Before he won a championship, before the world’s perception of LeBron James changed almost overnight, his biggest crime against the sport of basketball boiled down to this: He was too unselfish.
The character trait helped to shape a universal opinion based on this question: Why is he passing up so many shots? He should never pass up shots. He’s LeBron James.
Never mind logic and probabilities — the simple fact that contested shots by James are less likely to go in the basket than, say, wide-open shots by Chris Bosh — it seemed like a valid argument.
To win a title, James had to be a little more selfish, people surmised. Then, as if to validate all those flimsy opinions, James went out on the court in the NBA Finals, did just that and won his title.
Just look at the numbers.
James averaged 17.8 points on 15 field-goal attempts in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. In the 2012 Finals, he took matters into his own hands, scoring 28.6 points per game while attempting 21.6 field goals in the five-game series.
It was a run of genius by the best player in the game, but don’t expect James to keep those numbers up throughout the upcoming regular season. If the preseason was any indication, James’ days of being selfish— jacking up shots like Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant — have been put on hold until the next postseason. James led the Heat with 41 assists, or more than 20 more than the team’s next highest number (19 by Dwyane Wade).
James was 13th in the NBA in assists in seven preseason games. Among forwards, he led the league by a large margin. Frontcourt player Spencer Hawes of Philadelphia had 25 assists in seven preseason games.
“He’s getting a lot better with the passing,” Bosh said of James’ role as distributor and facilitator during exhibition games. “He’s like a quarterback out there. He’s a lot of fun to play with because not only can he handle the ball very well but he can see the whole court and he can pass with either hand.”
Per 48 minutes, James’ assists numbers from the preseason project to 10.7 per game. Is it possible, now surrounded by so many accurate shooters, that James could average double digits in assists this season?
James agreed Sunday that averaging double-digit assists this season is at least possible. He and the Heat begin the season on Tuesday night against the Celtics and Rajon Rondo, who was second in the league in assists this preseason (8.3 per game).
“I’ve always kind of been up there in the top leaders in assists, and I haven’t had this much firepower around me before,” James said. “But it’s all to the credit of my teammates. They’re the guys — they have to make the shot — I just try to put it there on time.”
James’ diverse game leads to a wide array of assist opportunities. He can make passes from the top of the key as a traditional point guard, or he can find shooters open on the perimeter when double-teamed in the post. Scorching hot shooting numbers from his teammates this preseason also helped push his projected assists numbers sky high.
As a team, the Heat shot 44.5 percent from the field but a few players’ three-point numbers were through the roof: Shane Battier was 15 of 30, Norris Cole was 9 of 11 and Mike Miller was 9 of 15.
“It’s great to have those options,” James said. “It’s definitely something that you love going into a game, with knowing that no matter who you throw the ball to, they can make a shot from any part of the floor. And the offense provides that.”
The NBA reacted with almost stunning disbelief on Saturday when news broke of James Harden’s trade from Oklahoma City to Houston. Wade said on Sunday that he was “shocked” and James, who played in the Olympics with Harden, said the bearded shooting guard would shine in Houston.
“He’s a complete player,” James said. “He can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball, he’s strong, he gets to the basket, he makes his free throws. And he loves to play the game. He’s a young guy, who loves to play the game.”