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The Untold Story of LeBron’s Big Flaw

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Who is LeBron James?

By now, to define King James as a basketball player is to construct a long and colorful list of praise. There’s much more to the man than the fact that he’s perhaps the single most efficient volume scorer in NBA history, impressive as this may be. He’s a top rebounder for his position, and one of the most gifted passers in the entire league. He’s consistent to the tune of triple doubles being a constant possibility. James is highly versatile, strong, and fast on defense. He’s dedicated and highly intelligent in a way that always puts him a step ahead of the opposition, and is a highly revered leader. He’s accomplished, being a winner of several individual and team accolades.

LeBron James is the dominant player of this generation.

But consider this: is it possible that a big flaw of his is being overlooked by the masses? For LeBron James, this regards his play on the defensive side of the ball. More specifically, his ability to contest shots.

Observing a few minutes of 2013-14 Miami Heat film might give one the impression that LeBron James is coasting on defense. Sporadic effort on defense is an issue that plagues the entire league, especially with star wing players. Indiana’s Paul George seems to be the only exception to this rule — even if he’s playing on a back-to-back in Milwaukee (currently 7-27), George will spend every defensive possession slithering around screens at full speed, hawking the passing lanes, and pressing up on offensive players. But despite his stardom, George is still young and coming into his own. Part of being more experienced means players better understand how to allocate energy — this becomes more of a necessity as wear and tear and a loss of athleticism take their toll. The 23 year-old George isn’t yet concerned with this stuff.

LeBron James on the other hand is currently in his 11th NBA season (many of which included extra mileage from postseason and Olympics play); at age 29, he understands the significance of energy allocation better than ever. A decrease in effort can mean a few things, but with defense being highly dependent on commitment and energy output, changes are more visible on this end. The LeBron-of-now’s rotations aren’t quite as zippy, and he’ll often take shortcuts by guarding an “area” instead of a player which asks for more switches from his teammates. On ball, he’s more reliant on his teammates’ weak side help, making him a bit more susceptible to being beat off the dribble. LeBron now spends long stretches guarding guys who aren’t offensive threats, and he spends more time lingering in the passing lanes. Given LeBron’s amount of mileage, the fact that his team is racking up wins, and the burden he’ll have to carry come Playoffs time, this coasting is somewhat understandable.

But if looking far enough into the defensive statistics, you have to wonder if that’s all really so fine and dandy. Though LeBron’s team is 11th in defensive efficiency — a good, not great mark — they are currently 20th in opponent FG%. They’re 29th out of 30 teams in allowing three-pointers. They foul a lot. And individually, LeBron’s statistical output has fared poorly. His defensive rating of 105 is higher than ever. His steals and blocks are at a career low. Per Talking Practice Blog, his RAPMd and IPVd are clear negatives (note: the below contains non prior-informed data, with no boxscore information). See below:

That’s right: if compared to notable perimeter defenders, LeBron James’ output appears to be significantly worse. Can this gap in defensive output merely be a question of sporadic effort and “saving it for the playoffs”? This doesn’t seem quite right considering that some of these other players are veterans, too, and are also in it for the long haul.

Poor shot contesting.

Versus the Nets on January 10th 2014, for the fourth time in his eleven year career, LeBron James fouled out of a game. The fourth time! Sure, it’s a little easier to avoid foul calls if you’re a bonafide superstar, and LeBron-like levels of discipline can only help. But what makes this really possible? Not contesting shots. For LeBron, this is not a habit, nor is it a conscious decision. It’s merely something that he’s poor at.

LeBron’s current block rate, depicted as BLK% on Basketball-Reference, is 0.8. This is the lowest in the NBA amongst players who are in LeBron’s height range, between 6’7” and 6’9”. Do note that this is the lowest block rate of LeBron’s to date, and it’s still early in the season; LeBron’s career BLK% might be a fairer representation of his abilities (1.6%). But if we compare this rate to the players on that same list, LeBron’s career BLK% is still way down on the list at 52nd.

These numbers make it clear that despite his uncanny ability to perform a spectacular “chase down block” in transition, LeBron James just isn’t much of a shot blocker. He’s big, he’s smart, and he’s athletic, so why is this? Is he too busy with one-on-one defense to be bothered to come from the weak side and contest? Is he swiping down at the ball instead of trying to block it at the apex?

Despite LeBron’s gifts on defense, he isn’t quick to react when players rise up for a shot, and usually plays from a slight distance. Herein lies his problem. In the below video, take note of how LeBron defended Carmelo Anthony on January 9th. Despite his intent to stop him from getting where he wanted to go, he was unable to do much at all about Melo’s jump shot:

For the purposes of comparing, here are some snapshots of Josh Smith’s contests versus Melo just a few days before:

We can see a pretty clear difference. Unlike LeBron’s, Josh Smith’s hands were threatening the trajectory of Melo’s shot. Granted, these aren’t the biggest sample sizes, and it’s the regular season.

There are notable defensive performances examples from the Playoffs to consider, though. LeBron James had a great showing versus Derrick Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. He succeeded by planting his enormous, crab-like frame in front of Rose and cut off penetration — Rose’s greatest weapon — forcing him to pass the ball off, or uncomfortably hoist long shots.

But LeBron James has struggled just as much in these situations. For stretches over several games in the 2010-11 Finals, LeBron guarded Jason Terry, and was unable to thwart his scoring onslaught. This is because Terry produces primarily by shooting jump shots. In the 2011-12 Finals, we saw something similar: Kevin Durant didn’t fare so well in the post, but he got his shot off with relative ease on the outside. LeBron’s skill set and intelligence was relatively ineffective in both of these situations. If you can’t affect the shot of jump-shooters, they’re going to get their points, and many times do so on high efficiency.

We can’t dismiss the greatness that is LeBron James. He is the world’s best player, and may be more capable of single-handedly carrying a team than anyone in the modern era (seriously, who else could have gotten to the 2007 finals with that Cavaliers squad?).

But let’s not make the same mistake that many of us did with Michael Jordan: these players are not Gods, they are men. And men have discernible flaws.

  • Dodgson

    Just a quick point on this, any smart defensive coach in the league wants players to take long twos. The fact that Lebron gets people in these clips to do so should be considered a net positive regardless of the outcome of the shot. Don’t give up free throws when someone is taking the dumbest possible shot in the game, stay on your feet and let them shoot.

    • Bball

      Putting a hand in the face of a shooter isn’t fouling them, rather altering their shot and lowering the chance of making it.

      • Dodgson

        I am completely aware of that, but if someone is taking a long two that isn’t a catch and shoot I’d take that (even without a hand in the face) to a contested layup or any other open shot any day of the week. Long twos are just bad shots, making them even worse does have a purpose but having the other team take them is incredibly valuable regardless.

  • stomper

    You do realize that Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Rating, and most other defensive stats like them are really poor ways of evaluating a defenders ability on the individual level? Why is every single person on the Pacers roster’s DRtg is under 100 and within a couple points of each other? It isn’t because every single player is an awesome defender and better than Lebron. No, it’s because it’s basically a team stat that only changes slightly from person to person (a couple points) on the team. Roy Hibbert is a behemoth defensive presence which makes everyone else, Paul George included, statistically better in DRtg and DWS. The same with Ibaka being on the Thunder helping KD look good on the Thunder and making his defensive stats in that regard look better than they really are. Lebron isn’t a gambling defender, which is why he doesn’t get as many blocks or steals as he could. It’s also why he doesn’t get many fouls, conversely, which is a good thing as the best player on the team. He also doesn’t have a monster or shot blocker in the paint which means he has to worry more about guys driving to the bucket since no one is there to help protect it. If you want to know why Lebron is one of the best defenders in the league, all you have to do is rewatch all of the playoff games the last few years. He has been an absolute force on that end, and it’s even backed up by the fact that he’s led the playoffs in DWS three years in a row. Honestly, this season it just seems like, as a whole, the Heat’s team isn’t playing great defense which hurts each players rating whether they are playing well or not.

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