How LeBron James became one of the NBA's best shooters -- and what it means for the surging Lakers

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

WITH HIS DESPERATE, 10th-place Lakers down 18 points to the LA Clippers in the fourth quarter, LeBron James went to work in a way he almost never has.

Off a pass from D'Angelo Russell in transition, James pump-faked Norman Powell out of position before launching a triple from his sweet spot on the left wing, cutting his team's deficit to 15. A little over a minute later, James caught another pass from Russell before firing from nearly the exact same spot and getting an identical result, leaving the Lakers down 12 in this late February, Battle-for-LA tilt.

A mere 45 seconds later, James brought the ball up himself and veered this time to the right side of the floor, uncorking a heat-check trey from the right wing just over P.J. Tucker's outstretched hand, bringing the Lakers within nine, 100-91.

As that third attempt soared through the air and gravity brought James back down to the floor, he bounced repeatedly on one leg before twirling around theatrically to head back on defense. He was untouchable. And he wasn't done.

Less than two minutes later, with the Clippers up eight, James caught a pass and took one step inside the enormous half-court logo. He stood nearly 30 feet from the basket, but the distance made no difference. The shot was money, and now the Lakers were behind by just five with 6:53 to play.

James hit a fifth consecutive triple with 4:36 remaining, a 26-footer from the top of the key over Clippers center Daniel Theis, to cut the Laker deficit to two, 106-104.

Five treys in just over six minutes. A long-range heater the likes of which we've rarely, if ever, seen from The King.

James outscored the Clippers by himself (19 to 16) and either scored or assisted on 11 of the Lakers' 13 baskets in that final quarter to complete the comeback win. His seven 3s that evening, in one of the best shooting displays of his life, marked a season high for James.

"It's just a feeling when you feel like everything you put up is going in," James said after the game. "I just kept it consistent. I wasn't taking ill-advised shots. I stayed in the [flow] of the offense. My teammates did a great job continuing to find me. ... It's just a zone. Can't really describe it. But you wish you could stay in it forever."

This season, he nearly has.

In the midst of the best long-distance shooting season of his career -- an eye-popping 41.3% from deep on more than five attempts per game -- it's beginning to look as if the 39-year-old has found a way to stay in this shooting rhythm for as long as he wants.

It's no accident. James' shot has benefitted from significant biometric shifts and a quicker shot release -- and they're fueling a surging top-five offense for the Lakers.

ASK JAMES AND he'll tell you: He's shooting better this season because he's been healthy enough to work on his game without as much injury interruption. This season, he'll have played the most games since his 2017-18 campaign, when he suited up for all 82 contests.

"I've been able to be on the floor a lot more during non-game days," James said recently. "My foot has felt a lot better. I didn't have much time to really rep a lot last year because I couldn't be on the floor running around or put much pounding on the floor with my foot. I've had a lot of opportunities to get on the floor. You probably see me before the game out on the floor working on my game, working on my craft, so that's helped out a lot, too."

But dig into the tape and it's far more than just better health.

This season, James' shoulder orientation when gathering for catch-and-shoot 3-pointers has shifted almost seven degrees from the left to the right, according to Second Spectrum tracking. His hips have shifted about six degrees from left to right since last season, too, allowing him to more fully square himself toward the basket. Both are among the biggest biometric shifts in the league among the league's volume 3-point shooters.

He's also sped up the release on his catch-and-shoot 3P attempts by 0.18 seconds, the second-biggest decrease in the NBA. He averaged the slowest release in the league on catch-and-shoot triples a season ago.

ESPN color analyst Doris Burke asked James about the adjustment before a game last month. "I said to him, 'Is that by design?'" Burke relayed during a telecast. "And he just sort of smiled wryly and said, 'Of course it's by design -- I'm trying hard to get my right arm and right shoulder aligned with the basket, more so than it was a season ago from [the left side] of the floor.'"

Take for example a triple James took last season, on Oct. 18, 2022, against the Golden State Warriors.

Upon catching the ball on the left wing, he surveyed the floor briefly, swung the rock to the left side of his waist and unleashed a slow-developing sidewinder from deep, with his knees and shoulders angled toward the left corner as opposed to the basket.

Now consider his shot from November, in a game against the Pistons. With the Lakers routing the Pistons early in the third quarter, James was in transition, running to his preferred spot on the left wing. As he snared a pass from Anthony Davis, James squared himself in one fluid motion -- with the ball slightly to his left, but considerably less than before -- and drained a triple before rookie Ausar Thompson could get to him.

It's a subtle yet noticeable difference from the way he now lines up his shots: Far more straight on, with far less lean.

Prior to last season's All-Star break, James' shoulders had an orientation of minus-17.9 degrees when he gathered to shoot catch-and-shoot 3s. After the 2023 All-Star Game, his shoulders were more squared -- at minus-11.6 degrees. This season, his shoulders have been even more aligned with the basket, at minus-6.7 degrees, according to Second Spectrum.

And James' efficiency numbers are striking compared to last season. He's shooting 45.2% on catch-and-shoot 3s, his best rate since the league started tracking such data in 2013, and a 12.8 percentage-point jump from his 32.4% mark last season. That represents the NBA's biggest increase among players with at least 150 attempts in each campaign.

When looking at catch-and-shoot triples above the break from his preferred left side, James has been even more sensational, shooting 55% (36-for-66) -- up from a dismal 29% (19-for-66) last season.

Overall, James is shooting 9.2 percentage points better from deep than a season ago, leaving him tied with Danny Green for the second-largest improvement in league history among players who had launched at least 300 attempts in both years.

"I always felt LeBron leaned to the left when he shot from outside," Dave Hopla, a longtime NBA shooting coach -- who hasn't worked with James -- told ESPN. "Now he's lining up a little straighter, and it's making a huge difference."

AFTER JAMES DAZZLED a Brooklyn crowd late last month, earning a standing ovation by hitting nine of his 10 3-point tries and notching 40 points in a victory over the Nets, he told reporters something that, with anyone else, would have been obvious for a player his age.

"I don't know when that door will close as far as when I'll retire," James said. "But I don't have much time left."

Even if that is the case, it's clear he knew that to continue aging miraculously gracefully, he'd need to become a knock-down perimeter threat.

He's shooting a blistering 46.6% from outside since the All-Star break, up from an already impressive 39.5% prior. The post-break boost has become commonplace for James, who's now shown improvement from deep in each of the past five seasons.

Doing so this season has opened up the floor for teammates -- the Lakers are 15-8 since the break with the league's No. 5 offense -- and it's also opened up the floor for him.

With such a sustained hot streak from outside, defenders are forced into impossible choices. Close out too slowly, or from too far away, and you'll end up watching James backpedal after drilling a triple. Close out too aggressively, and you'll find the superstar in the paint elevating for a bucket.

James is shooting 59.4% on 10 drives per game; only Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo -- a pair of MVP candidates in their prime, at 25 and 29, respectively -- are shooting better on such plays while driving that often. And overall, James is shooting 75% from within three feet of the rim, a rate that ranks better than his age-20, -25, -30 and -35 seasons.

He may not have much longer in the NBA. And his athleticism isn't what it used to be. But as a jump-shooter, James is better than he's ever been.

"To think about someone like LeBron, the all-time leading scorer, to have this sort of uptick at his age?" Hopla said. "It's amazing."

ESPN Stats & Information's Matt Williams contributed to this story.