LeBron James' chase-down block isn't the first of its kind. Players have long used their superior athleticism to pin shots on the backboard or swat them into the stands from behind. It's a glamorous play, after all: It sends a message to the opponent—that all shots at the rim are in danger of being sent back just as viciously—and it pumps up the team and crowd.
It's just that LeBron's chase-down blocks, in particular, are extremely powerful and have an embedded lasting power. Do you know how many blocks James has on the season? Ten. This should seem low, given his reputation. But that's what the chase-down block does: It creates an appearance for James, that he's this devastating shot-blocker sending back weak layups without mercy.
This isn't to say that LeBron cannot normally block shots or play defense; he's one of the best defenders in the league. In the playoffs, he routinely locks down the opposing team's best perimeter player in crunch time.
But all the highlight-reel plays LeBron creates by blocking shots from behind quietly ignores the sacrifice of these plays: Often he shirks his defensive responsibilities by intentionally allowing an offensive player to attack the rim, or he slows down and moves out of position to time the swat.
When he does get a piece of the ball, it's nothing short of spectacular. But the plays that don't make SportsCenter can lead to two points for the other team. So really it's a judgment call: Is the reputation of LeBron's chase-down shot-blocking ability—which often deters a ball-handler from even attacking the rim in transition in the first place—worth the other times when his lack of hustle gives away two points?
First, let's take a look at the art of the chase-down block, and specifically how he alters his route and speed heading back on defense. Here, Phoenix's Goran Dragic runs a two-on-one with P.J. Tucker. James is running alongside Dragic, but makes no attempt to get in front and block his path to the rim.
In fact, LeBron almost baits Dragic into passing it to Tucker by leaving that passing lane wide open.
Dragic falls into the trap and throws the early pass, though it's not like he has much of a choice. He's unlikely to finish with LeBron on his hip, so he throws it ahead hoping Tucker can attack his man instead.
Tucker does exactly that, seemingly at the rim and about to lay the ball in. Look where he is relative to LeBron upon release of the ball:
LeBron hasn't even completely left the ground yet. His athleticism isn't simply about his insane leaping ability, speed or strength. His quickness is on another level, particularly with respect to his takeoff on jumps.
It's what makes him a great offensive rebounder, too: his second-jumping ability; which is to say his ability to jump, land and jump once more in rapid succession, is unparalleled. Here, he's lifting off the ground as the play is almost over.
Because he understands his own athleticism, he knows he only needs a split-second to make contact with the ball. And that's what happens here, as he sends Tucker's shot packing.
This second example highlights the stark contrast between solid defense and timing up the block even more. Charlotte's Kemba Walker is pushing the ball up the floor on the left side while LeBron sprints back on the right.
At this point in the play, he's noticeably closer to the rim than Walker.
The right defensive play is for LeBron to put himself between the basket and player, possibly drawing a charge or, at the very least, forcing a kick-out for a jumper. Either way, he's protecting the rim. Except James has no interest in this type of defense, preferring to trust his shot-blocking timing.
Only moments later, LeBron is in front of Walker. Walker is fast, but not so fast that he can significantly outrun LeBron in only a matter of 30 feet. When you watch the play below, notice how LeBron intentionally slows down his speed to get behind Walker.
Because James' wingspan relative to Walker's height allows him to block the shot easily, he puts it in the third row.
Sheer athleticism and raw talent can disguise a lot in any basketball game. Dwyane Wade has thrived for years without a viable jump shot. Dwight Howard can't make a free throw. Sometimes a player's other skills are simply worth the hassle.
That's what the LeBron chase-down block is. It's a luxury that, when successful, greatly impacts the game. And when it doesn't, everything else he does masks the gamble.