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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."
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?"