LeBron James is not one to take disrespect lightly. When he won the championship last season, he made it clear that he wanted his damn respect after a year of "Washed King" chatter. The outside noise has since faded, but in the middle of Tuesday's blowout Lakers victory over the Rockets, he got some of it from one of his own teammates. After relocating off of a drive in the second quarter, James found himself with the ball in the corner directly in front of the Laker bench. As LeBron would later reveal, Dennis Schroder, mere inches away, said "I bet you won't make it."
Well, LeBron didn't just make it. As soon as the ball left his hands, he turned around, stared Schroder right in the face and waited to hear the sound of his ball going through the hoop. Swish.
It's a patented Stephen Curry move, and one that relies on the sort of supreme confidence that only a Splash Brother could have in his shot. Nick Young still gets GIFed after missing his no-look attempt, and James, as image-conscious as athletes come and hardly known for his jumper, never would have tried it if he wasn't absolutely certain that it was going in. He may not be Curry, but 18 years into his career, that's a confidence that he has finally earned.
With his 36th birthday now in the rearview mirror, LeBron has embraced the 3-point line like never before. Through 12 games, he is attempting 6.3 3-pointers per game. That ties the career-high he set last season, but remember, James is playing fewer minutes and taking fewer shots than he did last year, when the Lakers placed a heavy emphasis on winning regular-season games.
So far this season, 34.1 percent of his field goal attempts have come from behind the arc. That comfortably tops last season's career-high of 32.6 percent and his career figure at 22.1 percent. What's more is that James is attempting only 6.2 shots per game in the restricted area. LeBron has made his living attacking the basket for nearly two decades, but this season, he's doing so less often than he is taking 3s. While his laissez-faire approach to the regular season after a prolonged stay in the Orlando bubble is likely responsible, it should be noted that he has never come close to averaging more 3-pointers than restricted area shots in his career. He is doing so now.
He isn't making his 3s at an especially impressive rate. So far this season, he's hitting 36 percent of his 3-pointers. That's roughly league-average, and while it's far above 34.4 percent career average, it isn't exactly anything to write home about. But just taking these shots means more than you'd think, and there are reasons to believe that they are going to become significantly more valuable with time.
LeBron viewed 3-pointers as a last resort. His volume has grown steadily in recent years, but a more recent development has been his willingness to launch at extreme distances. When James won his lone championship in Cleveland during the 2015-16 season, he attempted 282 3s, but only 25 of them came 27 or more feet away from the basket, according to Stathead. That's less than nine percent, and unsurprisingly, he shot an unremarkable 36 percent on those attempts. But he's steadily grown more comfortable stepping several feet behind the line. Last season, he took 128 3s from a distance of at least 27 feet, more than 30 percent of his overall total. He made only 33.6 percent of them, but the groundwork had been laid. This season, he's attempted 19 27-footers in 12 games ... and made 47.4 percent of them.
Now, 19 attempts isn't a remotely sustainable sample, and it's possible, if not likely, that LeBron will regress. But over the past four full seasons, he's shot nearly 39 percent on wide-open 3-pointers. Typically, the further back a shooter positions himself, the more open he can expect to be. That is especially true of players like James, who don't have reputations as marksmen. If defenses continue to grant them, he'll likely continue making them at a rate that equates to great overall offense. And if they start making a greater effort to defend them? Well, this is LeBron we're talking about. He can still blow by them.
The Lakers would certainly welcome the idea of LeBron developing into some sort of off-ball spacer, but that last notion is the true value of LeBron's newfound emphasis on the 3-pointer. While still far more athletic than the average NBA player, James is no spring chicken. He's 36 and will only become less explosive with time. Getting to the basket is only going to get harder, especially if defenses continue to play him primarily as a driver. Father Time is undefeated. Eventually, James was always going to have to diversify to keep defenses on their toes.
That is the greatest benefit of his newfound emphasis on shooting. It provides an alternative means of scoring that, in theory, could help preserve his original methods a little while longer. The more defenses respect LeBron as a shooter, the easier it will be for him to get to the basket. He may be attempting fewer shots in the restricted area than ever, but he's making 71.6 percent of them. That's hardly peak-LeBron, but it's the best regular-season figure he's posted as a Laker. It's going to rise in the playoffs as it did last season, and strong continued shooting will only help it do so.
Again, this is LeBron James we're talking about here. Barring a serious injury, no version of his twilight was going to look particularly ugly. He'll always be able to pass. He'll always be able to kill mismatches and doubles in the post. He's perhaps the smartest basketball player that has ever lived. No player in NBA history has been as well-positioned to age gracefully as LeBron, but there are degrees to that idea. James doesn't want to just contribute to winning. He wants to drive it.
Shooting can be a fountain of youth for aging players. Those that improve at it can tack years onto the back end of their careers. But it's more than that for LeBron. It's a chance to buttress his other skills as they inevitably start to decline, to stave off the basketball reaper practically indefinitely with an all-around skill-set that's immune even to the aging process. James hasn't been shy about the disdain he toward those pushing the "Washed King" narrative, but if he continues to emphasize his shooting at this rate, there's no reason he'll ever have to hear those words again.