Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron is playing awful defense -- but will it even matter?

LeBron James is one of the best wing defenders in the league. He has been named to the NBA’s all-defensive first team for each of the past five seasons — and for good reason.

These aren’t ceremonial selections that players like Kobe Bryant or Jason Kidd got on reputation late in their careers. LeBron still locks it down. He is still the most ferocious “free safety” a passer can see — usually all too late — snatching the ball out of the air and freight training the other way to butcher another rim.

Through two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, however, he has been mostly awful.

There are many Xs and Os issues to point out, but the main problem is that he has rarely looked engaged on the defensive end. James has been standing around listlessly. He has been paying token attention to the player he is checking while sagging off too far. And he has been caught off guard when he becomes involved in an action.

It has been shocking to watch.

Usually his mind and body is ahead of the other nine players on the court, but in Game 1, he was lagging. And his biggest problem was literally his biggest problem: David West.

In a move that surprised many, Erik Spoelstra started Shane Battier instead of Udonis Haslem, leaving Chris Bosh to defend the 7’2″ Roy Hibbert and LeBron on West.

After the game, James said that he rarely finds himself having to cover bigger, stronger guys. “There’s not that many, but West is one of them,” he said to Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report. When asked to name some others, LeBron said, “it’s, like, David West, Shaq, Zeus, and my two boys — that’s it.”

He was joking, but it’s hard to believe that even the Greek god of gods — with home court on Mount Olympus — could have overpowered James more than West did in the first half.

Just look at the video.

LeBron was putting forth effort on West. James just couldn’t do much to keep West from doing whatever he wanted.

At one point, Lance Stephenson even decided to get in on the beast mode-ing while the beast-mode-getting was good. (video via CBS Sports)

It wasn’t all about LeBron not being physically able to handle West, however. He just wasn’t paying attention in many instances, and that included times when he was covering Paul George.

The plays in the video below are simply thoughtless defenses lapses.

This is James Harden stuff.

LeBron’s bad defense wasn’t the sole reason the Pacers were able to control Game 1 from tip to buzzer. But his play was a microcosm for the dispirited attack and blitzing-in-name-only that the Heat were doing to Indiana’s ballhandlers. As a result, a team that usually struggles to find a groove offensively was able to remain comfortable for nearly all 48 minutes and carve up Miami’s easily assailable defense.

It was little surprise that Erik Spoelstra completely abandoned the notion of LeBron guarding West in Game 2.

Still, James really wasn’t any better covering George and Stephenson.

In Game 2, he continued to roam too far and lose track of his man. He was slow to get around screens. He got beat off the dribble. He gambled in passing lanes. And more than anything, he just stood around doing nothing.

Just look at all the flimsy defense in this video. His inaction and disengagement led to way too many layups and free throws for Indiana. And this is from just the first half.

He didn’t exactly turn it on after half time either.

Oddly enough, the Heat “hid him” on Paul George. In reality, that wasn’t by design, but Stephenson so thoroughly took over the third quarter that George was hardly involved. The Pacers quickly realized that Lance was in Bourne Ready mode, so the Georges Paul and Hill let him run the show. Paul George was resigned mostly to spacing duty, standing in the corner with LeBron nearby, both acting as spectators to The Stephenson Show.

After that, the Heat hid James by design.

He checked George Hill and C.J. Watson for the bulk of the fourth quarter. Norris Cole played the final 12 minutes, reportedly at James’ suggestion that he could be a Stephenson stopper. More curious, however, was Wade checking Paul George while LeBron stayed on the weakside guarding players six inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter than him.

Perhaps the rationale was to ensure the King stayed fresh enough to make plays on the other end? Maybe Spoelstra wanted James to be a lurking free safety who might change the game by forcing some live-ball turnovers? Or least likely of all, could Spoelstra have been sick of watching LeBron get torched?

You do have to give James credit though.

While he stood or roamed around playing bad defense for most of the game, he still made some plays. This is what makes it laughable to even jokingly compare LeBron — as bad as he has been — to James Harden.

By the end of the game, he had been awarded two steals in the box score. But he did much more than that, deflecting passes and stripping balls from the hands of players about to score. He ended possessions and saved points. (All this speaks to why the steal stat is one of the worst metrics commonly used to analyze players, but that’s an article for another time.)

Just look at James swiping balls away with assassin precision. (Though his strip of Hill late in the game was a forearm-to-forearm foul.)

In trying to analyze basketball, the only thing you can do is look at process. That isn’t always what decides the game, of course.

Outbursts like the flurry of brilliance Lance Stephenson uncorked in the third quarter defy explanation. Wade’s deft shooting late does too, on a smaller scale. Stuff like this — and the many Godzilla exploits we have seen from LeBron over the years — are often the ultimate difference makers.

But coaches can’t say, “All right, guys, we’re down by 5. So we just need for one or two of you to turn into superheroes for a couple minutes. ‘Team’ on three.” They have to teach process and hope that, in the midst of playing the right way, outbursts occur and players make plays.

In a process sense, LeBron has been largely horrible on defense in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. But he has used his unique-on-planet anticipation, athleticism, strength, quickness, and knowledge of the game to make some big-time plays. The steal he had on Hill (foul though it was) is arguably the biggest play in the series thus far.

That doesn’t excuse the rest though. The videos above aren’t The Harden Tape, but LeBron does deserve the Boo This Man treatment for many of his bad plays.

Ultimately, it is hard to believe that LeBron will continue to be so disengaged on defense for the rest of the series. Then again, if he can and his team still wins, well maybe he’s even better than we all think.

If he can put his defense on bad-habit cruise control and still win a third straight title, the rest of the league might just want to take the next few years off.

Dick's Sporting Goods presents "Hell Week":

Tags: David West Indiana Pacers Lebron James Miami Heat

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention that Wade is equally guilty of ball watching and loafing.

  • fightclubitis

    Lebron hasn’t played defense for some months (maybe even years) now. Of course no one noticed because the Heat simply didn’t need Lebron to defend and because frankly a 6’8 280lbs player as athletic as he is is a pretty good defender by just standing in the way, but now it’s so obvious there are finally articles about it.

    And if this year’s vote as a 1st all defensive team isn’t a ceremonial selection then i don’t know what is

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      Last year he was legitimately a monster on defense. The 1-5 hype was only slightly exaggerated. Giving him defensive player of the year probably would have been the wrong choice, but he was rightly in the conversation.

      This year has been another story entirely, but have I missed something? I haven’t seen the all defensive teams yet.

      • fightclubitis

        My bad for this year’s award, the def teams results haven’t come out. I thought the “5 years in a row” at the start included this year.

        But he finished 6th (!) in best def award and may earn again a seat at the 1st all def team. I simply can’t understand that for this season.

        And don’t get me wrong but when he wants to he’s one of the best of the league, but he had to play a LOT this season and “rested” on defense.

        But what is quite interesting is that he has a really tough time turning his defensive switch to on. And he’s lucky the Pacers are forcing him to now and not the Spurs/OKC in the finals.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Agreed. That one first place vote he got for DPOY this year is grounds for revoking the media credentials of the person responsible for that imo.

  • Real M-Fing talk !!!

    if Lebron’s defense is that bad what about the other players on the Team, so you are telling me Norris Cole, Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and so on are the ones carrying the team on defense????, it’s because of LEBRON’s OVERALL defense which allows the heat to play the way they do, Lebron taking on different Assignments gives the heat its flexibility. Instead of focusing on the few plays here and there where Lebron gets beat or doesn’t rotate over… you need to write about the other players playing worse than Lebron, Damn the NBA just gave the MVP to a guy that doesn’t play defense, or make teammates better, where are the articles on him !!! Just as i thought Real sport fans are aware of B.S. bottom feeding writers like you, those who agree with this article are Cleveland fans who are still bitter, Lebron haters or those with little to no sport knowledge of the overall picture !…

    I find it hard to criticize a guy who leads his team in scoring, rebounds, assist and is his team’s point guard, TELL ME, who else in the NBA carries that many teammates on his back???, he is not going to be on point on every defensive play ! it not a coincidence the Heat are going to thier 4 straight Finals in a row all on the back of Lebron like he carried that Cleveland franchise, now they can’t even make the 8th seed in the east without Lebron. Jarad i need you to tell me how many games can you count that Lebron hasn’t shown up??? Now i need you to mutilply that by 10 and those are the games Guys like Chalmers , Coles and others disappeared on the team AND people like you don’t say crap ! and you wonder why he may one day be the greatest ever, its people like you who are building his case for him !

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      Huge Heat fan here. Thought it was a travesty to give Rose the MVP over LeBron. Thought James was deservedly in the mix for DPOY last year.

      This year? His defense has been pretty iffy at times. Agreed that part of the reason it has looked so bad at times is that he is asked to cover so much ground in the system without a defensive backstop in the form of a rim protector. His defense in this series has been abysmal at time, and the reason it is deserving of criticism is that some of the breakdowns are simply lack of focus.

      Miami’s defensive efficiency in the playoffs would have been good for 22 in the NBA in the regular season, so its not like they are setting the world on fire. Plenty of other defensive metrics like RPM and defensive win shares reveal that LeBron has had a less than stellar impact on defense this year.

      As far as Durant playing defense…. he actually did this year and better than LeBron I might add. Whether you want to look at advanced metrics, team success, or shooting percentage of the guy that Durant was covering, KD has been better on that end than James this year.

      None of this is to say that KD is a better defender than LeBron or that James is washed up. Neither of those are true. It does say that for whatever reason James has been playing objectively poor defense since November. I’ll still take LeBron on my team over any other player, but that doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge and critique his shortcomings. The criticism is not invalidating all the great things he does on the court.

      • Real M-Fing talk !!!

        Typical reply… ignore my main points and go straight to the sabermetrics B.S. was sabermetrics there helping Durant when he was getting blown out by 30? when was the last time a Lebron lead team was blown out that
        bad? and if Lebron is having so much trouble on Defense , please tell me who is carry the Heat defensively? curious to know… A lot of this falls on Erik and Pat “brain rot” Riley, not getting the Heat inside help, so the load falls on Lebron and Erik over playing Lebron while guys like Beasley sits on the bench… Erik needs to coach up his players !…. who has played more minutes than Lebron this year or in the last four years? and who is having a better post season that Lebron?

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          1) No one is carrying the Heat on defense. They have been poor in that respect. LeBron is their most dynamic defender still, but he is far from carrying them as that would imply that they have been good in that respect..

          2) I don’t know how you think the Thunder playing the Spurs without Ibaka equates to a healthy Heat team playing teams that aren’t nearly as good as the Spurs. By the way, Indiana in game 1 and Brooklyn in game 3 both held 20 point leads over the Heat.

          3) Noone is having a better postseason than LeBron. this year. That doesn’t mean there aren’t players playing markedly better defense. Keep in mind that I am NOT saying that other players are better than LeBron.

          4) Who has played more minutes than LeBron this year? Regular season: Durant, Ellis, DeRozan, Anthony, Batum, Wall, Lillard. In the playoffs James is 14th in minutes played so far and tied for 12th in MPG.

          5) Wait… are you actually trying to imply that Michael Beasley would be anything other than a liability defensively?

          Look, LeBron is obviously the Heat’s most important player on both ends of the floor. He has to be their best scorer, best facilitator, and at the very least he is expected to be their best wing defender. Do you want to argue that LeBron’s BAD defensive play is largely a result of physical and mental fatigue because the burden he carries is too great? Fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that LeBron is ball watching, not contesting shots, and getting caught out of position. That is objectively bad defense.

          The author gave LeBron credit for what he does right and the impact that he is still able to have on the game, but he is also giving an objective analysis of what he is doing wrong. The reason this article is about LeBron instead of Ray Allen or Dwyane Wade is that LeBron has a expectation and standard for play on that end. Allen playing poorly on defense is nothing new. LeBron not being locked in is worth examining.

          • Real M-Fing talk !!!

            we are going around in circles, because we each see things different, i am from the school of thought… you don’t kick the best player in the game while giving everyone a pass, especially the guy who won the MVP and is getting blown out in games…. if it’s not Westbrick, its the coach and now its Ibaka, Durant and Nash are two of the worse MVP’s ever ! considering the talent they played with and what they did with it ! then again it might be Derrick “soft girl scout cookie with the heart of a pillsbury doughboy” Rose !, Lebron beat Rose in every head to head stat and on the court. Rose’s team is one of the best in the east without him, you would think a real MVP when healthy would make the BULLS a championship team like Lebron did in Cleveland !, The issue i have with bottom feeder writers, broadcasters and so on, they are providing knowledge to a lot of viewers and readers who do not know the game as well as i do and by reading this crap or watching some games you would think Lebron is actually hurting his team, while guys like Allen, Chalmers, Coles and Bosh and others around the league cannot do anything wrong, thats why i like to see honest reporting from the media and not sensationalize crap!

            Its funny i was watching Miami’s last game, the broadcasters were praising chalmers and claiming how valuable he is after a jumper or two…then i had to chuckle because i knew they were either lying or don’t watch the games… because Chalmers is invisible for games at a time, and guess what the old chalmers showed up… 5 t.o’s the coach had to bench him and the broadcaster ignored EVERYTHING that took place…. the bad play, the benching and if you do not know the game you would not have a clue what happened, so rather than making themselves look stupid, the broadcasters ignored it… and you wont hear the name chalmers again until he does something well…. AND IT’S THAT SORT OF BIAS that bothers me !!!

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            So analyzing the play of Miami’s most important player makes you a bottom feeder? I was surprised that Wade’s bad habits weren’t at least tangentially mentioned, but the author went out of his way to establish that he respects LeBron’s defensive ability, He also made sure to point out that “his play was a microcosm for the dispirited attack and blitzing-in-name-only that the Heat were doing to Indiana’s ballhandlers.”

            So aside from either giving LeBron a complete pass or analyzing every single player on the team in depth (unrealistic), what would satisfy your sense of justice?

          • Real M-Fing talk !!!

            My point is Lebron is doing way more than anyone in the NBA is doing for his team ! i maybe wrong please correct me on that… my issue is he should be the last one to be critique, otherwise this author is expecting 100% or something close from Lebron every time on the floor, also i don’t mean critique every other player in the NBA, just the main ones who get a free pass… Durant he does one thing… well … free throws of ticky tack fouls and taking jump shots after jump shots !… thats one players that can really have his game broken down especially after getting the award, there is actually a real debate between people who believe Durant is the best player in the NBA and they don’t know better because no one taught them what to look for ! and yes that does make those writers bottom feeders, or aiming for the low hanging fruit because they wright the article all for the wrong reasons

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            You do know that Jared Wade specifically covers the Pacers which would explain why he is writing about a player who is playing the Pacers, right?

            And Durant won the MVP because he played the best regular season basketball this year. LeBron is still the best player, but he did not have the best 82 game season. But if you think Durant is getting a free pass, you’re crazy. There has been all sorts of criticism about how Durant has to be more assertive and has to put his team on his back….. basically similar to some of the same stuff James was getting back in 2011. Obviously Westbrook last year and Ibaka this year has limited that a little bit, but the point stands that Durant IS getting discussed.

            So should every writer across the internet write articles about Durant? NO ARTICLES ABOUT CHRIS PAUL! NO ARTICLES ABOUT LEBRON! NO ARTICLES ABOUT KEVIN LOVE!

            James is doing as much for his team this postseason as any player I can remember, but the author at no point in time said he isn’t. The author’s argument is that James has surprisingly been playing poor defense through the first two games of this series. He is right.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Just wanted to pop in and say that LeBron’s defense was absolutely sensational tonight. This is above and beyond what I’ve been looking for from him. Complete turnaround.

          • Real M-Fing talk !!!

            LOL…. Normally i would not comment on a post after the fact, but while i was watching the game this article popped into my mind… I hope his play showed you what i was trying to explain.. he cannot play like that all the time, it’s not humanly possible because of everything else he has to do… thats why i was against the writer critiquing him while there are others like Durant who cannot affect the game that way on defense but gets a pass…. so i take it you notice the 19-5 start for the pacers and it was not only Lebron but the team stepping up on defense and Lebron’s play making that saved them, your best player has to set the tone defensively, why do you think guys like Nash never won… i do not expect Bosh to show up for this series, I hope he will in the Spurs series… and what bothers me about Bosh he doesn’t even try to do other things to help the team !… imagine if Lebron took a series… this Game is a perfect example of why i keep saying Lebron is the MVP and not Durant who is a jump shooter and nothing more !… its not always about the numbers Rose proved that when he got the MVP over Lebron !

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Obviously he can’t play like this every night, but there is a middle ground between ball hawking and being a spectator.

            And as far as Durant goes, I never EVER said he is better than James. I just said he played a better regular season, and the MVP is a regular season award.

            As far as Nash goes… he never won because in his prime the best player he played with was Amare Stoudemire. If he had ever played on a team that didn’t rely on him goosing the offense to 120 or more points to win, there might be a different situation. Of course when is the last time a team won the championship with the point guard being one of their top 2 players? Detroit… maybe?

            The versatility of hyper athletic small forwards is definitely what is fueling the league right now: Durant, Kawhi, George, Anthony (kind of), James, and Pierce. Even Griffin for the Clippers is starting to develop a similar skill set from the PF position.