Two Years Ago He Was NBA's Worst Shooter, Now LeBron James 'As Good as Anyone'

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterDecember 14, 2017

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers' JJ Redick (17) in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Perhaps even more amazing than LeBron James' physical gifts is his ability not only to maintain greatness at the highest level, but actually improve upon it.

Two years ago this month, James was the NBA's worst shooter from outside the paint. His 28.5 percent clip ranked dead last among qualified players. Today, he's putting up career-high shooting numbers across the board, including 42.2 percent from three and 58.3 percent overall.

Of the 30 NBA players taking at least 10 or more two-pointers a game, James is first with a 67.5 percent success rate. He's also making three-pointers at a better clip than Kyrie Irving (39.7 percent), Kevin Durant (40.1 percent) and MVP favorite James Harden (40.6 percent).

James has always possessed the physical ability and skill set to dominate in multiple ways, but outside shooting has long been his Achilles' heel. 

This may no longer be an area where teams can mitigate James' impact. Teams can no longer afford to go under screens in an attempt to make him pull up from deep and keep him out of the paint. That's not effective if he's canning 40-plus percent of his long-range shots.

"You have to pick your poison," Memphis Grizzlies interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told Bleacher Report.

"Are you taking away all the other guys and letting LeBron go one-on-one as a scorer? Or are you trying to take him away and make the other guys beat you? Those are the decisions you have to make now going into the game."

A few things have changed during James' transformation from the NBA's worst outside shooter to nowmost notably with his form, shot type and overall confidence.

In July, James was forced to change his release point after his elbow mysteriously swelled to the size of a tennis ball, according to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. The four-time MVP reportedly had to wear a compression sleeve at all times, even off the court, per McMenamin.

James raised the release point on his shot to minimize the pain in his elbow. After seeing positive results with his shooting efficiency, he kept the same point even after the swelling had subsided.

Aside from this adjustment, James' shooting stroke largely looks the same.  

"I haven't seen much of a mechanical change, no," Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. "I know he's shooting with confidence, taking his open shots and making a lot of big shots as well. When he's making his jump shot and then still attacking also, we're tough to beat."

The Cavaliers are 15-1 over their past 16 games. During that span, James has connected on 45.5 percent of his three-point attempts.

"His mechanics are as good as anyone, and that's why he gets better every year," one NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "Nothing is broken [anymore] on his shot."

James' mechanics are as smooth as someone with a 6'8", 250-pound frame can have. He shoots with a slight fadeaway, using his entire body to generate power, and he finishes with a smooth follow-through.

Compare this to the past NBA Finals, where James' tendency to rush shots would interrupt the overall rhythm he's displaying now.

Lue has always encouraged James to shoot the ball from all areas, even when his star would prefer to pass or get into the paint.

"With him shooting the ball as well as he's been shooting as of late, it's unbelievable," Lue said. "I told him before when I got here that he can always shoot the basketball, but he always says he's not a jump-shooter. When he makes his jump shot, that opens up everything else for him, and I think he sees that and realizes that. He has to take all his open shots with confidence."

Shooting with confidence is far easier when you've increased your three-point success rate by 11 percentage points over the past two seasons.

James' improved release point and smoother mechanics have made his pull-up three-point rate soar from 29.3 percent in 2015-16 to 41.1 percent this season. His catch-and-shoot numbers, although limited, have risen from 33.0 percent to north of 40.0 percent over the last two years as well.

James now looks for his new favorite shot, a step-back three-point dagger.

He'll often start this process from inside the arc, making opponents hesitate just long enough for him to dribble back out and release a clean attempt at the rim.

This has become a nearly unguardable shot, even against far bigger opponents like this...

 ...and this.

"His range is exceptional due to his strength," the NBA scout added. "He's really improved his range, and there's a better rotation on his ball."

"He's just more compact," teammate (and of the NBA's all-time best shooters) Kyle Korver told McMenamin. "I always tell him he's the strongest man in the game, he needs to shoot a strong shot. And he says it all the time when he's shooting, 'Think strong, strong, strong.'

"His hand is real strong on the ball and his form is more compact than it's ever been before, and I think that he's a worker, man. He shoots a lot," Korver said. "And you can tell he worked on it a lot this summer."

With the return of All-Star Isaiah Thomas approaching, James should benefit by playing with a high-level point guard as well. James is shooting 50.0 percent from deep off passes by Cleveland's current point guards, Jose Calderon and Dwyane Wade. If teams have to help on Thomas' drives, James should be more than happy to take an open jumper.  

James should be able to sustain his torrid shooting streak thanks to his smooth mechanics, improved confidence and lethal step-back jumper. In Year 15, he's somehow still adding to his never-ending toolbox.

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted.

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