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

Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

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.

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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.