How can the Spurs – or anybody – defend LeBron James, who’s undoubtedly the greatest basketball player on the planet?
The generally accepted wisdom is to guard him at arm’s length and encourage him to shoot as many jump shots as he desires. Unfortunately for San Antonio this tactic proved to be disastrous in Game 2 as LBJ simply shot the lights out. In truth, LeBron’s jumper has greatly improved in the last two years. Whereas he once had trouble pulling up leftwards and launching accurate shots, he can now make the nets dance to his own personal tune going left, right, forwards, and backward.
Plus, he’s strong enough to hit the mark when he’s off balance and springing off either his right or left foot. Consequently, giving James an EZ-Pass to shoot from the perimeter is no longer a viable defensive tactic.
What other game plans have been activated in an attempt to deactivate LeBron?
Doubling him whenever he touches the ball in the attack zone, and doubling him whenever he’s involved in a medium-to-high pick-and-roll. The problem with this is that LeBron is such an accurate (and willing) passer that two-timing him anywhere near the middle of the court allows him to see (and pass to) any unguarded teammate on either side of the court. The fact that Miami has so many dead-eye three-point marksmen makes this a very risky proposition.
Another defensive philosophy is to play LeBron straight up, jump him only when he approaches the shadow of the rim, and basically let him score points by the dozen while staying connected to the other four guys. The trouble here is that he’s quite capable of putting up 40 or 50 points and winning the game single-handedly.
Denying him the ball is doomed to fail because he’s so big, has such good hands, and can jump to catch any lob pass that doesn’t bounce off the rafters.
But there is one way to at least limit LeBron’s options when the ball is in his hands.
Once he powers his way into lane, his left-to-right spin is so tight, so quick, and so strong as to be literally unstoppable. On the other hand, his right-to-left spin is good but not great.
Forcing him left, then playing for the inevitable spin is an exercise in futility because he’s strong (and tricky) enough to draw foul. Also because his spin-right would make it extremely easy for him to see and then deliver the rock to an unguarded teammate.) Plus, this maneuver would call for LeBron to be triple-teamed.
So, then, by playing tight on LeBron’s left hand, three things are accomplished: There’s very little room/space for him to uncork his jumpers. He’s forced to take his right hand to the hoop. And his dreadnaught left-to-right spin is unavailable.
Okay. At least the defense knows where he’s going, which is a significant advantage.
Now, this tactic should be complemented by playing deny defense against all of Miami’s shooters who are lined up on the strong side, i.e., to LeBron’s right.
Any shooter positioned on or near the left baseline/wing should also be tagged. Then, double LeBron with only one helper – the nearest big man – while the topside defender quickly drops into the paint to prevent a drop pass to Miami’s big.
This would leave only one offensive player unguarded – whoever is stationed straightaway near the top of the three-point line. However, in order to deliver the ball to this open teammate, LBJ must execute a comparatively long pass in the opposite direction he happens to be moving. This is not an easy task even for a superb passer like LeBron.
Possible, yes. But not easy.
So, James is such an extraordinary force that some combination of all possible defenses must be used to keep him from getting too accustomed to any one of them. For example, play him loosely until he hits two consecutive jumpers. But in special clutch-time situations, when it’s clear that he’s intent on going one-on-one, the in-his-face-force-right defense has as a fairly good chance of limiting his effectiveness.
However, the only truly infallible defense is to find a voodoo practitioner who can create crippling leg cramps by sticking needles into a LeBron doll.