LeBron James returned to Cleveland on Monday night for the first time in a few years. Being the showman he is, LeBron decided he was going to try that night and it resulted in a 46-point barrage against his former team. The Cavs were actually in the game until halfway through the fourth quarter, which is rather surprising given they are one of the worst teams in the league and lost by 38 to the Boston Celtics one day prior. Then LeBron hit a few back-breaking three-point bombs, capped off by a deep turnaround jumper over both Collin Sexton and Jarrett Allen to seal the deal.
It was your classic LeBron performance, but it also wasn't. The King dominated the game, but he also hit seven of 11 three-point attempts. That's not usually LeBron's game. He'll hit some timely three-pointers, sure, but he has never been quite consistent enough a shooter to make it a central facet of his game, even as he's grown older and basketball strategy leans heavily into spacing the floor and realizing three points are more than two. He usually prefers the war of attrition in the paint that he has waged his entire career, albeit with less ferocity and regularity than in his younger days.
Not this year. Everything is changing this year. Because LeBron apparently went into the 2020-21 season on less than three months of rest with a determination to become a three-point sniper. And it has worked. The Lakers superstar is shooting 41 percent from deep on the year while taking a career-high 6.6 attempts per game from beyond the arc. There are only eight other players in the league taking more attempts per game and making them at an equal or greater rate-- and zero of those players are making those shots while averaging seven assists and seven rebounds on top of it all.
This could certainly just be an outlier, a hot streak through the first 18 games of a 72-game season. The only other time LeBron has shot over 40 percent from deep in his lengthy career came in 2012 with the Miami Heat, where he hit 40.6 percent of his three-pointers. He shot 3.3 of them per game. LeBron's highest-volume season from that area came last year when he attempted more than six three-point shots per game for the first time ever (6.3). He shot 34 percent on those last season, a well below-average mark. In the latter half of LeBron's career from 2011-now, when he realized he needed a reliable jump shot to win championships, he's only hit 36 percent of his three-point attempts. A solid number and obviously good enough for the rings he won in the process, but not quite dead-eye stuff.
But also! Would it come as a surprise to any of us if this was the next evolution of LeBron James? As he hits his late 30s and his invulnerable and perhaps immortal body slows down to the point where he is only an upper-tier athlete by NBA standards, rather than elite? I imagine I'm not the only one who figured he'd embrace the Michael Jordan method of dealing with declining athleticism by developing a deadly post game that helped cover for the times he couldn't or didn't feel like slicing the defense to drive into the lane. But of course, LeBron isn't going to be like Jordan. He never has been.
Instead, LeBron is leaning entirely into the three-point revolution that has completely changed the way the game is played over the last half-decade. Back before all that, it was a raging success when a defense could force LeBron into taking a jump-shot. Then he fixed that and it became a mental victory if he settled for a three-point shot. But you can't let a guy shooting over 40 percent from deep "settle" from the three-point line. That kind of player becomes a problem, a guy you don't let shoot at all if you can help it.
And if that guy is LeBron... I mean, what can you do? If a defender crowds him at the three-point line, he'll just blow right by that defender. LeBron is either bigger, stronger, or faster than any one individual guarding him at a time. He'll stroll into the lane for a layup or whip a pass to an open teammate as the defense collapses. And, oh yeah, there's still that Anthony Davis guy hanging around somewhere, too.
All the other NBA teams better hope LeBron's shooting is just a flash in the pan. Because right now, all they can do is pray he misses. Otherwise the Lakers, already the best team in the league, are going to stroll to a second consecutive championship.