Despite being the world’s greatest basketball player, LeBron James is merely an OK free throw shooter. He’s made 74 percent of his attempts during his career, which is worse than, say, Vern Fleming. Who’s Vern Fleming, you ask? Vern Fleming is a dude who played for the Pacers in the 1990s and shot 77 percent from the line, which is better than LeBron James.
Before this season, LeBron told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that shooting 80 percent from the line was “my last goal of my NBA career.” While LeBron fell short during regular-season play, making free throws at a 73 percent clip, he crossed that magical 80 percent threshold in Cleveland’s first-round playoff series. In leading the Cavs to a seven-game victory over the Indiana Pacers, LeBron shot 63-for-77 from the line—82 percent. In Game 5, he went an incredible 15-for-15, the most free throw attempts he’s ever taken in a game without missing one.
While LeBron traditionally ups his game during the postseason, going into this year he’d shot an identical 74 percent from the line in his playoff career. So, how has he upped his game? By breaking the rules.
You’ll note that the video above is not an official NBA clip. Footage of LeBron’s free throws is hard to come by online, perhaps because the league is trying to hide something from us, the American people. That, or highlight packages of free throw attempts are difficult to sell ads against. Either way, the truth is unambiguous: LeBron is stepping into the lane while the ball is in the air, and that’s a no-no.
As a basketball crime, this is something less than a misdemeanor. Players commit lane violations all the time when jockeying for rebounds during free throw attempts, and those infractions are never called. However, as a killjoy pedant, I must point to Rule 10, Section I, Part d of the NBA rulebook:
The free throw shooter may not cross the plane of the free throw line until the ball touches the basket ring, backboard, or the free throw ends.
LeBron is certainly crossing the free throw line before the ball touches the basket ring—shout out to Ted Cruz—and is thus violating the letter of the NBA law. Noted LeBron scholar Skip Bayless, for one, is not having it.
Although Bayless’ number is a bit off, he’s correct in saying that when it comes to free throws, LeBron is a mighty tinkerer. According to Tom Haberstroh, James went through at least 18 different free throw routines during the 2016-2017 season.
According to James, the routine he’s using in the 2018 playoffs originated in Miami. “I am in a pretty good rhythm with my free throws right now,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. “I kind of just went back and watched some film on some of my previous free throw routines when I was shooting the ball extremely high. Kind of went all the way back to my Miami [Heat] days when I was shooting the ball extremely well at one point throughout the playoffs.”
Looking through LeBron’s old playoff performances for Miami, I found a particularly successful stretch in 2013, the year he won his second NBA championship. He hit two massive free throws in the Heat’s Game 7 win over San Antonio, a contest in which he went 8-for-8 from the line. The video shows James’ attempts were totally legal. He did not lurch into the lane.
The existence of theoretical lane violations is the teensiest gripe in a flea circus of grievances. But when LeBron puts together a series of insane, unimpeachable performances, opponents have to take out their microscopes to find any vulnerabilities in his game. The Toronto Raptors play Cleveland in the conference semifinals. Don’t be surprised if Dwane Casey’s team does its best Walter Sobchak impersonation when LeBron is at the line.
Mark it zero!