LeBron James mastered the art of pacing himself with the Cleveland Cavaliers. For all four years of his second tour of duty with his hometown team, James essentially spent his regular seasons as a designated hitter. He relaxed defensively in order to preserve his aging body for offense knowing that when spring rolled around, he could dial things up and turn himself back into a stopper. A few unflattering lowlight reels notwithstanding, the plan worked. Cleveland made the NBA Finals four years in a row.
The Lakers would like to emulate those results, and in doing so, have adopted a form of Cleveland's strategy. In terms of effort and effectiveness, James' defense this season is leaps and bounds ahead of where he was in Cleveland. The numbers bear that out. He ranks seventh in the entire NBA in Defensive Win Shares, 13th in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and 17th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The Lakers are 3.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor. In an anonymous poll of NBA coaches taken by The Athletic, he even garnered four All-Defense votes. LeBron has been stellar defensively this season, but he has done so within a role designed to preserve the majority of his energy for offense.
LeBron almost never guards the best opposing scorer outside of the occasional switch. More often, he's hunkered down in the corner on a lesser threat, which allows him to serve primarily as a help defender. He's excelled in that role, particularly as a rim-protector.
Opposing players know this, and they try to avoid challenging James when possible. His mere presence combined with his generally easier assignments has made him a deterrent. Watch Jayson Tatum consider attacking the rim in transition before eyeing LeBron in his path and thinking better of it.
This role is essential defensively, but it's not overly taxing, and LeBron has married it with some conservative tactics of his own. Watch the way he has largely closed out this season.
He almost never leaves his feet. He can cover enough ground to get a hand in almost anyone's face, but he rarely sells out for the sake of a single play. LeBron doesn't need to exhaust himself on a nightly basis by making highlight plays. Most of the time, consistently steady defense is more than enough for these Lakers.
Emphasis on most, because as the stakes rise against elite opponents, LeBron is inevitably going to be asked to do more. Proof of that came just before the NBA season shut down. In two of their final three games, the Lakers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers over the course of a single weekend. They held arguably the NBA's two best teams to 103 points, each, and LeBron taking on a greater defensive role played a big part in each.
Despite usually guarding weaker scorers, James defended reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo for most of the win over the Bucks and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard for portions of the win over the Clippers. James drew widespread praise for his defense in both matchups. The truth is a bit more complicated, however, and suggests the Lakers should make a rather significant strategic change.
The Giannis matchup, which came as the result of Anthony Davis getting into foul trouble, proved surprisingly fruitful. The key to containing the MVP is keeping him away from the basket and effectively contesting him once there. James, bulkier in this later stage of his career, did so effectively. Giannis could not overpower him as a driver.
Nor could he do so in post-up situations.
Giannis was so seemingly rattled by LeBron's defense that it seeped into his decision-making. With James on him, he simply didn't muster his typical aggressiveness.
For the game, Giannis shot 2-of-8 from the field with LeBron on him, but 8-of-13 against the rest of the Lakers. James is the rare defender who can hold up both physically and mentally against Antetokounmpo. He's strong enough to deter him, long enough to contest him, and smart enough to lead him into the right places defensively. The Lakers may have mimicked the popular wall-building strategy others have employed against Giannis, but having LeBron to shepherd him into that wall made it noticeably more effective. Even when faced one-on-one, though, he more than held his own against the NBA's best power forward.
That is a key distinction. While James rarely takes on the toughest opposing matchup defensively, the rare occasions that he has proven successful against power forwards. Weeks earlier, LeBron spent much of the fourth quarter in a matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans hounding Zion Williamson (with Davis out due to injury).
The same general principles applied. James did an excellent job of keeping Zion away from the basket and settling for jumpers, but when he did attack, LeBron surrendered no ground and played great defense at the basket. The Lakers are so big that LeBron doesn't often need to defend power forwards, but when he has, he has proven that his physicality is one of his best defensive traits.
He hasn't had the same success in matchups based more on finesse. The Clippers game wasn't nearly as kind to LeBron. To put it frankly, Kawhi Leonard roasted him. James didn't spend the entire game on Leonard, but what became clear in the minutes he did was that Kawhi is too quick for LeBron at this stage of his career.
When the totality of the Laker rim-protection proved too strong, Leonard had no trouble negotiating the small spaces his reflexive advantage over James granted him in the middle of the floor to soar into clean mid-range looks.
This isn't to say that James was bad defensively for the entire game. He contributed quite a bit as a helper, switched effectively, and generally played a positive role in his team's overall effort. But one-on-one against Kawhi, he was overmatched. Leonard shot 5-of-6 from the field with LeBron on him in that game.
Struggling against Kawhi is nothing to be ashamed of. No defense has yet cracked the Leonard puzzle, and as he has evolved into a strong passer, teams can't even double him safely anymore. For the year, Kawhi is averaging 30.7 points on 53.6 percent shooting against the Lakers. This is not exclusively a LeBron problem, but the idea that there could be a LeBron solution in the playoffs now seems optimistic. Winning a championship is going to necessitate beating him and perhaps a facsimile or two at some point, and the film suggests LeBron, at the age of 35, is no longer suited for that specific task. If he struggled against Kawhi once, in a regular-season game, how would he fare playing extra minutes across seven consecutive playoff games?
There isn't a simple answer to the Kawhi problem, but there's a tweak that will help against everyone else. We know LeBron's best offensive position is power forward. The concept is simple: sliding him and Davis up a spot increases spacing by subbing a shooter in for a center. If the evidence now points to LeBron being a better defender at power forward as well, then logic dictates that should be, if not his full-time postseason position, then at least his primary one.
There were markers pointing in that direction anyway. Most contenders downsize in the playoffs for both spacing and athletic purposes. Losing Avery Bradley as a point-of-attack defender was going to make it harder for the Lakers to take advantage of their size defensively anyway. Dwight Howard has not confirmed whether or not he will play at Disney, and there is no telling what impact JaVale McGee's asthma will have on his own availability. The Lakers have outscored opponents by a blistering 15.8 points per 100 possessions with James at power forward, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Strategically, this simplifies matchups against the power forwards James might need to defend one-on-one, like Giannis and Zion, but in more typical matchups, allows him to remain in his off-ball role. Bradley's absence potentially accentuates it. Without him to chase ball-handlers over screens, the Lakers would be better-served switching more heavily defensively, especially with bigger guards like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso ideally absorbing his minutes.
Such a maneuver would be welcomed by Leonard. Isolation scorers are kryptonite to switch-heavy schemes, but an elite team-defender like James mitigates the damage. While switching may empower Leonard, it makes life harder for the rest of his team. This was, in a nutshell, the strategy that the Houston Rockets twice used to nearly topple the Golden State Warriors: let Kevin Durant shoot a bunch of typically inefficient jumpers and make everyone else miserable. If Kawhi scores 50 against a series of bad matchups? Then more power to him, he deserves to win.
The Lakers will tinker with a number of looks against Kawhi. They've done so through three regular-season games and haven't yet found a favorable look. That included the supposed nuclear option of letting LeBron try his hand at guarding him one-on-one, and even that failed. But his success all season, and against Giannis, makes it clear that he is better in a different role anyway. James' already impressive defense is likely going to get even better in the playoffs, but maximizing it will require the smartest possible use of his talents.