The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.
In the first year of his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James went 3-of-9 on step-back threes. Four years later, we’re just 27 games into the season and James is already 17-of-32 on the same shot. I'm not sure if that volume makes this worthy of opposing scouting reports, but it belongs in there. It's at once demoralizing and a relief, a form of self-preservation that seemingly lets whoever’s guarding him exhale and wipe sweat from their forehead.
I’ve never defended LeBron one-on-one, but can imagine how glad it’d be after realizing he didn’t want to bulldoze his shoulder through my chest and dunk my whole being into oblivion. But three points are also more than two, and the threat of him careening into the paint makes the step back unguardable. It’s also the perfect counter for defenders who beat James to his spot and cut off his drive.
LeBron’s embrace of the three-point line isn’t new—nor is the step-back, which he’s pulled out of his bag from various distances in big spots throughout his career—but the pure, undisguised awareness of it is. If a path exists for him to get behind the line, even when presented with a runway to the rim, that’s what he’ll usually go down.
If you include his step-back jumpers inside the arc, LeBron’s effective field goal percentage on these shots is 71.9. (Last year it was 53.3.) Sometimes they have a comical effect, especially to those who remember how LeBron’s outside shot was treated by defenses earlier in his career, up until the San Antonio Spurs begged him to pull up—the hesitancy that came of it was the closest LeBron's ever come to feeling mortal. Now, he’s so damn comfortable out there. In the clip above, watch him completely dismiss Aaron Gordon, then barely leave his feet to drill the straightaway three. Old LeBron is Adapting LeBron, toying with the competition, taking his sweet ass time, and still evolving in his 16th season. Lord have mercy.