The Power of LeBron
LeBron James' game has grown along with his physique
James outweighs many centers but still has extraordinary speed and skill
The Cavs' superstar has improved his defense and mid-range shooting
There was a moment during last Friday's Cavaliers-Warriors game when it looked as if Golden State center Andris Biedrins, who is no small man at 6' 11" and 245 pounds, had been sucked out of an airplane hold, so forcefully was he sent flying backward. Biedrins was attempting to protect the rim when Cleveland forward LeBron James came charging down the lane in that straight-line, parting-the-waters manner of his. Gamely, Biedrins took to the air to try to block the shot, and then -- whoomp! -- next thing you knew he was hurtling onto his backside.
As for the 6' 8" James, he remained both on-balance and on-course, as if he'd merely hit a patch of turbulence on his solo commuter flight -- nonstop from basket to basket, departing 15 times nightly -- before rattling in a layup. Minutes later he took off again, only this time he toppled two Warriors, then threw down a one-handed dunk of surpassing violence. Afterward, Golden State forward Stephen Jackson described the perils of such encounters, "As big as he is, you hope he just doesn't run you over and give you a concussion."
And just how big is James, exactly? Well, that is a matter of intense speculation around the NBA. He came into the league in 2003 weighing 240 pounds and is listed at 250 in this year's media guide, but that number is clearly low. There are whispers that he goes 265; one report recently had him at 274. "He's at least 260, right?" guessed Jackson, who added that D-ing up James is like "guarding a brick wall."
In an attempt to settle the matter last week I brought a scale to my interview with James at a ballroom in San Francisco's St. Regis Hotel. He laughed, but didn't get on. "I can't let everybody know everything about LeBron," said James, who more than any other star understands the value of mystique. He did joke that he'd "gotten fat" -- this from a man with 5% body fat whose raised veins run like tiny interstates up his arms and calves -- then hemmed and hawed before confiding that he had gained eight pounds this summer "even though I was trying to lose 10." That said, a Cavs source puts James's weight "between 265 and 270."
Which, considering his extraordinary speed and skill, is staggering. There are plenty of centers who don't weigh that much, including Cleveland's own, 7' 3", 260-pound Zydrunas Ilgauskas. If Magic Johnson was the first big man to play like a point forward, then James is the league's first point linebacker. "He even makes reads like a football player," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who worked with James for the last three years on the national team. "And he has enough speed; he could probably play free safety." Imagine that coming up to hit you on a slant pattern over the middle.
It would be one thing if James were merely an athletic marvel, but his game has grown along with his physique. He's the primary reason the Cavaliers were an Eastern Conference-best 34-8 at week's end -- including 20-0 at home -- and, for the first time in James's career, a championship contender. Sure, credit also goes to coach Mike Brown, who was wise enough to delegate offensive and defensive game plans to his lieutenants this season, as well as 6' 1" Mo Williams, who is the diminutive Pippen to James's Jordan. But it all comes down to the guy who through Sunday was averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.0 steals and three mother-of-God-did-you-see-that? plays a game. "You knew the Cavs would be good, but I didn't think they'd be this good," says one Eastern Conference scout. "I didn't think LeBron was going to improve that much, especially defensively. It's not usual to see a guy his age come back better and stronger every year. He really is a freak."
If so, then let us examine this freak who, it should also be noted, has scored almost 12,000 points and is barely 24. By taking the measure of the man, perhaps we can calculate his impact on the game. Consider this LeBronatomy 101.
This is sure to exasperate scrawny teenagers toiling in weight rooms the world over, but despite his bodybuilder's physique, James has never really lifted. At least not the way a normal human would to develop such musculature. (Think heavy weight, low reps, lots of grunting and Metallica.)
Rather, James began working out seriously only last June. "He just messed around in the weight room and got by on raw strength his first few years," says Cavs trainer Mike Mancias, who oversees all of James's conditioning work. Even now, James eschews what he calls "iron-man championship lifting," such as the bench press, for core exercises, dumbbells and, starting last summer, yoga -- not that he was an easy convert. "I had to start with poses he wouldn't think were too goofy, if you catch my drift," says Mancias. Still, there was James at a hotel in Los Angeles last summer, busting out some downward dog by the pool in front of his fellow guests.
That James has gained weight is as much a mystery to him as anyone else. He doesn't gulp protein shakes or pound down extra carbs, instead eating three square meals (such as oatmeal, chicken, salmon) prepared by his chef, with the occasional candy snack in between. "It's kind of crazy," James says. "My body's, like, reversed."
Now James lifts every game day for 20 to 30 minutes, following a set routine. Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry attributes the new regimen to James's national team experience. "From a corporate sense, it's like those guys spent their summers sharing best practices," says Ferry. "If they have a meeting in the morning and Kobe Bryant comes in sweaty, LeBron's going to say, Holy s---, this guy's already working. That's what it takes."
Just as Tiger Woods remade his swing when he was already dominant, James spent last summer quietly reconstructing his jumper, working with assistant coach Chris Jent five days a week, an hour and a half per session. If you watched James shoot last year, you know why; even though teams were petrified of his penetration, he sometimes looked like he was chucking pumpkins at the backboard. According to NBA. com, he hit only 37.1% of his two-point jumpers from the top of the key and the wings, which are the money spots for an off-the-dribble midrange shooter.
So James worked to develop what Jent calls a "calmer" shot. This meant better balance -- when firing on the move, James has to contend with the considerable momentum created by his weight -- and keeping his right elbow locked at his side so that, as James puts it, "the ball will go straight instead of veering off sometimes."
Like a pee-wee player, James began by putting up one-handed shots close to the basket. Next came one-dribble jumpers and free throws, then midrange shots. Remarkably, never once during the sessions did he fling a three-pointer. (Let's see you spend one hour at the gym and resist the temptation.) "He's so strong that he can shoot a jumper from half-court," explains Jent. "Form first, and the range will come."