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LeBron James shouldn’t be shooting this free throw.
It’s Dec. 31 in Charlotte, with the Cavs up 114-104, and James is walking toward the charity stripe to shoot the technical. Based on pure math, this is a bad call. The four-time MVP is in the middle of the worst free throw shooting season of his career, converting just 67.9 percent. There are better options available to the Cavs — like, for example, four-time All-Star Kevin Love, a career 82 percent free throw shooter.
But this is alpha dog territory, and James has flexed his superstar status in moments like this before. Consider the 2010-11 Heat, which many consider the most alpha dog team ever. That season James, a career 74 percent free throw shooter at the time, shot 15 T’s, while Dwyane Wade (77 percent) took one and Chris Bosh (80 percent) took zero. James made just 10 of the 15.
Hornets fans should be delighted to see James at the line. When he shoots technical free throws, his accuracy gets markedly worse. In fact, among the 104 shooters since 1996 with at least 100 technical attempts to their name, James ranks as the worst, converting just 67 percent of his 248 tries, per NylonCalculus.com tracking.
Even still, Love does what so many of James’ teammates have done before: He steps aside and lets James take a crack at it. The referee passes LeBron the ball, and he begins his elaborate routine. He places the ball on his left hip and blows into his right fist as if to reignite a dimming ember. Then he lines up his toes on the line, dribbles three times, spins the ball in his left hand, steps backward with his left foot, rocks back, rocks forward, plants his left foot back on the line. He bends his knees. He looks up at the rim. He shoots.
The shot falls short, bouncing off the front rim with a thud, the ball plopping right in front of James. He slaps it away while the Charlotte crowd collectively cheers and laughs at him. Few things electrify a crowd like an opposing star’s missed technical free throw.
James seems oddly rattled at the line this night. Earlier, in the first quarter, he had actually tripped in the middle of his free throw routine during that same unorthodox step-back, planting his foot too early and knocking himself off balance.
Which helps to explain why James, in this moment, is visibly frustrated. This is his seventh technical free throw of the season, almost halfway to his career average of 18 per season — and this one apparently cuts deep. No one knows it at the time, but with 50 games remaining, it will mark the last technical free throw that James will take in the 2016-17 season.
James, like never before, has given up.
TO THE CASUAL fan, it might appear that LeBron does have something resembling a free throw ritual. A trio of dribbles … spin the ball in his left hand … shoot. Simple, right?
But in truth, almost nothing about James’ free throw routine is routine at all.
James has been notorious for changing his free throw routine over his career. In a rut, he once tried dipping his knees to the ground à la Jerry Stackhouse. During the 2006-07 season, James tried kissing each wrist before shooting, a tribute to his mother and now-wife.
But this season, the tinkering has turned extreme — James remixing the same sequence over and over, like a musician searching for the right version of a broken melody. At times, he’s changed his routine multiple times in the same game. If he misses badly enough, he’ll alter it between free throws.
When it comes to free throw shooters, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has seen it all. Since joining the Heat as an assistant in 1996, he’s coached some of the best at the free throw line, like J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson, and some of the more, um, infamous ones, like Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond.
Van Gundy says it’s extremely rare for NBA players to change their routine. You could watch 10 players all year long, he notes, and they won’t change a thing. For the typical player, free throw alterations almost never happen. “Once or twice a career, maybe,” Van Gundy says. “Bad shooters, obviously more.”
But LeBron is not an especially bad shooter. His career average is 74 percent in a league that annually hovers around 75. In his first 13 seasons, his percentage never deviated from a low of 70 percent to a high of 78 percent.
In 1993, a white-haired podiatrist from Long Beach, California, named Tom Amberry etched his name in the Guinness World Records by making 2,750 free throws in a row. In March, Amberry died at age 94, leaving behind a 144-page manual, published in 1996, on mastering free throws. It includes seven steps to successful free throw shooting, stressing the importance of keeping things simple and routine. In a 1994 Sports Illustrated profile, Amberry offered this advice: “You have to perfect all parts of your technique, then it’s just focus and concentration. A free throw takes six seconds, and you can’t think of anything else during those six seconds — you have to put all other thoughts out of your mind. Each shot is a separate shot, and it’s the same ritual every time.”
So what the heck has been going on with LeBron this season? And what price could the Cavaliers pay for it?
Let us count the ways
LET’S REWIND TO October: James opened the season against the Knicks with his standard three-dribble routine but added a hand-warming motion with his shooting hand while he spun the ball in his left. A game later, against Toronto, he ditched the hand warmer and began swiping his chest while spinning the ball. The next night, against Orlando, he ditched the chest swipe and instead swiped the back of his shorts. Hmmm …
For his first free throw of November, James tinkered again, returning to the hand warmer. The move resulted in an air ball against the visiting Rockets. On Houston’s broadcast, former Rockets sharpshooter Matt Bullard was rendered nearly speechless. “I think … I don’t even know what to say. LeBron with an air ball at the foul line? Are you kidding me?”
Then, in a bizarre yet somehow predictable turn of events, James overhauled his footwork the following game. Playing against Boston on Nov. 3, he unveiled a step-back routine, mimicking an in-game jumper. Instead of both feet toeing the line, he began by setting his left foot several inches behind the line. While spinning the ball in his left hand, he simultaneously stepped with his left foot to about 12 inches behind him, then stepped forward back to the line. He shot a perfect 5-for-5 doing it this way.
So he kept it, right? Nope. The first free throw in the next game followed a different pattern. While stepping back with his left foot on a technical free throw, James took his right hand and swiped it straight down his chest as his left hand spun the ball. The shot barely grazed the front of the rim. The very next free throw he abandoned the chest swipe.
It went like this for the rest of the season. He tinkered with at least four different hand gestures with his shooting hand: a hand-warmer gesture, a downward swipe of his chest, a backside swipe. Sometimes he’d do nothing.
As for his feet? He used at least seven different foot patterns: the traditional two feet on the line; staggering his feet; a step-back; standing a foot behind the line (as he debuted on Christmas Day in front of 10 million viewers); shuffling his feet like someone waiting to use the restroom; lifting the toes of his front foot during the step-back like a rocking chair; and a toe tap that might have also been a trip.
Catching the ball? Yet another adventure. Sometimes he received it, threw it on his left hip and took a huge breath while staring at the rim. Other times he sifted the ball in his hands as if dusting it off, or stood behind the line and began his dribbles while walking to the stripe.
For a while, he got into the habit of shrugging his shoulders while he bent his knees, à la Kevin Durant. Sometimes it was a slow, deep crouch. Other times he didn’t bend his knees at all. Occasionally he rhythmically gyrated like a man on a bouncy ball, or simply bent and straightened out.
All in all, James employed 18 distinct free throw variations with countless combinations throughout the season. In November, James altered his routine at least 21 different times, cycling through various adjustments on the fly. During his worst month, when he converted just 62 percent in March, he changed his routine in every single game. The only constant was change.
Said one former James teammate watching closely: “It’s the yips.”