Catch. Dribble. Dribble. Dribble. Spin the ball in the left hand. Shoot.
This seemed to be the routine LeBron James followed every time he stepped to the free-throw line during the 2016-2017 NBA season, but there was actually very little that was routine about the way he shot free throws this year, and this was the reason for his struggles.
As reported in an article by ESPN, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said that in his experience it is very unusual for an NBA player to change his free-throw ritual, and that for most players it might only happen one or two times throughout their entire career. But, he adds that "[For] Bad shooters, [it's] obviously more."
The ESPN feature observed that LeBron used 18 variations of his free-throw routine throughout the 2016-17 season alone. He changed it month to month, game to game, and even within games sometimes, on his way to shooting a career low 67.4% from the stripe.
LeBron was searching for an answer to his free-throw shooting woes, even consulting teammate, and career 88% free-throw shooter Kyle Korver at one point for advice on how his shot and routine could be more efficient.
He could never find the answer, however, as he shot a disappointing 64.9% in the Finals to end the season.
Here are many of the ways that LeBron changed his routine throughout the season.
LeBron constantly tweaked his base, altering how he used his footing to begin his free-throw motion.
The stances included:
- Squaring his feet to the basket
- Staggering his feet with his left foot back
- Shuffling his feet while spinning the ball
- Shooting with his feet set a foot behind the free-throw line
- Setting his left foot back before bringing it forward and stepping into his free throw as if it were a jump shot.
Here LeBron utilizes a square stance.
But at one point in the season LeBron switched to a staggered stance.
While LeBron never changed his signature three dribbles plus a spin, he added and subtracted a collection of other different gestures over the course of the year.
The gestures included:
- Blowing into his right fist while spinning the ball in his left hand
- Wiping his right hand against his chest or shorts while spinning the ball
- Pausing to shrug his shoulders and take a deep breath before starting his shooting motion
- Catching the ball and proceeding to rub it between his hands before his routine
- Dipping the ball and his torso down briefly before rising up for his shot
- Keeping the ball and his torso high instead of dipping down prior to his shot
- Holding the ball against his left hip while breathing deeply and staring at the rim before beginning his routine
For this shot LeBron has a square stance and breathes into his right fist while spinning the ball, and dips before shooting.
The many different stances and gestures that LeBron employed turned each free throw into a shot that could be entirely different from the next. The reason why free throw routines are rarely changed is because fatigue, pressure and current performance can make a free throw more difficult as the game progresses. The routine helps limit the effect of those factors by making every free throw familiar and comfortable.
The inconsistency in LeBron's free-throw ritual likely decreased this comfort and confidence at the line, and could've signified his belief that the outcome of his shot was determined by everything he did between catching and releasing the ball.
LeBron is one of the most talented and intelligent basketball players in the game today so there could definitely be a method to the madness and he most likely understood that this constant variance would not be the solution for long-term success. So from an outsider's perspective the question is, "Why did he continue to make alterations?"
Each variation might seem to work better than the previous one at first, but an off night or a couple of misses in a row, which is completely normal to experience occasionally, will then be attributed to the routine and not to the nature of shooting a basketball, which comes with streaks of makes and misses.
LeBron has shown that he's already gotten back to work for the summer, recently posting pictures and videos of himself in the gym, and free-throw shooting will definitely be an area which he will shore up this offseason by figuring out a consistent ritual.
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