How LeBron James Can Become Defensive Player of the Year in 2013-14
Not yet, at least.
The Association's best player will be on a mission to help the Miami Heat three-peat and will be making a concerted effort on both ends of the court throughout the 2013-14 season. This year, there's a solid chance that he can be both the best offensive player in basketball and the premier defensive stopper.
Erik Spoelstra certainly believes it's possible and said as much during the Heat's Media Day, as relayed by NBA.com's Sekou Smith:
This year, it would be great to see him be acknowledged for the defensive work that he does. There’s no one else in the league that can do what he does. He’s been banging on that door, getting close. I don’t want it to be a campaign. It has to be earned. But he has that type of potential to be Defensive Player of the Year.
LeBron finished second to Marc Gasol in the voting in 2012-13, so that would certainly be considered "banging on that door, getting close."
Well, the door is open now. If LeBron wants to walk through it and claim the DPOY trophy, he'll have to follow a few steps.
Improve as an isolation stopper
If LeBron has one weakness as a defender, it's that he can be beat when other players are working against him in isolation. As scary as it is for a wing-scorer to ask his teammates to clear out the lane for him, that's sometimes what it takes to score on the MVP.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), isolation players scored 0.82 points per possession against James, which was the No. 168 mark among all qualified players. He fared better in every other category that Synergy tracks, although spot-up shooters also tended to do well against him.
Running pick-and-roll sets against LeBron is a terrible idea. It's even worse to try posting him up, as he's not going to fall for fakes, and you simply aren't going to back him down. It's isolation where you can, well, isolate his weakness.
While the Miami superstar is still an excellent defender, he is prone to getting beat with a pull-up jumper. Ultimately, LeBron likes to force players into the most inefficient shot possible—he's one of the smartest defenders in basketball—and those mid-range pull-up attempts definitely qualify as such.
So when a player is hitting, it makes him look bad. Such was the case with Manu Ginobili during the fourth quarter in Game 5 of the NBA Finals:
When there's a cluster of players like this, it's usually a good bet that the Heat are going to pull off at least one switch.
The versatility of LeBron and the swarming nature of the entire squad make it easier for Erik Spoelstra and Co. to worry less about individual matchups. But sometimes that does put LeBron in tough situations:
True to form, the switch is on.
LeBron stays at the top of the key and picks up Ginobili, who is about to receive the table-setting pass from Tony Parker:
The Spurs clear out and open up the entire right side of the court for the Argentine shooting guard. And you can already tell that LeBron is forcing his man away from the basket and to the right, doing everything in his power to prevent Manu from getting creative around the basket:
As Ginobili begins to drive, this stays true.
LeBron is still running so that he stays directly in between his man and the hoop, even if it means that his footwork isn't what it could be:
And the footwork ends up killing him.
See how his shoulders are aimed? That red-line segment is drawn from one to the other, and it's clear that he isn't squared to his man, leaving himself vulnerable to changes in direction.
Instead of shuffling his feet and facing Ginobili, he's moving quickly so that he can prevent that drive to the hoop.
Manu makes him pay with a step-back jumper that falls through the net for two points and expands the San Antonio lead to an insurmountable 15 points.
This is nitpicking, sure. But LeBron's defensive prowess has reached the point that we have to start doing exactly that. There are still minor areas in which he can improve, and this is the biggest one.
Start recording more glamor stats
Steals and blocks aren't good indicators of defensive excellence.
It's possible to have insanely good thievery numbers simply because you gamble incessantly, often leaving your team vulnerable to subsequent attacks (cough-Monta Ellis-cough). It's also possible to gamble for every block out there, putting yourself out of position and failing to rotate properly (cough-DeAndre Jordan-cough).
But those are still the only commonly used quantifiers of defensive play, which means they're inherently important to public perception.
You remember plays like this:
Moments like this are ingrained in your brain for a long time:
And yet, picture-perfect defensive possessions like the one you can see below tend to be forgotten rather easily. They just aren't as glamorous, and public perception does inevitably play a large part in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year.
To win DPOY, you simply have to record glamorous stats. Maybe not at a truly elite level, but they still have to be there.
Take a look at how the voting results last year correlated with combined blocks plus steals per game, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
There's definitely a negative correlation there, though the presence of quite a few outliers prevents it from being a strong one. But in general, more combined blocks and steals tends to result in a higher finish in the voting.
Last year, LeBron averaged 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. He's the second dot from the left, and you can see that he doesn't quite fit in with the trend.
It's time for those numbers to start rising.
Ultimately hold course
LeBron really doesn't have to change too much.
Remember, he did finish second in the voting to Marc Gasol last year, earning 18 of the 121 first-place votes. As long as he has a similar season and makes minor improvements—something that he's been doing each and every year of his remarkable career—he's on pace to at least challenge for the trophy.
So, what do I mean by "hold course"?
LeBron must continue to do three things: help the Miami defense continue to function as a suffocating unit when he's on the court, keep posting stellar individual numbers and continue displaying his trademark versatility.
In 2012-13, his 2.6 combined steals and blocks per game were good. They need to get better. But those aren't the individual numbers that I'm talking about. Instead, I'm referring to the more advanced stats.
According to Synergy, LeBron held opposing players to 0.84 points per possession, and he did that while consistently guarding the other team's best player. That's where the versatility comes in, as so much of LeBron's defensive prowess stems from the fact that he can legitimately guard just about anyone.
"Just about" is important there, as the "he can guard five positions" thing is a little bit of a myth. No one is that versatile. It would be impossible for LeBron to completely slow down Chris Paul for a game and then play against Dwight Howard the very next day.
But if we're talking about league-average point guards and centers, then yes, LeBron can shut them down for extended periods of time. There was a game last year when he guarded Mo Williams on one possession, led a fast break and then stopped Al Jefferson on the very next play.
That's the type of versatility that he must continue to display. He can't be afraid of any matchup and hasn't been to this point in his career.
In terms of team defense, LeBron has consistently made the Heat a much more potent defensive unit, and that has to continue to be glaringly obvious. Basketball-Reference shows that the Heat allowed 3.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he played; that number has to be even more impressive.
Improvement has been the theme of LeBron's career.
Throughout his time in the Association, he's identified the weakest areas of his game and worked to improve them. That's how he developed one of the more potent post-up games in basketball after struggling with his back to the basket during his Cleveland Cavaliers days. It's how he shot over 40 percent from downtown last year, putting to rest the idea that he had no jumper.
Will LeBron win DPOY in 2013-14?
Defense isn't exactly a weak area of his game, but it's not perfect, either. And LeBron is a perfectionist.
The league's best player has the tools necessary to keep getting better and assert himself—again—as a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. And this season, despite the best efforts of Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Paul George and all the other great defenders in basketball, his campaign will be successful.
Get ready to add another trophy to the crowded mantel.
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