Although it has been ridiculed in his recent seasons, LeBron James’ defense has improved this season compared to past seasons. For his efforts, he’s currently leading the entire NBA in a great (and yet flawed) statistic, Defensive Real Plus/Minus (according to ESPN).
However great that DRPM statistic makes him out to be on the defensive end, Frank Vogel and the Lakers aren’t going to send LeBron James out there to defend the Kawhi Leonards, James Hardens, and Giannis Antetokounmpos of the NBA on a nightly basis.
Now with that being said, LeBron is still a physical monster and could be used sparingly on those players to try and limit them on random possessions where it’s needed. Obviously those most important possessions are going to happen in the fourth quarters of games, where LeBron can use his unique mix of speed and size to make things hard for opposing teams’ superstars.
Zach Lowe of ESPN was wondering about this exact concept on his most recent episode of the Lowe Post podcast, where he was joined by Los Angeles Laker, Jared Dudley. Lowe wondered whether or not LeBron still had it in him to ramp it up and guard these types of wing players towards the end of a game or even an entire fourth quarter. Dudley responded emphatically saying he doesn’t wonder, while also saying this regarding the entire team’s approach to these star players on the defensive end:
“For sure. LeBron is the most well-conditioned athlete in the NBA. I’ve seen him and the way he takes care of his body. When everything needs to be done, it’s done. I’m not worried about him, for us we need to get better as a team, working on our defensive issues or certain stuff, or how we want to be. And good thing we have 25 games, because we’re number one in the West, but we’ve still got a ways to go to be able to improve to where we want to be going into the playoffs. So for us, yeah, I would say sometimes the point guards we’ve had, the quick point guards, and threes we’ve had. But at the same time, you have to worry about us too. And that’s how I look at it.”
The two also talked about how he sort of did this against Jayson Tatum towards the end of the Lakers’ win against the Celtics on Sunday. Tatum was unstoppable through the first three quarters, with the Lakers using LeBron as well as double-teams to effectively limit him in the fourth.
It would be nice for LeBron to have some gas left in the tank in the playoffs to sometimes take on the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook late in some games. I definitely have to think that won’t happen often in the playoffs, as it will probably only happen in key possessions late in games where Vogel and the Lakers think they may have the upper-hand by surprising the star player with LeBron right in their face.