There is an alternate reality, a Bizzaro World if you will, in which LeBron James wakes up every morning and picks up a pair of cleats — not sneakers — to go to work.
Once a standout wide receiver in high school, the combination of James’ hulking frame and freakish athleticism makes it easy to conjure up visions of him bursting off the line of scrimmage, snagging spirals in the end-zone and completely barreling over any poor soul who dared get in his way. But those, of course, are simply daydreams.
His decision to play on the hardwood instead of astroturf ultimately left behind one of the sports world’s greatest “what if’s.” And while never getting the chance to see him don shoulder pads and a helmet, NBA fans are getting one hell of a glimpse of what that could have looked like on the defensive end this season.
“Well this is Chicago, right?” Frank Vogel jokingly asked reporters on Spectrum SportsNet prior to the team’s road win against the Bulls last week.
“So everybody knows Mike Singletary, and what the value of having that middle-linebacker on your defense is. Obviously he (James) has physical tools to dominate, but his mind on that end of the floor is not spoken about enough. He’s able to recognize coverages before they happen and just be that middle linebacker.”
James’ transition from wideout to a disruptive corner/safety/linebacker concoction has helped catapult the Lakers to the best defensive rating in the league, the best record in the Western Conference and the team’s best start through 11 games in nearly a decade.
While their stellar start on the defensive end is not singularly due to James, as playing with the likes of Anthony Davis and Danny Green undoubtedly helps, the Lakers are learning that there are immense benefits in having your top guy visibly giving a damn.
James’ disinterest and haphazard approach last season had a negative trickle down effect on a then impressionable young team. This year however, James has not only been noticeably more active, but worlds improved in being a vocal leader and playing that middle linebacker role his head coach referred to.
Evaluating defense remains a murky component of basketball analysis, which can often lead to a misperception that steals and blocks can be a primary indicator of impact, a view that misses out on the important elements in between.
These are the areas in which James has thrived thus far. The subtleties. Aspects like audibly calling out where his teammates should be on the floor, pointing when they should slide up over or under a screen and individually closing out hard on a shooter. Those are all important tone-setters that Vogel claims have been “highly contagious.”
James’ individual numbers have also been incredible. Heading into their win against the Warriors, the Lakers’ defense was allowing nearly five points more when LeBron was off the floor compared to when he was on it. On the season, he currently ranks in the 87th percentile in the league in man defense, 95th percentile defending the pick and roll ball-handler and 100th percentile against hand-offs, according to Synergy.
Little things from the Lakers defensively here. Watch when Robinson cuts backdoor on the weakside LeBron tells Bradley to stay high and just takes him. Their ability to help communicate and switch has been key early in the season. pic.twitter.com/yntAVixnzG— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) November 9, 2019
It’s easy to overlook the obvious when it comes to James, because in many ways he is the obvious. His stat-line could be etched in stone prior to every game and everyone could go on with their business with a sense of comfort, knowing that he is immutable.
But he is not immortal. Last year’s injury proved that. And at the age of 34 and in the midst of his 17th season, his ability to once again turn back the clocks has surprised nearly everyone. Everyone, that is, but James himself (via Tania Ganguli of The Los Angeles Times):
“For me, I just take the challenge,” he said. “I love being challenged. Coach challenged me. A.D. challenged me. I challenged myself. I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back [after being injured last year]. My mind has always been there. That’s what it’s all about.”
Many people assumed a full offseason of rehab would do James’ body some good after years of exhausting playoff runs. But it’s his newfound approach, and dedication to holding up his end of the bargain on defense which has been the biggest revelation.
Athletically, James is not the cyborg he was in Miami. Nor will he be. But, his mind has never wavered. Circumstances like the team he was on, the Warriors’ reign over the league and simply succumbing to human fatigue all likely played a role in his recent decline in effectiveness and effort on defense. While those aren’t excuses, they are potential reasons. And now, with realistic championship aspirations in his sights once again and the body that he has relied upon for 17 years showing the benefits of hibernation, the beautiful defensive side of James’ game that had faded is slowly reemerging.
The NBA is simply a better place when these things happen with more occurrence.
The question of how long James can keep up this level of intensity and engagement is still up for debate. There will undoubtedly be lapses at some point. He will likely also at times resort back to the art of “resting while playing” that he has turned toward in recent seasons. All of this is expected.
But what James cannot do is fall back into complacency. The team very much goes as he goes, and follows by his example and effort level. Through 11 games, he has been everything you could humanly ask a 34-year-old to be and more.
This may be one of, if not James’ final chance in capturing that illustrious final championship ring. And while he built his career around an unbelievable offensive reign, it may ultimately come down to a possession on the other end, a necessary stop or captured loose ball that could decide whether or not he is able to snatch a victory away from Father Time’s grasp, one last time.
The way James is playing defense, just wish Father Time luck.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.