Lebron’s mortal flaw is exposed at the free-throw line

CLEVELAND – His royal, iconic image is being tarnished with almost every trip to the free-throw line.

From 15 feet, LeBron James has become the King of clang.

In his last 10 games, Cleveland’s All-Star forward has made just 59 of 98 free throw attempts, Shaq-like statistics that have dropped his season shooting average from the charity stripe to 68 percent – 7 points below James’ career average.

“Right now,” he said, “I’m in Strugglesville.”

The uncontested misfires are a disturbing trend for James and the Cavaliers, who have been the NBA’s worst free-throw shooting team (68 percent) most of the season. And, until they improve, the club will continue to blow leads, give away victories and can’t be considered true title contenders.

James is determined to fix the biggest flaw in his otherwise impeccable game.

“I’m just trying to make them,” he said. “I’ve shot in the high 70s my whole career and in the 80s in high school. It has never been a problem for me, and it’s not going to be a problem now. I just have to go up there and make them.”

Easier said than done.

James, just 20 for 38 in his past five games, has spent extra time after practice working with Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent on his poor foul shooting. Jent has made some fundamental adjustments to James’ shot, but so far, the results aren’t showing.

“We’re just trying to change how much time he is at the line, make it more of a rhythm shot,” Jent said. “We haven’t done much more than that, it’s him trying to find a comfortable routine.

“Free-throw shooting is so much mental that the routine part of it is important so your body feels comfortable. Right now, we’re trying to find that comfort level and sometimes when that happens, you regress before you progress. For him, it’s kind of a hard time right now.”

James’ misses are magnified because of how often he gets to the line, and when he gets there.

Of the 16 players who had attempted 300 free throws entering yesterday’s games, he ranked 13th in free-throw percentage, ahead of only San Antonio’s Tim Duncan (64 percent), Orlando’s Dwight Howard (62) and New York’s Eddy Curry (61) – all big men.

And among the league’s superstars and possible MVP candidates, James ranks far behind Dirk Nowitzki (91), Steve Nash (88), Kobe Bryant (86), Gilbert Arenas (84) and Dwyane Wade (81). Even 7-foot-6 Yao Ming (87 percent) shoots his free throws better than James.

If he doesn’t improve, teams may be more inclined to foul him late in games, knowing the pressure might shake his already wobbly confidence.

When he steps to the line, James said he doesn’t think of anything other than making his shots. There is no meditation or relaxation techniques going on.

“I just want to get up there and make them and hurry up and get off the free-throw line,” he said.

Part of James’ problem could be that he’s spending more time at the line than might be necessary.

His foul-line ritual is to kiss one wristband, then the other – a tribute to his mom, Gloria, and girlfriend, Savannah – before focusing on the basket and shooting. Lately, more often than not, he smacks the ball off the rim.

“I’m trying to find a groove,” he said. “I just have to stick with the routine I’ve been doing lately and get better.”

James’ lack of accuracy at the line has nothing to do with any physical limitations. His hands aren’t too big – an excuse offered for Shaquille O’Neal – and he’s not coming off an injury like Ohio State center Greg Oden, who has had to shoot free throws left handed following surgery on his right wrist.

The problem, James admits, has crept into his mind.

“It can be mental sometimes, and right now it is,” he said. “At practice, I don’t miss. I get in the game, and I miss.”

In a nationally televised loss last week at Miami, James missed three free throws in fewer than 18 seconds during a crucial juncture of the fourth quarter, including one that would have tied the score with 44.8 seconds remaining.

He finished 3-of-8 from the line, a bad night made worse because it came in the same game that Wade made 23-of-24 free throws, dropping his first 21 in a row before a miss.

Jent is confident that once James gets his routine down, his free throws will go down, too.