The Power of LeBron (cont.)
The results are encouraging, if still indicative of a work in progress. At week's end James was shooting 43.8% on two-pointers from the top of the key and the wings. When he's hot -- as he was in the Cavs' 88-80 win at Portland on Jan. 21 -- he will hit a succession of deep one-dribble pull-ups that make him all but unguardable. "That's the shot he didn't have before," noted one Eastern Conference personnel executive at the game. "A couple of those I was like, 'No way,' but he hit them." Indeed, the jumpers, fading and daggerlike, were reminiscent of -- what's his name again? -- oh yes, Mr. Bryant.
Feet (Size 16)
Last summer Idan Ravin, a Washington, D.C.-based trainer whose clients include New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul and Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, worked out James and was struck by how quickly he covered ground. "Most players can go full speed from baseline to baseline in somewhere between 11 and 14 strides," says Ravin. "LeBron covers that in nine or 10."
This is especially valuable on defense. Draw a circle of, say, six feet around most players and this is how much space they can patrol -- call it their defensive radius. For James, that circle can become almost twice as big. "He can be all the way in the lane on that skip pass and still close out [on a shooter on the wing]," says Cavs assistant Mike Malone, the team's defensive coordinator. "And it's not a six-foot guy like me closing out, it's 'Holy crap, this is a big guy coming at you.' " He's become a lockdown guy too. In a Jan. 9 showdown with the defending champion Boston Celtics, James harassed swingman Paul Pierce into 4-of-15 shooting with five turnovers in a 98-83 Cleveland win. "He's leaps and bounds better on defense now," says one Eastern Conference scout, praising James's footwork, balance and understanding of schemes. "He's not trying to leak out for dunks anymore. I think before, that's what separated Kobe from him, but now LeBron has stepped it up to his level."
In essence James has become the coolest toy any defense-inclined coach could imagine. When the Cavs play the Hornets, for example, James can not only guard the 6-foot Paul, but he can also switch to 6' 9", 240-pound power forward David West on a pick-and-roll. "Instead of a little guy like Mo or Daniel Gibson, now it's LeBron switched on to West, and he can bang him," says Malone. "You know how tough that is for a team?"
Of course there are still lapses. Occasional Ball-watching. Losing his man on he weakside. Not crowding a shooter. "But then," says Malone, "he goes and does something ridiculous you could never teach a player." For example, according to the Cavs, James now has ten "chase-downs" this season -- that is, ten times he has caught an opponent on a breakaway in time to erase their shot, often, it should be noted, with great gusto.
At the NBA predraft camp six years ago, James's vertical leap was measured at 44 inches. Given that he estimates he gets about a foot higher jumping off one leg, that means that with a running start he could probably leap over your armoire without even turning horizontal. This, it goes without saying, is a useful basketball skill. For example, when asked what one part of James's game he would steal, teammate Wally Szczerbiak says, "That go-go Gadget calf muscle on his left leg."
This is not to imply James's two-foot jumping is subpar. A couple of weeks ago, with Cleveland depleted by injury, he jumped center against the Memphis Grizzlies, winning the tip against 7' 1" Marc Gasol. A week later he played center for nearly 12 minutes against the Hornets and held his own, which should come as no surprise considering what he did during the Olympics. "He would switch off on opposing centers and say, 'Don't worry about him, he ain't going anywhere," says McMillan. "Because he understands leverage, he would get underneath bigger guys so they couldn't move."
Midsection (Lots o' Crunches)
To explain James' uncanny body control, which emanates from his core, let us turn to teammate and LeBron aficionado Mo Williams. Asked the most remarkable thing he's seen James do, Williams chooses not a soaring jam or violent blocked shot but a loose ball early this season. "Most guys have to bend down, pick it up, and take their time to get up," says Williams. "In one motion, he dove down to the floor, scooped it up"- - and here Williams mimics a low pirouette -- "and without touching the floor he's back on his feet for one dribble and a dunk. In one motion."
Eyes (New and Improved)
Despite his estimable court vision, up until a year ago, James had trouble seeing certain things. Like, say, road signs. Growing up, James had horrible eyesight. "I was in the classroom, and I couldn't see the chalkboard, so I had to move to the front. I couldn't see a sign three blocks down. I couldn't see a lot of stuff."
So, obviously, he got glasses, right?
"Nah," he says with a sheepish smile. "My pride wouldn't let me."
Thus during high school and his first five years in the NBA, James operated in something of a haze, which must make all the players who got torched by him feel great. Only James claims it never affected his game. "I could see everything on the court. I never had a problem with here" -- he holds his hands to the side of his head, indicating his peripheral vision -- "it was right here in front that I had the problem."
Then, a little over a year ago, James got Lasik surgery. Now, as he puts it, "it's kind of cool, because I can see stuff in the distance. I'm like, So that's what that is! Pressed, he admits it's probably improved his on-court performance too, saying, "Well, I have gotten better."
Hands (Flinging It)
They measure 9 1/4 inches from the bottom of his palm to the top of his middle finger, and he's been able to palm a basketball since the 10th grade. This allows him not only to wave it around if he so pleases on drives but also to grab a disproportionate number of one-handed rebounds. It also enables him to throw passes with astonishing velocity. "At first I had to get used to it because he'd surprise me," says Szczerbiak. "He'll be on the other side of the court and -- bam! -- the ball's right in your shooting pocket."
The Cav catching many of those passes this season is Williams, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team trade last August. That Williams is a point guard with a shooting guard's mentality is O.K. by James, who says he loves that Williams "has confidence and doesn't hesitate." That Williams is accurate doesn't hurt either; according to 82games.com he was third in the NBA this season in two-point jump shot accuracy (49.4%). The result: James finally has the sidekick he's longed for. "Every night I go out on the court, I know there's a guy I can rely on to make things happen for the team and himself and for me," says James. What he does not add is, It's about time, but no one would blame him if he did.
Brain (Like a CEO's)
As physically gifted as James is, Ravin says his "soft skills" might be his greatest asset. "He's so engaging and able to command so much attention and respect that people will mimic him," says Ravin. "That's very powerful, especially in a league of guys trying to fit in."
This season, James is even more vocal. He cajoles, he ribs, he commands, all with his coach's blessing. During huddles James suggests plays, and on the floor he has the freedom to change defensive matchups. So when you see James switch onto an elite scorer like Bryant or Blazers guard Brandon Roy, it is his decision, not Brown's.
James's knowledge of the game is such that McMillan thinks he could coach one day. Then again, as McMillan notes, "When you have that type of mind and then the talent that he has, he could do pretty much whatever he wants."
And that's the really scary part. At age 24 James is already one of the two best players on the planet while remaining far from a finished masterpiece. (The other, the 30-year-old Bryant, is pretty well-refined at this point.) "We saw him grow up from 18 to 24," says Ferry. "And we're going to see him change again from now until 30. We just don't know how."
Even James can't help but marvel at his potential sometimes. "If I'm just getting my man-strength now," he says, "I don't want to see me at 32."