Here’s one word to describe almost every underlying decision LeBron James makes when he’s on a basketball court: Unselfish. Whether he’s hitting the open man in transition or delivering a perfect bounce pass on a game-deciding pick-and-roll, James might be the most altruistic superstar since Bill Russell. James earns some criticism for passing when he should shoot, or setting up teammates instead of attacking the basket even though his personal aggression might give his team the best chance to win. But James also quietly applies that same selfless mentality to the other end of the court, and as opposed to what he does (or doesn’t do) on offense, there’s no debating whether it’s helping the Miami Heat win basketball games.
Defense in the NBA is built on the foundation of both verbal and non-verbal communication between five men. In order to consistently stop the ball from going through the hoop, all five need to react in the same way at the same time or and the team’s effectiveness is only as strong as it’s weakest link. As a defensive leader, LeBron James is as charitable towards his teammates as any player in the league. He does whatever needs to be done, and he does it very, very well.
During a March 4th loss to the Lakers, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst tweeted the following: “On road trip LeBron has guarded: Marcus Camby, Pau Gasol, Earl Watson, P. Millsap, G. Wallace, Kobe, Metta & Steve Blake to name a few.”
With Miami’s already questionable front line further depleted by the loss of Chris Bosh for a few games, the league’s most physically gifted, technically proficient, and mainframe intelligent defensive player enthusiastically accepted diverse assignments that nobody else in the league would even be asked to take on. In their loss to the Lakers, James exerted the maximum amount of energy several possessions, battling Pau Gasol for position while Kobe Bryant was busy stabbing Shane Battier in the eye with jump shot daggers. With Wade having a poor all around game, struggling to find offensive rhythm and continuously forcing the issue on defense (to the point where it looked as though he really didn’t want to play, and maybe he didn’t), it was a game where LeBron seemingly had to do everything on both ends of the court. Yet Robo-Bron didn’t show the slightest bit of fatigue. Instead of the traditional expectations that come with a small forward getting overpowered by a seven-footer, LeBron played like a tiger eating a giraffe for lunch.
Under the tutelage of defensive-minded coaches like Mike Brown and Erik Spoelstra for much of his career, James has evolved into an unquantifiable player on that end of the court. In this special regular season of his—where advanced statistics such as PER have become his personal playground—LeBron James’ consistent dominance on the defensive end has flown somewhat under the national radar.
On last Monday’s ESPN NBA Today podcast, Tim Legler criticized the Defensive Player of the Year award for being more a representation of who’s blocking the most shots and grabbing the most rebounds than playing the best defense. The point was more than valid, and thought voters will look to Dwight Howard as a familiar face who offers the least resistance (if he wins this year nobody would argue, but that isn’t the same as saying he’s the most deserving candidate), selecting him would be somewhat of a cop out. Howard’s control of the painted area is remarkable, but on an individual level there are few if any centers talented enough to drive him, and nobody forcing him to play with discipline. (The same can be said about Wade defending the league’s two guards, the second most top heavy position in the NBA right now.) Howard deserves praise for his immense talent for dissuading drives to the paint and defending the pick-and-roll with shockingly deft feet for a man with his shoulders. But the system he plays in also has a role here, whereas when James picks up Derrick Rose, it’s a personal challenge outside the Heat’s normal defensive system.
On defense, LeBron James is a bit like James Franco. He spreads his abilities wide, diving into different projects and conquering connected tasks either because he’s too bored, or forced into it. The difference here is that while Franco’s talent may grow thin the further he spreads himself, LeBron’s influence is as sturdy when he’s covering his own position as it is when he’s assigned to guard a point guard with the game on the line. He can defend every player in the league for 48 minutes and prevail in a majority of the possessions. Every. Single. Player. Exactly eight baskets have been scored on him in isolation situations this season, according to Synergy. On 41 (!) attempts. LeBron doesn’t force players into the teeth of Miami’s defense because he’s the sharpest fang.
When people say Tony Allen is the best perimeter defender in the league, they’re basing it on a natural tendency to lean on a lopsided strength, highlighted beside an obvious weakness. Allen is so poor at offense that his defense stands out.
We wonder how a shooting guard who can’t make jump shots is able to play over 25 minutes a game for a contender, and answer our own question by reasoning that his defense is an awesome, overpowering force. On some levels this is true, but with LeBron James, a player who might be the most talented offensive player of his generation, defense seems less noteworthy. Offense, and specifically post offense, is the first bullet point on everyone’s list of reasons why he’s a front-runner to win his third MVP award this year. If the offensive ability went down, and the defense stayed the same, the prism in which people view James’ impact on basketball games would shift, and his amazing versatility would be put under a larger spotlight.
We’re constantly comparing the stars of today with legends from the past but defense is rarely brought into the discussion. Is LeBron the next Michael? Oh, no, he’s way more like Magic is clearly a conversation regarding offensive mindset. But when we talk about defense, a case can be made that players like LeBron are just as rare as your once in a generation transcendent offensive superstar. Who else in the league would be asked to defend Chris Paul with less than 10 seconds remaining in a tie game after being assigned the task of halting a charging Blake Griffin moments earlier—and could succeed at both?
First team All-Defense is not enough. By the time he retires, LeBron James may become the most complete defensive player in league history, and to say he isn’t the Defensive Player of the Year right now is to fail to appreciate exactly what it is he’s being asked to do, and how well he’s doing it.