First off, let me just say that it's nearly impossible for me to write a solely objective article about LeBron James.
I've watched him and his Cleveland Cavaliers play 82 games for nearly seven seasons, plus playoff games for the last four years. I've seen him make some of the most jaw-dropping plays I've ever witnessed (get it?).
In short, his development as a basketball player has coincided with my development as a fan and hoops junkie.
But over the last two years, it's been his growth and maturity on the defensive side of the ball that's led to him becoming the best player in the NBA. And this year, it's time the NBA writers and scribes give him his due and name him Defensive Player of the Year.
This has virtually nothing to do with the highlight plays that he makes on defense, whether it's his innate ability to jump passing lanes, leading to thunderous breakaway dunks, or his now-famous "chase-down blocks" (trademarked to you, Fred McLeod), where he perfectly times an opponent's layup attempt to seemingly jump over the rim and emphatically swat it off the glass.
While those plays are guaranteed to make the top 10 on SportsCenter, they are merely a byproduct of his desire and willingness to grow as a defender.
It's hard to measure James' impact (or any other player's impact, for that matter) on defense based solely on statistics. The NBA only really keeps track of steals and blocks; there is no stat for something like "hedged out on a pick-and-roll perfectly and recovered to catch up to his man before the pass" or "helped from the weak side on a dribble-drive, forcing the man with the ball to throw a difficult cross-court pass."
OK, so maybe trying to keep stats like that would be futile. But you get the point.
Defense is measured by both a player's individual game and his impact on the overall team concept.
James has excelled in both categories this year; his on-the-ball defense has been otherworldly, he completely understands and embraces his role in the team concept, and he is the main reason the Cavs are one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Let's start with his on the ball defense.
At 6'9", 260 pounds, he's a physical freak of nature. That being said, he can match up with anyone in the league—from point guards to power forwards.
In the first meeting against Atlanta earlier this year, James had the task of matching up against Joe Johnson, arguably the Hawks' best scorer and facilitator. In a one-point game heading into the fourth quarter, Johnson went a paltry 1-for-4 from the field with three turnovers; Atlanta went eight minutes without scoring a point and was outscored by 10 in the final period.
Fast-forward to two weeks ago (maybe James' most impressive defensive effort of the season). The Cavs were playing at Boston, a team that relies on exploiting defensive lapses to get a majority of its points.
In the first quarter, Rajon Rondo absolutely torched Mo Williams, burning him for 12 points and six assists as the Celts put up 31 points. The Cavs, having lost three of four heading into the game and an injured Shaquille O'Neal in the second quarter, were down double-digits for most of the first half and seemingly had no rhythm on either side of the court whatsoever.
But as he has so many times this season, James set the tone on the defensive end.
In the second half, he came out guarding Rondo. A lot of teams know how to defend Rondo—back off of him, turn him into a jump shooter, and keep him out of the lane at all costs. But few teams have the personnel to do it, as Rondo is so crafty that when he gets a running start on a defender playing four to five feet off of him, he might be even more difficult to cover.
But James' length really bothered Rondo. Every time the little goblin (my nickname for Rondo, by the way) drove into the paint, he couldn't find passing lanes around the 6'9" James. The intricate little angles he loves to use off the backboard were just a bit off—credit that to LeBron.
Once Rondo stopped going, the Celtics stopped. Boston shot a dismal 9-for-41 from the field in the second half, including an unbelievable 3-for-21 in the fourth quarter (that's 14 percent, for crying out loud!). The uncontested driving lines and open looks they got in the first half were a distant memory.
My favorite sequence came in the fourth.
One of the Celtic guards saw a little light and was able to get underneath the hoop and kicked it out to Ray Allen, who started the game 4-for-4 from the three-point line. James sprinted (one of the biggest understatements of the year) out to Allen, closing out on him with ridiculous speed. He accosted Allen for several seconds, finally forcing Jesus Shuttleworth to launch a desperation three that harmlessly clanged off the rim.
The Cavs grabbed the long rebound, sprinted out on the fast break, got an easy bucket, and probably left every Boston fan thinking, "How long until the Red Sox Opening Day?"
Oh, and James finished the game with zero steals and zero blocks. The stat sheet might not tell the story, but the game tape does.
Versatility is what sets LeBron apart from the other premier defenders in the Association. He can guard multiple positions, different styles of players...hell, I'm pretty sure that during last year's Eastern Conference Finals I was clamoring for him to guard Dwight Howard. Do you think he would have done worse than the makeshift Ben Wallace/Joe Smith/Anderson Varejao combo?
Ron Artest (at this point in his career) can only guard methodical offense players with whom he can be physical. There's a reason he played Carmelo Anthony so well a few weeks ago while struggling with quicker, more athletic guys like Stephen Jackson.
Dwyane Wade just isn't strong enough to bang down low with physical small forwards.
Shane Battier (who might just be the best on-the-ball defender of this generation) isn't athletic enough to consistently keep up with elite scorers.
And Howard rarely has to acknowledge another low-post presence in the paint. This allows him to roam around and intimidate smaller players that try to drive the lane. When he does have to stick to another big body in the lane (i.e. Shaq, Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum, or Tim Duncan), his fundamentals often betray him and his impact on the game just isn't quite the same.
No knock on any of these guys—they are all phenomenal defenders. But their deficiencies on the defensive end (however small they might be) are areas where LeBron excels.
Next time you watch a Cavs game, just pay attention to No. 23 when he plays defense.
Watch how many times he bails out one of his guards who gets beat off the dribble with terrific help defense.
Watch how many times he takes it on himself to shut down the opposition's best scorer.
Watch how many times it's his defense that cues a run and allows the Cavs to take over a game.
And whenever he uses that freakish athleticism to tally one of his patented chase-down blocks, consider that icing on the cake.