September 18, 2021

LeBron has rediscovered defensive intensity

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Playing alongside Anthony Davis has inspired LeBron James to rediscover his intensity on defense and made the Lakers pair one of the NBA’s most-feared defensive duos, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.

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There was a five-year stretch of play by LeBron James that rivals anything else ever. Spanning the end of his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers and running across his first three seasons with the Miami Heat, James’s dominance and production were unmatched. He was simply the best.

A decade later, and he is still great. The LeBron of today is still able to do all of the things that he could do in his prime, near enough. Seventeen seasons in the NBA, and even with a workload and body type that would have ground a lesser man into retirement some time ago, James is still at the head of the league.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis in action for the Lakers
Image: James and Davis in action for the Lakers

The difference, the only significant difference, is in how he now conserves his energy. He did not get smaller, worse, or much less athletic. He did however begin to pick his spots better.

Offensively, this has meant increasingly embracing his brilliant passing vision. James’ intent has always been to pass first, yet he has also always been among the NBA’s premium scoring talents; when he gets downhill with a head of steam, no one can stop him going to the rim. As a result of this, this season, LeBron leads the league in assists, something he has never done before in his career.

More noticeable, however, has been the impact of this energy-conserving style on his defense. On this end, it has not been such a good thing. Indeed, heading into this season, James himself even admitted his defense had dropped off a bit too far.

It has been well-documented that James has become the foremost exponent of the idea of “resting while playing”. During his final season with the Cavaliers, he spent more time on the court walking than anyone else in the league, and was visibly easing off increasingly often on the defensive end despite having the size, speed, hands, reads and ability to defend anybody at any position. LeBron’s role on that end gravitated towards standing in the back line and calling out plays rather than chasing around quick perimeter players.

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LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball to take the lead against the LA Clippers on July 30, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. 0:22
LeBron James scored the game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers with this great follow up against the LA Clippers

This is perfectly understandable, of course, and it has helped him achieve the outstanding longevity that has also defined his career. Over time, though, it did create a chink in the armour of a player who had otherwise been impervious since the year he began to shoot well from outside. While it is a long way down the list of reasons why the Lakers were not successful in his first season with them, it did not chime well with the idea of the elder statesman joining the young team and leading by example.

We could justify the defensive passivity when he was with Cleveland for the second time, perhaps, a team which had lesser defensive personnel than even last year’s Lakers yet in which his offensive importance was even greater than it is now. However, a message of “do as I say, not as I do” is not ideal when surrounded by such a young and impressionable team.

The Lakers’ offseason trade for Anthony Davis remedied that. Not only did it remove much of that youth from the team, it also gave LeBron the calibre of defensive player he had not seen throughout his career to date. With all due respect to Tristan Thompson, it is a whole different ball game having Davis behind and alongside you covering all of the ground on defense than it is having his Thompson’s slower feet and lack of rim protection.

In turn, LeBron has been true to what he said he would do before the start of the season, and has picked up his own individual defense accordingly.

Lebron James and Kyle Lowry 0:16
LeBron James blocks Kyle Lowry from behind during the Toronto Raptors’ win against the Los Angeles Lakers

The backline callouts were more theoretical than a reality last year. But this year, they are back. Additionally, more than before, LeBron can and will get low and track ball-handlers, having that defensive burst in a way he did not before. He can still jump passing lanes like few others, he can muscle up down the paint and defend the larger players, and he is doing a bit more of all of it this season. Even some of the chase-down blocks – once a nightly occurrence and a defining feature of his game in his youth – are back.

With Davis alongside him, LeBron has lesser scoring responsibility, thus having more energy to expend on the defensive end. More importantly, he also has more impetus to do so, as the Lakers head up the Western Conference after so many years in the doldrums.

The Lakers have the third-best defense in the league and Davis, in addition to being such a focal point of the offense, is the likely Defensive Player of the Year, yet even with his individual excellence on the end, the team around him, led by James, has also been responsible for the uptick.

The acquisition of Davis brought a defensive mindset to the team. There is a hefty amount of pressure for LeBron to succeed in LA and restore the storied Lakers to former glory, and with such a transcendent, unique, Hall-of-Fame talent in tow, there is also no reason why he cannot do so.

Rajon Rondo and Lebron James 6:16
The Heatcheck team discuss whether Rajon Rondo’s absence due to a broken thumb, will put a lot of pressure on Lebron James in the NBA playoffs

Having Davis alongside him, covering ground, being such a deterrent around the rim yet also closing onto shooters and picking up ball-handlers in switches, increases the defense’s options, covers for so many others, and also demands by example that LeBron does the same. And on the season thus far, he has.

In their four games in the bubble so far, it has not quite been as crisp. The absence of Rajon Rondo has been a factor – not because he himself is a significant piece part of the defensive puzzle, but because without him, LeBron is the only Laker who can reliably bring the ball up, and doing that all night every night will detract from the defensive energy.

It is also understandable that it will take some time for James to work himself back into premium game shape after nearly four months out of action; after all, that is what these additional final few regular season games are for.

Nevertheless, bolstered by the addition of Davis – who openly challenged James to up his defensive intensity upon his arrival – LeBron James has become a good defender again. A duo that plays with such versatility and talent on both ends like he and AD are always to be feared.

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