It may sound odd, but LeBron James is experiencing a career resurgence at the age of 32. He is averaging 28.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game. MVP-level numbers at first glance, but a closer look reveals just how well James has been playing. He has never shot the ball better, as his FG% is 58.7%, and his 3PT% is an incredible 43%.
His numbers would be even better if he weren’t averaging a career-low in one important category; free throw attempts. Despite taking the second-most shots from within five feet of the basket (nine per game), James ranks 17th in the NBA in free throws taken per game, with just 5.5. Compare those stats with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who leads the league in shots within five feet with 10.8, and also leads in free throws taken per game with 9.7.
Although their field goal attempts are similar, Antetokounmpo is getting to the line far more than James. One is 6’8” 250 lbs, the other, 6’11” 222 lbs. Based on these numbers, it’s easy to understand why James is frustrated with the lack of fouls called when he’s driving to the basket. On November 28th, in a game against the Miami Heat, James missed a shot in the third quarter, and proceeded to argue with a referee, as he thought he was fouled. The referee, Kane Fitzgerald, gave James a technical foul and then ejected him, the first time in James’ 1,000+ game career that he was ejected.
James has a reputation as a “flopper” on defense, but offensively, it’s quite the opposite. Rather than avoiding contact, James meets it head-on. He is one of the most physically powerful players in the history of the NBA, and because of his proven track record, it’s almost expected that he’ll manage to score, even with contact. Just watching him absorb contact is easily taken for granted. Other players realize this, and understand that they can get away with more contact on James than on a different player.
Take this foul by Atlanta’s DeAndre’ Bembry for instance. James is put in a headlock by Bembry while in the air; this foul was reviewed by the officiating crew and was ultimately kept a common foul, with no additional punishment for Bembry.
James Harden is an example of a player who intentionally looks for contact to draw fouls. He is adept at pump faking a defender into jumping, and then leaning into them. Harden ranks 27th in the league in interior shots taken, but second in free throw attempts per game. James could change his game to draw more fouls, but why would he? His physicality is one of the most important aspects of his game, and is what will allow him to remain effective as he ages.
As frustrating as the lack of calls may be for James and Cavs fans alike, it’s highly unlikely anything will change. James will continue to be robbed of calls, but he will also continue to dominate. Such is the price to pay for greatness.