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The Definitive Case for LeBron James As the NBA's Best Defensive Player

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 09:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat blocks the shot of Tiago Splitter #22 of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter during Game Two of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 9, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2013

LeBron James is the best player in the NBA on both sides of the ball.

Often apotheosized for his offensive skill set, James' defense tends to take a backseat to, well, everything else. It's known that he is an elite defender, but more time is spent admiring his dunks, his improved jumper and his court vision than anything.

Yet, defense is a large part of the reason why James is where he is and why he has the Miami Heat where they are—on top.

Without his superior defensive sets—highlighted by his three steals and three blocks in Miami's Game 2 win—the Heat wouldn't be notched up at one-game apiece with the San Antonio Spurs. They wouldn't be in the NBA Finals at all. They wouldn't even have that first championship of the Big Three era to their name.

This is nothing new. James has always been able to dominate the defensive end. He's just always fallen short of receiving the recognition he deserves, the kind that irrefutably concedes he's the best defensive player in the league.

The impact he has on defense is just as profound as the one he has on offense. His ability to set the tone on either end of the floor is why he's the greatest player on the planet.

 

LeBron's Defense by the Numbers

Like any distinguished defender, James has the statistics to support his claim.

His Heatles allowed 3.4 points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the floor during the regular season, which really isn't enough to prove anything other than that he makes his team better defensively. We've come to expect that. It's his individual numbers that really begin to separate him from the rest.

Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), James allowed a mere 0.84 points per possession on defense. The Heat as a team ranked fifth in the league relinquishing 0.86. James' mark is even better.

Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol—who finished just ahead of James—allows 0.76. While that's less, it's not by much. Gasol also wasn't carrying the same defensive burden with the Memphis Grizzlies that James is bearing in South Beach. 

James defended 833 individual defensive sets and was shot on 688 times (via Synergy). He held his opponents to just 37.6 percent shooting. Gasol, by comparison, defended 633 individual possessions, was shot on 510 times and held his opponents to 38.2 percent shooting.

At the very least, James' numbers are just as good, if not better. He guarded more sets and forced his opponents into a worse shooting clip.

Of course, the amount of time spent on the floor—37.9 minutes a night for James and 35 for Gasol—and the type of defensive stances they're engaging in comes into play. Players of different sizes have conflicting weaknesses. Big men can't defend the perimeter as well as wings, and someone like James isn't as deft at manning the post as Gasol.

Except James doesn't have that an inherent weakness. Rather, it's not as apparent as it would be in most players.

James ranked seventh in points allowed per post-up (0.58) and third when guarding the roll man off of pick-and-rolls (0.51). The type of movement and positioning he's forced to guard doesn't affect him as much as it would anyone else.

Tony Allen, who was the leading vote-getter for the NBA's All-Defensive first team, doesn't have the same impact when defending post-ups as James. He allowed 0.85 points in those situations. And a guy like Gasol, who was essentially deemed a better defender than James, isn't going to be able to cut off agile slashers the way The Chosen One can. He allowed 0.77 points when defending the roll man.

Nothing about James' statistical accolades prove Gasol or Allen or any other elite defender is incompetent. All it does is show that James is often on a numerical level all his own.

Which brings us to our next point...

 

What Can't He Do?

James can do everything on defense. Seriously.

Only a handful of players in NBA history could truly defend all five positions on the court. And I mean actually defend. Not just rotate over or provoke a fortuitous outcome every so often, but guard each position for an extended period of time.

James is one of them.

It doesn't matter who he's tasked with defending. He can guard anyone. Positions 1 through 5, right down the line.

It doesn't matter the circumstances either. He can break up plays in transition, successfully contest shots on the perimeter or at the rim, force turnovers on or off the ball—he can do it all.

His groundbreaking block on Tiago Splitter—that's just James being James.

Any chase-down "smack down" he has—that's nothing out of the ordinary.

Any steal he turns into an easy two in transition—that's expected.

No one else in the NBA has as expanded of a defensive repertoire as James. No one. 

There's a reason why he was unhappy with finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He wants that award. After being deemed the best player in pretty much every other aspect of the game, he wants to have something more than a handful of All-Defensive team selections (five) to validate his defensive prowess. And he should. Especially now.

Everything we've had the luxury of seeing in the Finals is purely an extension of the type of defender James is.

When he goes from defending Tony Parker on the ball to picking up Tim Duncan off the pick-and-roll to bodying up on the block, we're being spoiled. His defense is so consistently terrific that it takes a block for the ages for us to stop and think, "Wow, he really can defend."

Perhaps James is a victim of his versatility. Defense is frequently associated with big men like Gasol or Duncan or Roy Hibbert. Towers have accounted for the last nine Defensive Player of the Year honors. The last "wing" to win it was Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) in 2004.

Perimeter savants like Allen or Avery Bradley do receive recognition, though, for their keen sense of outside prevention. They're specialty defenders. James doesn't have a specialty. He actually does everything. And defends anyone.

Better than anyone else in the league can.

 

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