Relative to every other segment of his game, LeBron James’ career-long relationship with the free-throw line has wobbled between feelings of discomfort and outright hostility. Getting there has never been a problem, though.
James has attempted and made more free throws than any other active player. In NBA history, only five (Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Kobe Bryant, who he will pass sometime over the next few months) have shot more.
But this year LeBron has dealt with something altogether unfamiliar. With so many of his current numbers either right in line with a career average or even higher than ever before (such as three-point attempts and assists), it’s his drop in free-throw attempts that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Right now he’s averaging 5.4 per game, which is good for 22nd best in the league. Not including last season, when he only appeared in 55 games, he’s never finished lower than 15th, and that happened when he was a rookie.
LeBron’s career average coming into this season was 8.1 free-throw attempts per game. Last year he attempted 7.6. To go a bit deeper, his free-throw rate heading into this season was .413. Right now it’s lower than ever before at .274, and for the very first time it’s below his three-point rate.
Also, the Lakers’ free-throw rate drops 5.7 points with James on the court, taking them from the top five to the bottom five, per Cleaning the Glass. which is one of the worst marks at his position and a total abnormality from everything we’ve seen out of him since he was drafted.
Why is this happening? Is he taking fewer shots around the basket or attacking less frequently than he did when he was younger? Not really. LeBron’s usage rate is only 0.1 percent below his career average, and there’s no real decline from recent seasons in the percentage of shots he takes at the rim. Half of LeBron’s points are scored in the paint, too, a mark he’s only topped four times.
Both he and the Lakers are perplexed, and have used inconsistent officiating to explain what’s happening. LeBron was averaging 5.6 free throws per game before he made zero trips to the line in a November 23rd win against the Memphis Grizzlies. After that game, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel told reporters that LA would “go through the proper channels” in addressing the matter with the league.
At the time, James said “I’m living in the paint, and if you look at my arm right here, these are four or five [scratches] that happened the last two games, and they weren’t called at all. But that can’t stop me. It didn’t stop me tonight.
No matter what, I got to continue to go, but being able to get to the free-throw line is something that allows our defense to get in good position. It sets our defense. It slows the game down at times. It gives us a good rhythm. It relaxes me as well. So, I know I’m getting hit, but at the end of the day I just got to keep going.”
But since that doughnut in Memphis, his attempts have actually gone down to 5.3 per game, in about the same number of minutes.
The NBA declined to comment for this story on any specific complaints logged by the Lakers, but such a thing is far from uncommon. Teams use what’s called a Team Inquiry Website (TIW) to inform the league of any particular calls they didn’t agree with or were curious about after every game. Those examples are then reviewed by the NBA’s referee operations staff (43 people) who clarify why certain calls went the way they did. It’s a process that not only lets the league know how teams are feeling about certain players or situations, but also allows teams to better understand what is and isn’t going to get called by the refs in a game situation.
Earlier this week, I asked Vogel if he had any further clue as to why James still wasn’t getting to the line as often as he normally does. “I mean, it’s difficult to say. He’s going to the basket. We send clips in all the time to the league office, in terms of why he’s not getting calls,” he said. “I’m not trying to turn this into a complaint or anything, I’m just answering your question. But he’s still going to the basket the same way he always has.”
When I asked LeBron for an updated explanation for the sudden decrease, he either didn’t have or wasn’t willing to offer his own theory. “I have no idea.”
It’s strange. LeBron is actually averaging more drives this season than he has since tracking data became publicly available seven years ago. Right now he’s tallying 13.8 drives per game. In reverse chronological order starting with the 2018-19 season, his drives have been 12.4, 11.7, 11.3, 11.1, 13.2, and 9.4, which occurred in his last year with the Miami Heat.
This season, those 13.8 drives are generating 1.7 free-throw attempts per game. For added context, this year Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 11.1 drives get him 3.0 free-throw attempts per game. Zach LaVine’s 12.0 drives earn him 2.5 free-throw attempts.
Back in 2014, LeBron was getting 2.1 free-throw attempts per game off those 9.4 drives. During the 2015 season, when he drove the ball 13.2 times every night, he was rewarded with 2.9 free-throw attempts per game.
Another way to explain the drop in free-throw attempts might be thanks to the percentage of his minutes spent in the bonus, which is a career-low 20.46 percent. That’s over five percent lower than last season. His career average is 28.06 percent. But that doesn’t account for the fact that he’s also averaging the fewest drawn fouls of his career, non-shooting included.
It’s all curious, but somewhat expected. Only 15 players have ever averaged more than 5.5 free-throw attempts per game after their 35th birthday. Father Time is undefeated, and even though LeBron remains explosive, physical decline is visibly evident. He gets 1.4 of his shots blocked per 100 possessions, which is, by a hair, the highest mark of his career.
Lakers forward Jared Dudley has a few possible reasons. The first is LeBron’s unwillingness to flop. “LeBron hasn’t adapted yet — I told him this — to the flopping. Giannis came out the other day and said they reward flopping. We just played James [Harden] the other day and, you know, him and Luka [Doncic]. It’s a talent that fans might not like, but it’s rewarded. And the snapping of the neck, LeBron is just so big and strong that he’s getting bumped but he’s not using his head.”
According to Dudley, another cause might be the way all aging players need to adjust in how they attack the rim. Instead of barreling forward with a cannonball first step that forces defenders to hack away, older LeBron needs to be more methodical and patient. “He still has you,” Dudley said. “He has you on your side. He just finishes strong over you.”
The amount of pick-and-roll he plays with Anthony Davis might also be a factor, where dropping bigs are simultaneously occupied by the game’s fiercest lob threat and a driving LeBron. Coverages have changed over the past few years, too, with more bigs hanging back in the paint than stepping out and being aggressive at the point of attack. “LeBron, every game, is playing 2-on-2,” Dudley said. (The percentage of his points that come from the free-throw line nearly cuts in half when Davis is not on the floor, per NBA.com.)
Whether it be referees suddenly deciding to swallow their whistles, age, pace, or any other combination of factors that mix in to create a perfect storm of statistical decline, the next step is to ask if any of this actually matters.
So far, it hasn’t kept LeBron from another MVP-caliber season. He leads the league in assists, the Lakers are dominant when he’s on the court and stink when he’s not, etc. Not even a relatively low true shooting percentage that hasn’t been seen since his early 20s is cause for much concern. The Lakers are one of the NBA’s three best teams and James is their on-court auteur.
He averaged 9.7 free-throw attempts over the past two playoffs. But the year before that, during which LeBron won a championship with the Cavaliers, he only manufactured 5.9. The free-throw line obviously does not define his impact.
But this could also be a canary in the coal mine, a sign of deterioration that will soon seep into other areas that James used to physically dominate. Free throws not only keep him efficient, but they also allow the Lakers to set up their dominant half-court defense and play at a steadier pace, one LeBron has flourished in throughout his life. (The Lakers have by far the NBA’s best defense after they make a free throw.) Believe it or not: Free shots are more conducive to winning than missed layups.
Maybe the free-throw drop is nothing, and the Lakers will still win the title despite James getting to the line much less than he did before. Or maybe, in a series decided by the slimmest of margins, his inability to draw fouls as often as he used to will haunt LA in myriad ways. Either way, this development is connected to the inevitable atrophy of arguably the NBA’s best player. That matters, even if LeBron is able to neutralize it for another year.