LeBron James’ Improved Defensive Play

(Image/Logan Riely/NBAE/Getty Images)

Anthony Davis challenged LeBron James this off-season to return to First Team All-Defensive form. So far, so good.

After the Lakers held on for a victory in San Antonio on November 3, LeBron James was asked about the renewed defensive intensity he has shown after an unusually poor defensive season last year. “For me, I just take the challenge,” he said. “I love being challenged. Coach challenged me. A.D. challenged me. I challenged myself. I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back. My mind has always been there. That’s what it’s all about.”

There was a time not too long ago when seeing the face of LeBron James was enough to strike fear into the heart of the most skilled ball-handler. That reputation began to slip during his last two exasperating years in Cleveland, as the depth of the team collapsed around him and he found himself more and more not the primary but the only offensive option. His defensive effort suffered accordingly.

His move last year to a Laker team with highly regarded young defenders like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart was widely expected to permit him to continue playing a reduced defensive role without costing the team points, but that plan was derailed by significant injuries, particularly to Ball and James himself. When he returned for the end of the season, James looked sluggish and disinterested.

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(Image/Getty Images)

In the offseason many commentators questioned whether he was capable of returning to elite defensive form for his 17th year in the league. Anthony Davis, a DPOY-caliber player in his own right, was having none of it. He challenged James publicly weeks before training camp to merit a return to the NBA’s All-Defensive team. James seemed to warm to the challenge, but the media and much of the public remained skeptical.

Davis takes great pride in his defensive play and Head Coach Frank Vogel is known and highly regarded as a defensive-minded coach, so perhaps it only made sense for this team to forge its identity on the defensive end. Coming into the season, though, no one really knew if James would be capable of making major contributions on that end after the most significant injury of his long career. While there have been mistakes and some bad habits remain, on the whole James has been stellar and a major contributor to the Lakers’ highly-ranked defense this year.

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Helping from the Corner

James spends the vast majority of his defensive possessions away from the ball. In part, that is because most wings start possessions away from the ball-handler, who is usually a guard. Yet James spends his time most specifically guarding a shooter initially stationed in the corner, even when that shooter is not necessarily his direct positional opposite, and whenever feasible if his assigned offensive player moves, he will switch assignments to keep himself defending the corner area.

He does so for three reasons. By staying away from the ball and moving as little as possible, he is able to conserve energy. It may seem like a small thing, but these small efficiencies add up over the course of a season and allow him to remain fresh whenever the team needs his offensive production.

More interestingly, James likes to stay near the corner because that allows him to occupy a help position as close as possible to the rim. Having James, as well as Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee in help positions near the basket is essential to Vogel’s defensive strategy for this team. Vogel wants to use his aggressive, pressuring defensive guards to irritate ball-handlers and contest shots at the three-point line.

Playing so closely, though, makes the guards vulnerable to be beaten off the dribble by quick opponents. In order to avoid easy shot opportunities in this situation, someone has to be in a position to defend the rim in case of emergency. James has marvellous instincts defensively, and being used as this defender of last resort, able to read what is happening on the court and respond appropriately, plays to his strengths.

Sometimes it comes in the form of a double-team, sometimes a steal, sometimes a charge taken, sometimes simply forcing the ball-handler into a shot blocker, but when James is able to help off of his assignment he is generally disruptive to the offense.

The third reason for putting James in the help position from the corner isn’t actually defensive at all. Being close to the rim and away from the ball puts him in an excellent position to grab defensive rebounds. When he grabs a rebound instead of receiving an outlet pass from a rebounding big, he is able to immediately look up-court and assess the situation. He frequently finds streaking teammates for layups with deep passes off of defensive rebounds.

The same reasoning applies when he decides to attack off the dribble from the rebound. The split second saved by his not having to wait for the ball allows him to move up-court and attack the defense before it sets. 

Recovering and Beating Screens

However, it is what James has done when required to move away from this preferred spots that has impressed most this year. For much of the last few years, he was unwilling or unable to close out if the player with the ball passed to his defensive assignment in the corner. Because he spends so much time in help positions it is important that he recovers to his assignment quickly to prevent an open corner 3, which is a highly efficient shot. James has been closing out to shooters much more consistently this year than he has in some time.

When his assignment is involved in a screen, James has the ability to either move the screening player off of the spot with his strength and create a lane around the screen, or simply use his quickness to move around the screen if he identifies it in time. Negating the effectiveness of screens is an important defensive skill, as it delays the action and can confuse younger players who are still learning their offensive progressions. The offense only has 24 seconds to get a decent shot, and every delay is significant. 

In screening situations where he is defending the ball, James has worked very well with his bigs to contain the ball-handler and either contest a shot or create time for everyone to recover to their defensive assignment. Players with developed mid-range games will still beat this coverage frequently, but every scheme gives up something and those shots are simply the cost of taking away the rim and the three simultaneously.

High Impact Plays

The aspect of James’ defensive game that has gotten the most attention over the years is his ability to make what might be called high impact plays – plays that take away otherwise guaranteed points for the offensive team, frequently in critical stretches of the game. His chasedown block in the closing minutes of Game 7 during the 2016 Finals, for instance, has become the stuff of NBA lore.

It is the extremely rare combination of size, athletcism, and defensive intelligence that James poessesses which allows him to make these kinds of plays so regularly. Be it a chasedown block in transition to erase what would have been easy points or a steal in a 2v1 transition situation James has shown early this season that he still has the physical ability to get to the places his mind tells him to go.

Areas for Improvement

As good as he has been, James has not been perfect on defense, and his lapses are illustrative of the kinds of tradeoffs players and teams face when they make defensive choices. He has been prone to getting beaten on backdoor cuts by his assignment. He is vulnerable to this particularly in his corner help position, when he is paying attention mostly to the general offense and the defensive positions of his teammates. While he is looking away, his assignment slides in behind him for an easy score.

James is most vulnerable to being beaten back-door while defending faster guards. In fact, most of his defensive problems come in this situation. He is generally quick enough on his feet to guard any perimeter position on the switch, but high-level NBA speed can beat him. That puts him in the position of needing to sag somewhat away from quicker guards in order to stay in front of them, often to the point of simply going under screens rather than trying to force his way through. 

This is where fast guards who are elite shooters can and do burn him. Lou Williams did so several times in the season opener, and Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan were able to beat him off the dribble to the rim in San Antionio because he had to respect their pull-up jump shots.

The Once and Future King?

James’ return to defensive form has surprised and delighted fans. While it remains to be seen whether he can sustain this level of effort throughout the year while maintaining his offensive load, his obvious buy-in to the scheme and effort in executing it have been encouraging. If he is somehow able to sustain these results, he will certainly be in the coversation when the time comes to select the All-Defensive team. In challenging James to reach that plateau once again, Anthony Davis had this to say,

“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable in order for us to take on the challenge of being the best we can defensively. In doing so, we’ll have a good chance of winning every night. I want to make sure me and LeBron are on the All-Defensive Team. And for me personally, I just want to be the Defensive Player of the Year. If we’re able to hold teams under 100, which is probably unrealistic but it should be our goal, I think we’ll have a shot at winning the title.”

By Phil Sizemore (@phsizemore)

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