SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
How can LeBron James still improve his game?
Lee Jenkins: Post game. As evidenced by Monday night's Game 4 win, LeBron doesn't really need to improve in any area. He's 29, smack in his prime, an offensive wrecking ball and defensive dynamo who can essentially man every position and defend them all, too. As long as he sustains his current level he will remain the best player in the world. If we're really picky, I suppose he could always be a more accurate outside shooter, but that's probably not going to happen. The change we're more likely to see involves a continued evolution of his inside game. As much work as James has put into the post over the past few years, he can do more, even though he doesn't have to right now. When James loses some of his athleticism, and approaches the next phase of his career, he will take the necessary steps off the perimeter and toward the paint. At some point, he'll lose some speed and explosiveness, but he'll retain power and creativity.
Ben Golliver: Free-throw shooting. James has done an incredible job adding elements to his game over the course of his brilliant career, improving his three-point stroke, low-post moves, shot selection and all the rest of it. Although he managed to improve his field goal percentage for the seventh straight season, his foul shooting numbers continue to sputter along. "Below average" is a two-word phrase that we rarely use to describe the four-time MVP, but it's the only tag that applies when it comes to his work at the charity stripe. James shot 75 percent this season, which put him below the NBA average of 75.6 percent. Twenty teams shot better from the line than James last season, even though he actually beat his career average of 74.7 percent. Clearly this hasn't exactly been a crippling issue for the back-to-back champions. Still, James did shoot nearly 600 free throws in 2013-14, the eighth most in the NBA, so he's leaving points on the table. Kevin Durant (87.3 percent on nearly 10 attempts per game) actually hit 264 more free throws than James this year, which amounts to more than three points per game over an 82-game schedule. If James wants to reclaim his status as league MVP next season, chipping away at that monster disparity would be a pretty good place to start.
Rob Mahoney: Defensive consistency. This is a fairly recent gripe, given that James was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate as recently as last season. That standing, however, makes it all the more difficult to come to terms with the fact that LeBron hasn't quite been himself in coverage. He's given up easy driving lanes even after locking in against other stars. He's been a bit too casual in challenging shots, and at times approached a shooting opponent with his hands below his waist -- the defensive equivalent of a shrug. He has occasionally lost track of his man off the ball, leaving open the back door. His timing in guarding the pick-and-roll can still be a problem, too, as was demonstrated in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. To top it all off: James doesn't consistently draw the assignment of the opponent's best offensive player, perhaps to save himself the trouble in light of the load he carries offensively. James can be -- and generally is -- an excellent defender. He just has such great size, speed, hands and feel for the game that we expect him to be excellent all the time, if only to satisfy the ridiculously high standard he sets for himself.
Phil Taylor: Free-throw shooting. He's at 74.7 percent for his career, and he could probably get that up over 80, Kevin Durant's neighborhood, with a little more … oh, who are we kidding? Is this a trick question? The answer is, James doesn't need to improve anything. There's a reason he's chasing his third straight championship -- he's the best player on the planet, as close to perfection as one could reasonably imagine. He has already smoothed the few rough edges in his game so much since he came into the league that it's really hard to find a nit to pick. Once upon a time he was a below-average three-point shooter, but he's a good one now, shooting 40.6 and 37.9 percent the last two seasons. He doesn't choose to post up as much as he could, but he's certainly capable of doing so when the situation calls for it. There's no area of his game that could be described as a weakness. His scoring ability is obvious, he's a selfless and skilled passer, and he's the best all-around defender in the league, capable of guarding every position on the floor. James is the only player who could lead the NBA in scoring, rebounds or assists if he decided to concentrate on any one of those statistics. All of the qualities that are difficult to quantify are there, too -- like leadership, work ethic, basketball IQ. I don't know, I wish he would flop less, but then I wish everybody would flop less. Other than that, I got nothin'.
Matt Dollinger: Post game. Seeing James contrasted with David West in the Eastern Conference finals has led my mind to wonder what LeBron will look like in the next chapter of his career. As I write this sentence, there is little on the basketball court LeBron can't do. His once-in-a-lifetime combination of athleticism and skill makes poking holes in his game a futile task. But we can still daydream about how LeBron is going to get better in the next couple of years. When his speed starts to slip, we could see LeBron become the next Lord of the Left Block, backing opponents down with his brute force and making them look foolish with his expert footwork and creativity. We've seen LeBron add layers to his game as his career has progressed, but his post game could be his most lethal tool of all. James handles the ball too much for the Heat to be a regular force in the post right now, but as the years add up and his explosiveness wanes, we could see LeBron dominate in the NBA in a new way: with his back to the basket.
Richard Deitsch: Three-point shooting. One of the more remarkable things about LeBron is that he keeps improving yearly. At 29, he's become a lockdown defender, a point guard in a small forward's body and a more efficient shooter. My colleagues noted that his post game can improve -- that's fair -- but like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd before him, James can also be even more deadly as an offense force if he increases his three-point percentage. The goal should be 40 percent (which he did in 2012-13, before slipping to 37.9 this season). This will benefit him as he gets older when he loses some of his explosiveness and ability to get points at will in the lane. Kidd is a great role model. At 36, playing for the Mavericks, he shot 43 percent from three-point range, up from 27 percent as a rookie. Don't bet against LeBron getting better here. He's motivated by legacy and a desire to be the best. All the great ones have it.
Chris Johnson: Outside shooting. This year’s MVP race may have cast some doubt on the notion that James is still the best player on the planet. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. James is, at times, an unstoppable force with the will and the means to single-handedly alter the outcome of a game. Which is why this question is so difficult. Sure, every player can make progress in certain areas, smooth out some rough edges here and there. But LeBron? He’s practically flawless. Looking a few years down the road, there will come a time when James can no longer dominate on athleticism alone. In fact, there are signs he already may have passed his athletic peak. James can counteract his inevitable physical decline by becoming a better three-point shooter. I know, I know: James has already improved in this area, boosting his accuracy from 29 percent in his rookie season to 37.9 this season. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement; James’ long-range accuracy actually dipped nearly three percentage points from a year ago. As the otherwordly athleticism that fueled his rise to superstardom begins to fade, James needs to get that number back over 40 percent and keep it there.
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