Every player requires a position, if only to fill out the lineup card. LeBron James is a small forward by default, because whoever heard of a 6'8" center or a 250-pound point guard? Never mind that there is nothing small about him and leaving him in the corner is a waste. The keepers of basketball tradition, unable to conceive of such a dynamo, failed to coin a term that accounts for his varied gifts. In game accounts he is "small forward LeBron James," and in box scores, he is "LeBron James SF." Twenty-nine other teams wish it were that simple.
From Larry Bird to Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor to John Havlicek, the three man is often the most versatile player on the floor. James performs all the job's diverse duties: slashing inside for layups and stepping out for three-pointers, handling the ball and hitting the glass, accepting the toughest defensive assignments and smothering them. He may eventually go down as the premier small forward in NBA history, ironic given that he fulfilled his boundless potential only after it became obvious that he is so much more.
In the summer of 2010, the Heat's higher-ups made the mistake of thinking they had acquired the best player at his position, instead of realizing they had acquired the best player in the world. "He was just the small forward and that was it," says one of their coaches. Miami fell in the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks, with James marooned on the wing, clanking midrange jumpers. Regardless of what the box score still indicates, that was his last experience at small forward. "We went from plugging him into a system," the coach says, "to molding a system around him." The Heat wised up and handed LeBron the ball. Location wasn't all that important.
The public address announcer at Miami's American Airlines Arena used to introduce James as "a forward from St. Vincent--St. Mary High School," even though his former coach at St. V never viewed him that way. "I'd start him on the wing, then put him down low, then let him bring up the ball," says Keith Dambrot, now the coach at Akron. "I don't remember if he was first on the lineup card or last. I don't really care. It's semantics. Traditionalists may consider him a small forward, but how can you do that if he creates every opportunity for everyone?"
Now the P.A. announcer just bellows, "Number 6, LeBron James." That's it. James transcends type. Calling him a small forward is like calling Jay-Z a rapper, neither a lie nor the whole truth. If he really needs a capital letter after his name, as though "LeBron James" is not enough to identity him, then it should be E: Everything. You should be able to play him one through five on your fantasy team, because that's what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra does with his.
Basketball can be a breeding ground for stereotypes, some based on race, more based on size. In Miami's starting lineup, 6'4" Dwyane Wade has to be the shooting guard and 6'2" Mario Chalmers the point. At 6'8", Udonis Haslem can't sink threes, so he's the power forward, and 6'11" Chris Bosh has three inches on everybody, so he's the center. Then the game tips and James dribbles the ball, passes it, posts up, passes it again, drifts to the arc, fires a three, snags his own rebound and dunks hard enough to rupture the rim.
He started at small forward. He wound up in a place all his own.
To evaluate James's point guard skills, we turned to Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who dished out 10,334 assists—third alltime—during his 17-year NBA career.
Magic Johnson was the best ever at the position, and LeBron is the closest thing as far as size and ability to see the floor. But this guy is like Magic if Magic had the ability to score 30 every night, which is scary. That's what separates LeBron. To me, he has the chance to be the leading scorer in the history of this game and one of the top five assists guys. That's how special he is.
As a point guard you think about making passes on point, on target and on time. Those things are crucial—and time and time again LeBron does exactly that. You don't have to make any adjustments as a shooter when he passes you the ball; all you have to do is catch and shoot. And he can make passes other guys can't. Take the one to Mike Miller against Indiana [in which James drove left at the end of the first half of Game 2, elevated as if to shoot and then, while still in the air, turned and fired a one-handed baseball pass back across his body to Miller in the right corner, where he drained a three]. Not many guys who've played the game can make that pass. First of all, they don't see it. Second, they don't have the strength and ability to throw it.
If you're an opposing coach, all you can do is try to take away either his scoring or his facilitating. The problem is when he gets 35 points and 12 assists. So what you do is say, "We're going to force him to be a volume scorer." Or, "We're going to force other guys to beat us by getting the ball out of his hands." But you have got to be committed to doing one or the other.
The guys defending him? All you can tell them is to not be discouraged, to understand there are going to be plays and stretches where you're going to say, "Wow." You have to forget about what just took place and try to defeat him over the long haul.
Defensively, he's guarded other point guards. We've seen it in situations where they've needed a stop. He guarded Steph Curry against us and used his size and strength to be disruptive. Even if he had to play only point guard on both offense and defense, he's my Number 1 pick at the position right now.
I don't think he really has any weaknesses as a playmaker, but if I had to name one, it would be this: As point guard and leader of a team, there are times when you have to stay away from passing the ball to some guys. A guy may be taking too many bad shots, so I'm not going to throw him the ball. But he won't know I'm not throwing him the ball, if you understand what I'm saying. Or sometimes it's the opposite. Maybe if a guy is struggling, I may throw it to him to get him a good shot. Through repetition, you get a better understanding of all this. It's the mind-set of a Magic Johnson.
That's probably the only [issue] with LeBron. And I think the reason why is because he doesn't have to stay away from Ray Allen or Shane Battier or Mike Miller. They're wide open in the corner? Well, that's what they do for a living. He doesn't have to stay away from Dwyane Wade. If he's open, give him the basketball. The people around LeBron are specialists. The Lakers around Magic, they were a team.
But even calling that a weakness for LeBron is a stretch. I'm just trying to find something. He's that good.
—As told to Chris Ballard
Nothing hypothetical here: LeBron James could be, would be and is an excellent shooting guard. He can drive, he can score and he can defend opposing twos. The part of the job he long struggled with was the antecedent—the shooting part.
When LeBron entered the league with the Cavaliers, in 2003, he had the kind of jumper that would now charitably be called Rajon Rondo--esque. Or perhaps early Jason Kidd. Despite all manner of dunks and layups, James shot 41.7% from the field as a rookie and, during one unfortunate stretch, went 0 for 22 on three-pointers. Teams backed off, daring James to shoot, and he obliged. The misses piled up.
Five years into his career, James began remaking his shot with the help of Chris Jent, then a Cleveland assistant. They focused on developing what Jent called a "calmer" shot: more on-balance, with his shooting forearm perpendicular to the floor. Then three years ago James joined the Heat and Spoelstra took the ball out of his hands for large chunks of time. This allowed/forced James to play off the ball, which in turn allowed/forced him to take spot-up jumpers. Coupled with James's improved post play, this meant that during the 2011--12 season he took more efficient shots from more efficient spots. This translated into far fewer threes: 2.4 a game, down from 5.1 in his final season as a Cav.
Not satisfied, James spent last summer focusing on his jump shooting. The results were shocking. Forget Rondo and Kidd. Here's a partial list of players who averaged fewer points per possession on jump shots this season than LeBron's 1.032, according to Synergy Sports: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Jamal Crawford, Chris Bosh, Danilo Gallinari and Tony Parker. On threes, James ranked 28th in the league at 40.6%.
While impressive, none of this means James is now an elite shooter. Rather, what he has become is a much smarter shooter. First off, his mechanics are better. Early in his career James faded more than necessary for a man with his height, quickness and athleticism. And he often released the ball from far behind his head, as if slingshotting it. "He learned to be an average shooter taking bad shots and fadeaways, with guys hanging on him," says Doc Scheppler, a shooting coach who works with Jeremy Lin, among others. "Now his shooting form looks polished, practiced, and he's in rhythm. He can create a shot out of triple-threat position. You're not going to make him Steph Curry or Ray Allen—those guys are artists. But he's made himself a qualified, capable shooter."
While in Cleveland, James launched too many deep threes, often off the dribble, and often while fading or kicking out his right leg. The leg-kick is a remnant of the Michael Jordan era, a bad habit that can be seen in many NBA games, and far more YMCA ones. "People learned that from Michael, and it's something you can adjust and control on distances from 15 to 17 feet, but not on threes," says Scheppler. "It throws off your balance. The best shooters go straight up."
Not only is James on balance more often now, but he also launches fewer deep shots off the dribble. He has embraced the role of a part-time spot-up shooter in Miami's five-out, floor-spacing offense, even occasionally coming to the arena 2½ hours early to join Allen in his famed shooting routine. The result: James shot 54.8% on right-corner threes this year. While this may seem like something to be proud of, that's not always the case in the league. For certain players, there is a stigma attached to spot-up looks. (One prolific scorer is known to call them "p------ass catch-and-shoot shots.") The more impressive move is to create your own shot, to make the tough one. To earn it. Or so the thinking goes.
But this season James was smart enough or mature enough or well-coached enough to realize that a wide-open three is the second-best shot, behind a layup, and that there's no shame in taking one. So now he sets his feet. He doesn't fade. He doesn't kick out his leg. He just goes straight up, releases at the top of his shot and holds his follow-through.
Just like the great shooters do.
LeBron James looks like a power forward. The recent development of a post-up game has allowed him to bang and bruise like one. And yet when James is actually slotted at the four, he once more shape-shifts and redefines the position entirely.
"He's still the one who's handling the ball for the most part," says Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw. The Heat coaches exploit James's versatility by flipping their sets upside down and using their point guards to screen for him in the pick-and-roll. "They're probably the only team in the NBA that does that," says Indiana power forward David West. That mismatch-creating play generated open lanes to the basket and enabled Miami to salvage a 103--102 overtime win in Game 1 of the Eastern finals: While James's buzzer-beating layup got the most attention, he had an equally crucial finish 10 seconds earlier against point guard George Hill, who had to switch onto James after Miami's 6'2" Norris Cole freed him with a screen.
To finally ascend to the championship last year, James first had to learn to ply his trade down low. Before the season he spent four days working on low-post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon, and his fill-in work on the block when Bosh was out with an abdominal injury was a crucial factor in Miami's 2012 second-round win over the Pacers. The difficulty James creates in the post leaves opposing defenders wishing more than ever for eyes in the back of their heads. "It gives him another point of penetration, and now you've got to account for him being that much closer to the basket," says Shaw. "When he's out on the perimeter, all the other sets of eyes are on him and they're able to help when he drives. But when he's down on the post and [the Heat has] everybody else lifted on the other side, he's so big and strong that he can make a move and get to the basket on one dribble."
If a defender does have time to double-team James on the block, that just opens up more potential problems. "They've got guys on the perimeter that can cut and keep the floor spaced," says Shaw. "And then you have to say, O.K., LeBron is going to have to score 60 and beat us or we've got to double and get it out of his hands—and that's when shots open up for Ray Allen and Mike Miller and whoever else is in the game. That was the situation when I was [a point guard] with the Lakers with Kobe and Shaq: You have to pick your poison and see which one of those scenarios is going to hurt you the least and just live with it."
When James switches to the four, he creates cross matches that he and his teammates can attack in transition and in early offense. In the half-court it's another story altogether: While James loves to bully the smaller power forwards, his success diminishes against traditional power forwards like wide-body Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies or Indiana's rugged West—which is why the Pacers weren't expecting James to play much power forward in this series. "I don't think they want to see LeBron on David West at all," says Shaw. "They've tried that a few times and David just punishes him."
As James moves into his 30s and his quickness dwindles, however, Shaw expects to see him morphing into a four, where he can rely more on brute force. "You see it with everybody," says Shaw. "Jordan went from slashing and dunking all the time to more of a post-up turnaround-jumper game as the wear and tear started [affecting] him. Your game evolves because Father Time catches up with you."
When the time is right, James could yet become the league's most challenging power forward, having both an unparalleled ability to pass out of the post and a touch that will stretch defenses out to the three-point line. "It's shocking to be the best player in the world and continue to improve," says Pacers coach Frank Vogel. But those worries are for another day. James turned Game 3 into a convincing 114--96 win by backing small forward Paul George into the post for many of his 22 points while waiting for double teams that never came. He was able to play like a power forward without leaving his natural position. Never mind the future: The Pacers had their hands full already with James in his current form.
James has played some center—including in last year's Finals, against the Thunder's Kendrick Perkins—though just in short spurts. Hall of Fame big man Bill Walton (conjuring up analyses both strategic and, well, esoteric) makes it clear, however, that James could handle the pivot, and for long stretches.
I think things changed for Miami when Erik Spoelstra started going more and more with what everyone calls small ball, but I call skill ball. You put your best players out there regardless of size, and if you have good, skilled players, whatever you give up, you will get back.
I think of LeBron as the center in those situations. Yes, the Heat would have to play a different game from the one with a traditional center on the floor. But it's a different game these days anyway. It's a quickness game, it's a trapping, pressing game.
And while LeBron is a "new" player in terms of size and strength, he's also a throwback. You go back to those Celtics teams of the early 1970s—which I think are among the most underrated teams of all time—and they put a quickness team on the floor with players like John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Paul Westphal and Don Chaney. And the center was Dave Cowens, who is not that much different from LeBron in terms of size [Cowens was 6'9" and 230 pounds] and style.
Picture how the center plays. He's not only in the low post; he's also at the pinch post [the elbow area around the foul line] and the high post. This plays right into LeBron's hands. He's an outstanding passer and has outstanding footwork, which are two things you look for in a center. One thing all the great centers had in common was mobility—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Cowens, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, even Shaq. And obviously LeBron is one of the most mobile players in the league.
LeBron would give up some inches when he had to go to the hole, but Cowens could take it right at Kareem and right at Wilt. He made them play his game. LeBron would do that. He would figure out a way.
Here's something else you want from your center, and it's maybe the most difficult thing to find: a willingness to fight for the ball underneath the basket. Russell, Cowens, Nate Thurmond, those kind of guys did that, and so does LeBron. He goes in there and, because of his strength and competitiveness, he gets the ball.
Would LeBron sometimes need help defensively because he would be giving up inches? Yes. But everybody needs help. Do you think I played Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and guys like that one-on-one? And this is a help league right now.
Plus, who could guard LeBron? What center is equipped to take on that challenge? He can post you up and take you outside and shoot effortless jump shots. I remember when LeBron had to play guys for the first time and he was saying, "Omigosh, these guys are so big and physical." And I thought, O.K., now he knows what it's like for guys going against him.
Plus, being a center goes beyond basketball. It's not merely a position; it's also a concept. The center is no longer about big plodding, motionless stiffs standing as monoliths waiting for the ball to fall into their laps. The center is all about movement, creativity, imagination, the vibrant, explosive game.
Only the truly unique players get to be called the center, for it's not a designation that is simply handed out. It's a title, a recognition, an acknowledgment of who really has a game.
And LeBron has a game.
—As told to Jack McCallum