at 67.4 percent.
But what escaped the eyes of the common fan is the 18 different ways he attempted to shoot the freebies — playing a major part in his lack of consistency, as noted in Tom Haberstroh’s piece Fifteen Feet of Trouble on ESPN The Magazine.
James has made a routine out of shooting technical free throws, which in many teams, is a task reserved for the team’s best free-throw shooter or often its best player.
Despite him not being the former at any point in his career, James has always shot technicals, a practice that has costed his team dearly throughout his 14 years as a pro.
It’s an alpha male practice in an alpha male world, even with two other superstars in his team. It wasn’t any more evident than during the 2010-11 Miami Heat, when he took 15 technical freebies, converting only 10 of them (66.7 percent) while Dwyane Wade (77 percent) took only one, and Chris Bosh (80 percent) took none.
His free-throw prowess has been so poor, in fact, that among the 104 shooters since 1996 with at least 100 technical free-throw attempts — James ranks as the worst — converting just 67 percent of his 248 tries, according to NylonCalculus.com tracking.
It took for the King to have taken and missed his seventh technical free throw of the season to do something he never once thought of doing — give up taking them.
His free-throw struggles continued, and so did the changes in his routine, changing from blowing warm air into his shooting hand while he spun the ball with his left, to rocking his feet back, then forth; locking his knees wide, then narrow. Stepping back with one foot ala Paul Pierce, going into a deep crouch a la Jerry Stackhouse, and even doing his own version of Kevin Durant‘s shoulder shrug prior to going into his shooting form.
It got so meticulous, that he wouldn’t just change his routine from game-to-game, but do so in between free throws. Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, who has seen some of the best at the stripe, from marksmen like J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson, to some of the worst in Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond — says it’s extremely rare to see a player change his free-throw routine or motion, claiming it might happen once or twice in a career at most.
James is notorious for striving for excellence, especially when it comes to free points at the line.
Still nothing worked.
James, the most renowned NBA superstar in this modern era of the league, was suffering from that which most daren’t talk about — the yips.
Yips is just a commonplace word for a known psychological condition called focal dystonia, which triggers a short circuit in a person’s head once they are tasked with one thing which requires all their attention. This malady has affected some of the best big men in this league, from the great Wilt Chamberlain, to Bill Russell, and Shaquille O’Neal.
Even if the 6-foot-8 small forward doesn’t fit the “big man” description, the condition is the same.
It took for James to do less for him to find his comfort zone. More bang, less buck, more rock, less roll, more meat and less sauce.
During Game 4 of the first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, the Cavs are just seconds away from moving on to the next round and it is up to the King himself to put Indiana away.
Paul George had just missed a three-point attempt and James is swarmed by three Pacers, going to his most feared spot on the court — like he was given a basketball and put upon solitary confinement in a local Indiana prison room up three points with a game to win and only one free throw distancing his team from it.
James does the only thing he had not done the entire season — nothing.
He receives the ball, spins it with his left hand, takes one, two, three dribbles, accommodates his shoulders and lets it fly.
It rattles in.
Not the prettiest, not the swiftest, but everything the city of Cleveland needed — a four-point lead and the weight of potentially playing another game before dispatching the Pacers, now off to a land of forget.
James repeats the very same motion for the next foul shot, this time more relaxed. He misses — yet still raises his first up in the air.
Like the titan Atlas carrying the weight of the world, he was finally able to put the gigantic circumference down and let it rest, his shoulders lighter , yet firm with pride.
He had made the one that counted and that is all that mattered to him. A well-deserved rest for his teammates and one round closer to the hardware he’s been fixated on since the first second of the regular season.