By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Each season, LeBron James tweaks his game.
He looks at the unique needs of his team and analyzes how he could be most effective. He then adjusts accordingly, honing in on a specific skill.
Similar to a chameleon that can change its color depending on its surroundings, James is a player of protean manifestations.
He’s always growing his game, and it has kept him engaged as he enters his late-30s, a time when most players’ physical skills – as well as their love for the game – are in steep decline. It has also kept defenses scrambling to figure out how to stop him and his team.
“He’s a maestro,” said Erik Spoelstra, who coached James on the Miami Heat from 2010-2014. “He can adapt to whatever the needs of that team is asking. And for a player to have that kind of talent and be the best player in the game, but also be willing to sacrifice and be an amoeba in many ways, I just think that’s incredibly unique.”
James has shown over and over that he’s willing to alter his game.
That was never more apparent than last season, when the Lakers told him they wanted him to become the team’s starting point guard. There were discussions about that during the offseason, but James was still somewhat surprised when it became the plan.
Sure, he had unofficially played the role of the primary playmaker often throughout his career. But at age 34, the unofficial was now canonized — and it was a big transition for him.
All of the sudden, he was responsible for getting his teammates involved, setting up the offense, controlling the tempo and making sure guys were in the right position, in addition to his other duties.
“I’ve done that a lot in my career, but it’s a lot different when you’re actually the point guard,” James said last March. “If you’re a point guard, you would understand it. If not, it’s like, ‘What are you talking about? He’s always done this.’ But it’s totally different. That’s been one of the biggest changes for me this year.”
James, of course, excelled.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound hybrid of brute strength, agility and incredible intelligence poured himself into becoming a master orchestrator. He learned to consistently make the right reads, using his elite court sense and passing skills to outsmart defenders.
He went on to lead the league in assists for the first time in his career, averaging 10.2 per game. And he carried the Lakers to their first championship in 10 years, the franchise’s 17th overall.
Jason Kidd, who was widely considered one of the greatest point guards of all time over his 19-season playing career, was very impressed with how James embraced the role.
“You could always ask LeBron to score the ball, but for him, he always made sure his teammates were involved,” Kidd, an assistant coach for the Lakers, told FOX Sports. “And his teammates made some big shots for us with all of the attention that he would have. So I thought he did a great job.”
There were so many highlight-reel plays to choose from.
On a nearly nightly basis, while he was double-teamed, there were no-look passes to wide open players. There were incredibly precise bounce passes through thickets of defenders to cutting teammates. And there were selfless plays where James chose to dish it to his teammates instead of driving and scoring himself.
Kidd was behind-the-scenes analyzing it all, always ready to help James figure out how to best break down defenses if James needed an assist of his own.
“I told him I’m a set of eyes for him and a set of ears,” Kidd said.
It led to some great basketball.
Last year, James drew comparisons to Magic Johnson, the 6-9 point guard who led the Lakers to five NBA championships in the 1980s.
And when Kidd was asked where James’ performance at that position ranked compared to other point guards in franchise history, he said it was right up there with the legend himself.
“I would say it’s a tie because what he did last year was special because it led to a championship,” Kidd said. “But when you start to look at the best point guards in Laker history, you talk about Magic and being able to lead the team to championships and having great seasons, MVP-type of seasons. So that’s a touchy question. I’m going to leave it as a tie.”
James had just finished an exhausting stretch that included a nearly 100-day stay at Walt Disney World in pursuit of the Lakers’ title, followed by a historically short 71-day offseason.
Still, he somehow found time to tweak his game to improve his shooting. Through Feb. 1, James was shooting a career-high 41.3 percent from beyond the arc through a 21-game stretch, highlighted by a game against Cleveland on Jan. 25 in which he was seven-for-11 from that distance.
It was an area the Lakers had struggled in last season, finishing 21st of the 30 teams (35 percent) from that distance.
But this month, his percentage from beyond the arc has experienced a sharp decline, falling to 35.5 percent. That has coincided with Anthony Davis sustaining right Achilles tendinosis followed by a right calf strain — and James trying to fill the 22.5-point and 8.4-rebound hole his absence created.
The 36-year-old James, who hasn’t missed a game this season, said he needs to tweak his game once again now that Davis is out for at least a month.
“Right now is another challenge for me, to be able to adjust,” James said. “Not having AD for a long period of time is something that we haven’t had over the last year and a half, and now it’s time for me to adjust again and see ways I can be even more effective to help this team win ball games. Because that is the sport that we’re in. We’re in the winning business and I’ve always been a winner. So, it’s time to click into that.”
It’s something he’s done successfully since day one.
When James was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Cavaliers in 2003 out of St. Vincent–St. Mary High, his teammates thought he was going to be successful.
But at that time, no one guessed the extent of it.
“I knew he was going to be a good player,” Scott Williams, who played with James on the Cavaliers from 2004-2005, told FOX Sports. “I knew he was going to be an All-Star player. I knew he was going to be an All-NBA-er. I did not know he was going to be a Hall of Famer. And I certainly did not know he was going to be one of the greatest of all time to play the game. But I shouldn’t be surprised because he had the work ethic that I hadn’t seen since MJ [Michael Jordan] and probably a better body. So I shouldn’t be suprised by that.”
Mike Brown, who coached James on the Cavaliers from 2005-2010, always claimed that James hadn’t even scratched the surface when he was at the helm of the team.
During that period, James said the area in which he grew the most was on the defensive end, especially with his communication. He learned how to analyze film, anticipate and become a floor general on the less glamorous side of the court.
“He wanted me to be just as good as I was on the offensive end, he wanted me to be on the defensive end,” James said last August. “…Give a lot of credit to Mike Brown on putting that type of pressure on me which I love and became who I am today.”
When James went to Miami in 2010, Spoelstra watched him constantly change his game over the next four seasons to meet his team’s needs. He helped the team win back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
Spoelstra credited that to his willingness to adapt.
“He played different roles for us,” Spoelstra said. “He had to be the best player on the planet, at other times he was a facilitator making other people a lot better. Other times really being, like one of the years, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the best player in the world for a reason.”
Most impressively, even after winning four championships and four MVP awards, continually tweaking his game is something that he still continues to do today.
Robert Horry, who won seven NBA championships over his 16-season career and is currently a Lakers analyst for Spectrum SportsNet, said James’ ability to shapeshift is nothing short of amazing.
“I looked at him last year and what he was able to do last year as far as assists and I was like, he can’t top that,” Horry told FOX Sports. “And now, he’s coming out shooting the ball better, like wow, he’s always changing his game, trying to make himself better.”
Horry believes James doesn’t get enough recognition for that.
Sure, he’s the face of the league and is constantly under a microscope. But Horry believes that his ability to change his game is unparalleled and that it often flies under the radar.
Basically, it’s taken for-granted.
“It’s like, he should, he’s LeBron,” Horry said. “But if you let someone who’s not on the tier or the level of him tweak something, you think they was able to split an atom or something or did something miraculous. People have got to understand, he’s able to improve his game over and over and over at his age. It’s just phenomenal. Playing less minutes and always has the same scoring average. There’s so many things when you look at basketball, and you look at the way he performs, that people do not look at that they really need to give him some credit for.”
According to Kidd, James still comes into the gym early and leaves late. If there’s a spot on the floor where he’s been struggling with his jumper, he shoots from it over and over again.
There’s no secret to his success.
James puts in the work — and that combined with his skill and intellect is a powerful triple-threat.
But most importantly, he also has the desire to grow.
“He’s not bored,” Kidd said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things. We can take LeBron for granted in understanding his talent for winning, his gift of making other players better. But the gift of making yourself better later in your career is something that isn’t done by the best player in the world because, most likely, they’ve all been gifted with super talents, and at some time Father Time will kick in and take away a talent one at a time. But for him, he’s getting better in certain areas and that just shows you that he’s not bored and he’s still interested in fighting and working to win more championships.”
For James, his ability to constantly improve is simple.
He still loves the game just as much as he did when he entered the league at age 18.
And even though he’s widely considered one of the greatest basketball players ever, he still always feels as though he has something to prove — and improve.
“I’m just staying open-minded about whatever my teammates need, whatever the coaching staff needs, whatever the personnel that I’m playing with needs at that particular time,” James said. “And always just having a growth mindset. I think that’s for my game. And not settling. Not settling on what I am or who I am at that point and time.”
It’s a rare skill.
And while many don’t realize how special it is, Horry said to players it’s nothing short of amazing.
“The only people who appreciate it are the athletes who have been in the game and have tried to sustain their playing days and said, ‘Oh, I just can’t do it,'” Horry said. “But this guy is still able to do it and get better.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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