Is Lebron James’ defense starting to become overrated?
He’s receiving Defensive Player of the Year votes. Chris Palmer from ESPN, among others, recently wrote a piece suggesting that Lebron be awarded DPoY. In the past couple of years, Bron has been consistently mentioned amongst the top players of the league on defense – and deservedly so – but he’s now shooting up to top five, top three, and sometimes number one in that regard.
It’s too much.
Lebron James on defense is spectacular with his lateral movement, his athleticism, and in his ability to rotate with great quickness. Lebron James is great at ball denial and occupying the passing lanes, and at guarding players in the post (at least versus players that are within his size range).
Lebron James is a great help defender with a high defensive IQ, and while he may not read read the offense like a Scottie Pippen can, he’s very good in that regard; many of his coaches and teammates have spoken about this trait of his.
Lebron James is decent at getting through screens, and is decent at guarding isolations.
Lebron’s energy output on defense is decent overall.
And, Lebron James is below average at guarding spot-up shots and contesting when players hoist up jumpers.
All of these things constitute who Lebron James is as a defensive player. He’s a very good one, and the best player in the league by a mile, but we need not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s review some statistics:
In his article, Chris Palmer often pointed to Lebron’s stats on Synergy Sports and how they stood out. I think he might be surprised to learn that an uncelebrated defender in Dwyane Wade – playing within the exact same defensive system, starting lineup, and everything – is posting significantly better numbers in major categories. On isolations, Lebron allows 0.81 points per possession (PPP), Wade 0.78. When guarding the ball handler, Lebron allows 0.72 PPP while Wade allows only 0.56. During spot-ups, Lebron allows 1.00 PPP and Wade gives up a mere 0.88. Off screens, Lebron 0.97 PPP, and Wade with 0.76. You get the idea.
And there’s also the defensive part of Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus. This year, on defense alone, Lebron made him team better by an approximated 1.8 points per 100 possessions. Is this really comparable to the league’s defensive stoppers? Big men like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan doubled his score; others like Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard were far ahead. Perimeters players like Paul George (3.5), Tony Allen (3.8), Thabo Sefolosha (2.9), Andre Iguodala (2.7), and Gerald Wallace (3.0) posted far better defensive ratings.
We can also look to 82games.com’s Counterpart Opponent 48-Minute Production. Lebron holds opposing small forwards to a nice rating of 12.6 PER, and power forwards to 17.6 PER. But how does this compare to Tony Allen, who holds shooting guards to 12.6 PER and small forwards to 15.6 PER? How about to George, who holds SGs to 12.9 and SFs to 10.9? How about to Sefolosha who holds SGs to 13.1 PER, and SFs to 12.1 PER? How about Garnett who holds PFs to 15.4, and centers to 15.8 PER?
There are some specific examples to consider. The 2010-11 playoffs showcased Lebron’s abilities to really hone in and shut down a smaller, quicker guard in Derrick Rose. But in the postseason, we’ve also seen him struggle to defend the long-range shooting of players like Jason Terry (’11) and a longer Durant (’12).
Make no mistake: Lebron James is the best player in the league by a long shot, and one of the best players to ever pick up a basketball. He’s also one of the most versatile defenders in the league. But let’s relax on the defensive player of the year comments. While he’s a great on that end, James has a ways to go before he can contend with the defensive abilities of high-IQ hyperactive ball-hawks like Allen, Sefolosha, Garnett, Duncan, and other great defenders.
- If we ignore his unimpressive Points Per Possession Allowed on spot-ups, we still can see that he has posted worse than average in terms of blocks per minute amongst small forwards in the league.Back