With LeBron James playing his best regular-season defense in years, the Los Angeles Lakers forward credited his health and being challenged by Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel with his return to form, telling reporters after Sunday's 103-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs:
"Playing with a torn groin last year—even when I came back it was still partially torn—it was difficult to be able to move and shift like I'm capable of doing that defensively. For me, I just take the challenge. I love being challenged. Coach [Frank Vogel] challenged me, AD [Anthony Davis] challenged me, I challenged myself.
"I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back. My mind has always been there. That's what it's all about."
The veteran Lakers lead the league in defensive efficiency (96.3) through their first six games. James, who bordered on lackadaisical at times in recent seasons, is playing with a renewed vigor on that end after taking some criticism for his effort—particularly last season.
The 2018-19 season was arguably the most fraught of James' career, as he missed more than a month after suffering a strained groin in a Christmas Day win over the Golden State Warriors. He returned in late January to put up stellar offensive numbers but struggled to keep pace defensively as the Lakers floundered. The team shut him down after being eliminated from playoff contention in March—the first time LeBron had missed the playoffs since his second NBA season.
ESPN Stats & Info found James is contesting 70 percent of shot attempts where he's the primary defender, a massive leap from 54 percent last season. He's also holding opponents to 37 percent shooting overall.
"Well it's contagious, and his commitment on that end of the floor has been a great surprise for us in terms of just how proficient he's been," Vogel said. "He's leading the charge with care factor on that end of the floor. When he's working that hard and caring that much about getting stops, it carries over to everybody else, and you see it on the floor."
The Lakers have benefited from a somewhat easy early schedule (Hornets, Grizzlies), and there may be nights where James looks 34 years old defensively. For now, though, James and the Lakers sit atop the Western Conference with a team that's seemingly built for the long haul.