LeBron James turning back clock defensively

LeBron James
LeBron James is setting the tone defensively (Alex Cervantes/Lakers Outsiders)

On Sunday, you probably turned all your clocks back an hour for daylight savings time, an annual event that often throws us all out of sorts. But if you’re a Los Angeles Lakers fan, there’s a good chance that you’ve felt discombobulated by the calendar for the past couple of weeks.

Between Avery Bradley’s disruptive perimeter defense and Dwight Howard’s age-defying posters, there’s been quite a bit of turning back the clock among the Lakers roster. Most surprising of all, however, has been the early-season effort from LeBron James who had taken all the criticism personally and become a defensive pest again for the first time in a long time.

James’ defensive effort, at least in the regular season, has been at a decline for years now. With more mileage on his legs than nearly any player in NBA history, it made sense that James would take possessions, if not games, at a time off on the defensive end of the floor. It allowed him to stay healthy and spry offensively for those moments of brilliance that have kept him at the top of the league through his 17 seasons.

Between the lack of urgency and a serious groin injury that sapped the star forward of much of his athleticism, Lakers fans have not been able to witness many defensive highlights from the King. It became far too common, in fact, for LeBron to be caught ball-watching, losing his man on open shots or cuts, or even get pushed by his own teammates into the correct defensive position.

This year has been a different story, however. Save all your caveats about small sample sizes and how early in the season it is. LeBron James is on a mission and it has started on the defensive end.

James’ effort defensively to start the year is much more than the highlight reel of chasedown blocks. The star is leading his team on that side of the floor by routinely closing out hard and beating opponents to spots on the floor.

Through six games, James leads the Lakers with 0.67 charges drawn per game, good for ninth in the entire league. (Of note: James’ teammate, Alex Caruso, is just below him in the NBA leaderboards with 0.60 charges drawn per game.)

The Lakers have tried to hide James on less impactful offensive players, not because of his inability to guard workhorses, but because it reduces his responsibility and allows him to play a free safety role across the floor. It’s that kind of positioning that allows him to provide the help defense that James has excelled at. Between the drawn charges and steals (1.5 per game), James is effectively causing more than two turnovers per game. His additional 2.3 deflections per game take the opposing offense out of its rhythm causing rushed shots or turnovers.

Of course, not everything that LeBron is doing defensively will show up in a stat. And the free safety strategy, which is nothing new, would not be working so well if the forward was not exerting the requisite effort to help and recover on his assignments.

Something as simple as closing out on open shooters was an issue for James last year as the Lakers routinely had to cover for his mistakes. The same was true for his ball-watching leading to opponents cutting behind him and getting dunks or layups. While he is still prone to mistakes, James has erased much of these issues to start this season and it’s one of the biggest reasons why the Lakers have the best defensive rating in the NBA through two weeks of basketball.

The Lakers are effectively taking away the most efficient shots from their opponents. Teams are shooting just 30.1 percent from three against the Lakers – the fifth-best mark in the league – and, more importantly, they are only taking 31 such shots per game, the seventh-lowest mark for a defense. Meanwhile, opponents are shooting a mere 52.3 percent from within six feet against the Lakers giants in the paint (the third best mark in the NBA).

The Lakers are effectively guarding against the shots that every team in the NBA wants to take. Some of that is luck, of course, and they should not expect every team to shoot poorly from behind the arc against them, but led by James (who is contesting 2.3 3-point attempts per game), the entire team has operated on a string, rotating to put a hand in the face of every shooter. Head coach Frank Vogel admitted as much, calling James’ defensive effort contagious (h/t Bill Oram of The Athletic):

“It’s contagious and his commitment on that end of the floor has been a great surprise for us in terms of just how proficient he’s been. He’s leading the charge with care factor on that end of the floor.

“When he’s working that hard and caring that much about getting stops, it carries over to everybody else, and you see it on the floor.”

The Lakers’ win over San Antonio was perfectly emblematic of that. While the offense continues to struggle as new teammates adjust to playing with each other and the rotations get shifted, the defense is meshing beautifully already.

James hasn’t had a defensive star like Anthony Davis on his side since Chris Bosh in Miami and even then, Davis’ athleticism and agility is a different animal. The newfound support as well as being held accountable to perform defensively by his co-star has revitalized the six-time All-NBA Defense Team member.

James is in the top ten of the league in defensive win shares and second only to Davis on his own team. It’s become clear that his focus on that end of the floor is a night and day difference from last year, to the point where he has opted to be more passive offensively in the first half of games to exert more of his energy on defense; 61% of James’ points and 54% of his field goal attempts have come in the second half of games. Of course, age is still a factor that has to be accounted for and as the long season takes its toll, it will be interesting to see if James can continue his defensive excellence especially if the Lakers offense does not naturally improve.

For now, Frank Vogel and the Lakers will take all they can get from LeBron. His defensive prowess has been contagious for the team and it’s on that end of the floor where they have excelled and won five straight games since their opening night loss. Defense is more than just the strength of the team; it’s their identity. And it’s their alpha dog leading the way in his 17th season.

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