Elbow injury forced LeBron James to change shooting motion

CLEVELAND -- An offseason elbow injury prompted LeBron James to adjust his shooting form, and the tweak is paying dividends for the Cavaliers star thus far.

James told ESPN that his right shooting elbow mysteriously swelled to the size of a tennis ball a few weeks after the conclusion of the NBA Finals. It was concerning enough for James to have his elbow medically examined: X-rays came back negative, and an MRI showed no structural damage.

James was quick to point out two things about the elbow injury: One, it was not bothering him during the playoffs and had no impact on the Cavs' 4-1 loss to the Golden State Warriors; and, two, it was nothing like the elbow injury that plagued him in the 2010 postseason, which ended in disappointment for Cleveland before James bolted for the Miami Heat.

"That was different. That was so different. I would get to here," James said forming his arm in an L-shape, "and get right here and it would just lock."

Still, it was something that James had to deal with as he tried to get over the sting of the loss to the Warriors and ready himself for revenge in the 2017-18 season.

"I don't know where it came from," James told ESPN after the Cavs' 119-112 win over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday. "I was working out in L.A. in late June, and my wife was like, 'What's wrong with your elbow?' I'm like, 'What?' ... The weirdest s---."

It bothered James to the point where he had to wear a compression sleeve on his right arm even when he wasn't working out -- making for an odd fashion accessory as he watched his son's AAU tournament games over the summer. Rather than interrupt his offseason training regimen, James chose to work around the injury. He changed his shooting motion to end with a higher release point in order to minimize discomfort in his elbow when going through his daily shooting drills. While he has consulted shooting coaches in the past, James did this on his own.

"It was just me," he said. "I'm at a point now in my career where I know if I need to make an adjustment here or there."

The adjustment came with an unintended consequence: It didn't just make James' arm feel better; it made him shoot better, too.

He considered having fluid drained from his elbow, but eventually it subsided.

"It just went away," he said. "It just went away on its own. I never drained it. I talked about it, but no, never drained it."

And he never reverted back to his old shooting form from before the elbow injury.

"I shoot it higher," James said. "When the swelling went down, I just continued to do the same motion, the same motion. My free throws, my 3s, my pullups, all that."

Through the first four games of the Cavs' season, James is shooting as well as he ever has. James is 43-for-70 on 2-point field goals (61.4 percent), 8-for-18 on 3-pointers (44.4 percent) and 15-for-17 on free throws (88.2 percent).

It is a small sample size, but James is hopeful he can keep it up. The early returns even have the 15-year veteran eyeing a new career accomplishment.

"I want to shoot 80 [percent] from the free throw line, man," James told ESPN. "That's my only goal. That's my last goal of my NBA career. That's my last one. I've done everything else."

In James' best season from the charity stripe, he shot 78.0 percent in 2008-09. He is a career 74.0 percent free throw shooter.

Teammate Kyle Korver, considered one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, thinks James is setting his sights too low.

"Your last goal is 80?" Korver asked James on Tuesday, incredulously. He then issued a challenge: "50-40-90."

Korver was referring to the rarified accuracy that only eight players -- Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Jose Calderon -- have reached for an entire season: 50 percent or better from the field; 40 percent or better from 3; 90 percent or better from the foul line.

"I definitely got the 50," James replied. "The 50 ain't s---. I can shoot 50 in my sleep. I'm almost damn near 60. I can shoot 60."

James then adjusted his goal: "I can go 50-40-85. Maybe. We'll see."

His career high in field goal percentage was 56.7 in 2013-14. His best mark from 3 was 40.6 percent in 2012-13.

Korver -- who has coached teammates like Tristan Thompson on free throws and rookie Cedi Osman on getting his base right while waiting for catch-and-shoot opportunities -- has noticed an improvement in James' shot since last season.

"He's just more compact," Korver told ESPN. "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. And you can tell he worked on it a lot this summer. So it's just much more compact and strong than I've seen from him on a consistent basis."