LeBron James may be avoiding clutch free throws, but don’t say he’s not clutch

In a brilliant look at LeBron James’ strange free-throw shooting struggles this season, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh unearthed a mind-boggling statistic: In the final minute of a one possession game, James shot only two free throws for the entirety of the regular season.

Here’s the link to the ESPN story, which is absolutely worth your time.

It’s true: James is 1-of-2 from the line with those parameters, after averaging 18 such shots in his career and, at its lowest, only 11. Before this season, James had shot worse than 70 percent only once, hitting 69.8 percent of his foul shots during the 2006-07 season. This year, James’ percentage plummeted to 67.4 percent.

The premise of the piece is that James may be avoiding contact and free throws when games get tight, and not trusting that his shot will hold up for him at the line. It’s a reasonable takeaway that has some merit, but we can also take a slightly closer look at it.

LeBron made one deep three then couldn’t stop taking them.

Do you remember James ripping the hearts out of the Bucks in overtime?

Then he did again.

1. Goodness, LeBron, that’s straight up cruel.

2. As it turned out, the defense usually allows you to take super long threes because it’s not a long-term, viable strategy. After making those two, James tried it three more times (once later in that Spurs game) and missed all three.

See those deep red dots in the left corner? That’s James hoisting away far from the basket. Like this one, which didn’t work nearly as well:

James did end up making 2-of-5 from really deep, so 40 percent isn’t bad. But it’s probably not as sustainable as if he went right at the basket.

If LeBron’s avoiding contact, it’s not affecting his clutch play

James is the best player of our generation because he’s the most athletic 6’8 ball-handler we’ve probably ever seen. Watching him drive at the rim without abandon is the scariest sight in the league.

However, even if he’s not doing that — and Haberstroh’s evidence especially in the final minute is pretty damning — don’t take that as an indictment of his clutch play. Under the normal “clutch” parameters (final five minutes of a game within five points), James averages similar stats to his regular season totals. He leads the Cavaliers with 112 points in those situations on 53 percent shooting from the field and 48 percent shooting on three-pointers. If you extrapolated that rate over 36 minutes, James would be averaging more than 30 points per game.

Maybe if those long threes stop falling and his three-point shot generally falls off, then it will become a problem. But right now, James is doing fine no matter how he plays.

To sum it up: James’ weirdly poor free-throw shooting may be causing him to play mind games with how he plays late in games, but it’s certainly not affecting the substance of his play. That’s not that surprising. James is the best player in the world for a reason.

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