Through seven games, the leaders for the Los Angeles Lakers in defensive rating are: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Dwight Howard and LeBron James. Yes, you read that right — LeBron James.
James has been a negative defender only once in his career — his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers — but he hasn’t been a consistently great defender since his days with the Miami Heat. While it’s early in the season, the Lakers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions while James is on the floor (a career-best mark for him), while James is posting a defensive box plus-minus of +3.5, the highest he’s posted since the 2008-09 season.
He hasn’t just been good by his standards — he’s been flat-out good, and a large part of the reason the Lakers have the No. 1 ranked defense in the NBA. After practice on Thursday, James’ new head coach Frank Vogel praised him for buying in and being a leader on the defensive end of the floor.
“He’s working really hard and I couldn’t be more impressed with his commitment on that end and his intent to set a tone,” Vogel said of James. “It’s been highly contagious with everybody on that end.”
Now, the level of defense James is playing at probably isn’t sustainable for a 34 going on 35-year-old over the course of an unforgiving 82-game schedule, but it might not need to be.
If James leads the Lakers to a strong start to the season like he has so far, it will be easier for him to take nights off on defense (and in general). Then, once the postseason rolls around, Vogel will probably feel more comfortable putting James on the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and James will be more rested for the task.
We’ll see how James looks 20 games into the season, but for now James is one of the best defenders on the Lakers, and not due to a shortage of defensive talent on the team. That’s been a great development for the team, and one worth monitoring as the season continues.