LeBron “King” James is widely considered by NBA fans all over the world as one of the greatest to ever play the game, placing him in their Top 5, Top 3, and even as the G.O.A.T. This is primarily attributed to his overall dominance and athleticism, and his all-around play, he is considered by some to be the greatest all-around player of all-time.
While he is known for his offensive skills such as scoring and playmaking, one of the biggest question marks in LeBron James’ career has been his defense, especially after he returned back to Cleveland in 2014. What critics forget so easily is that LeBron James was (and still is) also one of the most elite two-way players we have ever seen.
Late in his first stint as a Cavalier and his “Big 3” Heat days, LBJ was a phenomenal defender, with his name popping up in DPOY conversations and with the accolades to prove it. He was a 5-time All-NBA Defensive First Team member from 2009 until 2013, and a 1-time All-NBA Defensive Second Team member in 2014. He finished 2nd in DPOY voting in 2009 and 2013 (when he also won MVP in both years), while finishing 4th in 2010 and 2012, 6th in 2014 and 9th in 2011.
Since his return to Cleveland, LeBron’s Cavs have only cracked the Top 15 in defense once, and that was during the historic 2016 NBA Finals season. The 2017-18 Cavs were the worst defensive team LeBron has played for in his entire career, finishing 29th out of 30 teams. The reason? LeBron himself said:
“Defensively, we’ve surrounded ourselves with some more wing defenders this year that allowed me to not have to exert so much energy defensively. But whenever the number has been called for me to defend, I’ve been always taking that responsibility. So I don’t think that’s changed.”
LeBron carried a huge load on offense last season, as he and Love were the only two quality scorers on the roster. At the age of 33, it is widely believed that he chose to take a step back on the defensive side of the game and focus more on playmaking and scoring.
Sure, LeBron has had to shy away from matchups against KD in the Finals, and sure, he may not look like he’s even trying, such as when he did not even cross the half-court line on defense. There have been numerous cases during the regular season where LeBron genuinely looked lost on defense. However, when LeBron is locked in and has a team that can carry the load on offense without him giving his 110%, it is without a doubt that he is still one of the most elite perimeter defenders in this league.
LeBron has been subject to a lot of debates regarding the G.O.A.T. as of late. Coming off a historic postseason run and his transition to LA, his popularity may be at an all-time high. One of the most mentioned weaknesses LeBron has compared to Jordan is no question his defense. Jordan is one of the best perimeter defenders of ALL-TIME. He won both the MVP and the DPOY awards in 1998, and is a 9-time All-NBA Defensive First Team member.
However, one advantage that MJ had compared to LeBron was hand checking. Hand checking was a rule that was later changed, but helped tremendously on defense during the 80s and the 90s. Hand checking essentially is the defender being allowed to touch the offensive player that they were guarding. However, after the rule change, any hand contact between the defense and the offense was called a reach-in foul. If the hand checking rule were to be the same today as it was in Jordan’s era, James’ defense would be much more effective.
To conclude, LeBron is still one of the most elite defenders today, even at the age of 33. While his defense has regressed over the years, he is still more than capable of defending great scorers with his athleticism and defensive IQ. With the Lakers, LeBron should have plenty of options of players to carry the offense for him, allowing him to divide his effort more evenly. And while MJ is the superior defender, LeBron plays in a completely different era with completely different rules. Unfortunately, LeBron playing with the rules of the 90s and how good he would have been defensively if he did play in that time can only remain as a big what if.