LeBron James’ defense had become something of a running joke for much of the last few years. Clips of him getting lost made their way through Twitter and a factual narrative was born. This season, James has made a concerted effort to refocus on defending, and it’s shown.
Before the Los Angeles Lakers would go on to beat the Chicago Bulls, James and Frank Vogel addressed his improved defense, and while Defensive Player of The Year sounds like a nice carrot, it’s far from his top motivator (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“No not no award. It did. I feel like I got snubbed for it a couple times in my career, but I don’t really go for that award no more. But I’m definitely going to be one of the best defensive players on my team this year.”
James is absolutely right in regards to awards in professional sports. Derrick Rose won an MVP over him because people were still angry that James took his talents to South Beach. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant having as many MVPs combined as Steve Nash does is a legitimate farce.
Almost no matter how well James plays defensively, he probably won’t win DPOY for (among other reasons) the simple fact that he isn’t seen as a defender right now, and thus is giving up a head start to someone like Rudy Gobert, winner of this award from last season.
So, awards aside, the focus becomes the ways he can help the Lakers on that end of the court — something his inarguably done. The Lakers are giving up 97.9 points per 100 possessions this year. When James is on the court, that drops to 96.4, though for some reason is 96.2 when he’s off. Small sample sizes, everyone!
Vogel spoke more to the kind of role James has been filling on defense, and likened it to an all-time great athlete who played in the city the Lakers were in that day (also via Spectrum):
“Well this is Chicago, right? So everybody knows Mike Singletary, and what the value of having that middle-linebacker on your defense is. Obviously he 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.”
Vogel’s observation about James’ defensive IQ has been key not just about him individually, but in general about the Lakers’ defense as a whole. Throughout the roster, you have smart, capable defenders who have worked together to at times absolutely stifle opponents.
This identity the Lakers have built for themselves as hard-nosed and intelligent defenders with the firepower that comes with have James and Anthony Davis on the roster has been fun to watch take hold. James has absolutely been key to it, and while he might not care about awards (and likely won’t be recognized along those lines), he absolutely deserves praise for the turnaround he’s shown thus far.