Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — After missing the playoffs last year for only the third time in his career, LeBron James has looked rejuvenated 11 games into the season.
That’s especially apparent on defense, where he has given the Los Angeles Lakers maximum effort.
Two NBA scouts agree that James looks “locked in” and “motivated” this season. One of them added the reason: “The why? He saw last year that his team wasn’t going to have a chance. This year, he sees he has a team that has a real chance.”
It has become commonplace for James to conserve his energy during the regular season. His Cleveland Cavaliers teams famously flipped the switch in a weakened Eastern Conference, cruising to four straight NBA Finals appearances after underwhelming regular seasons.
But in James’ first season in Los Angeles and the Western Conference, flipping the switch didn’t work. It showed on defense, where James slacked on rotations. By the end of the season, he posted a 107.6 defensive rating after 55 games, which is around average. But with a little more effort, it could have been much better.
It’s still early in the 2019-20 season, but the difference has been breathtaking.
Eleven games into the season last year, James had a 111.1 defensive rating. This season, it’s 99.8. The last time he finished a season with a sub-100 defensive rating was 2011-12 with the Miami Heat. They finished with a top-four defensive rating that year en route to James’ first title.
The Lakers have improved defensively under first-year head coach Frank Vogel. They have the league’s best defensive rating (99.5), all of which starts with James.
Vogel recently noted how James is “setting a tone for our group with how hard he is playing on defense.”
Time Off Does a Body Right
Over his 13 playoff runs, James has logged a total of 10,049 minutes. That’s nearly three full NBA seasons. Eight straight Finals appearances during that 13-year run would take a physical and mental toll on anyone.
James was able to endure it all. Until he wasn’t.
A groin injury on Christmas Day last year was the first sign of James’ body breaking down. That led to the longest absence of his career, which sent the Lakers into a tailspin.
Although missing the playoffs hurt, it gave James time to fully heal and get a head start on preparing for this season.
“I know the summer that I had,” James said Friday after the Lakers’ 95-80 victory over the Miami Heat. “I know the rehab that I had with my groin. … I shot Space Jam for three months all summer. My call times every morning were at 6:30 in the morning. And I was in the gym at like 3:30, 4 o’clock in the morning before shooting for 12, 13, 14 hours.
“I know how much I put into my craft, I know what the main thing is. Even when I was shooting a movie, I know what was most important. That’s me getting ready for the fall, and I always had that in front of my mind.”
It’s clear now that James made the most of his time off. One NBA scout said it’s “obvious that he’s healthy and moving laterally well.”
In his 17th NBA season, this is the freshest James has been in a long time.
All the Little Things
The biggest difference from James’ defense this year has been his commitment to the details.
James has done a phenomenal job rotating over from the weak side to take away scoring opportunities. When Luka Doncic was being fronted by Avery Bradley, James flew in from the opposite wing, arrived on the catch, remained vertical and forced Doncic to miss.
In the game against the Heat, Alex Caruso fell down, giving Jimmy Butler a wide-open lane. James came over to help Caruso once Butler caught the ball, deterring him from taking the shot and forcing a pass out to the wing. James finished the play with a defensive rebound.
James saved the day again, this time off of a baseline out-of-bounds play versus the Toronto Raptors. It appeared as though Chris Boucher was going to score after slipping to the basket, but James came off his man to hold him up long enough for Anthony Davis to recover and send the shot attempt out of bounds.
The best defenders understand that defense requires multiple efforts on a single play. In transition against the Dallas Mavericks, James tagged the streaking Dwight Powell coming down the lane and then closed hard on Seth Curry in the corner, snuffing out any chance for a three and stopping them in transition.
This time, James came off his man in the corner to tag Kristaps Porzingis until Davis could recover and then closed out to his man in the corner. He also slid over to prevent Powell from driving the lane and finished the play with a strong defensive rebound. He made four plays on this one possession.
Blocks and Charges
Besides just rotating over, James has done a great recovering after rotating.
After Dorian Finney-Smith blew by Danny Green, James left Powell on the baseline to step up to take a charge. He then recovered back for the joint block with Davis after Finney-Smith dumped the pass off to Powell.
Against the Toronto Raptors, James slid over and recovered to his man after discouraging Pascal Siakam’s drive. He stayed with OG Anunoby’s drive and put his shot attempt into the crowd.
One NBA scout also noted James is taking more charges at a rate of “four times what he took last year.”
“This all goes to him caring more than last year,” the scout said.
Small plays like these help to build trust among teammates and develop defensive chemistry with one another. James’ willingness to make these plays this season shows he believes in this team, especially to his teammates.
Another area of improvement in James’ defense is his work on the ball. The scout noticed that “on the ball, he is much more engaged, fighting over screens and not giving into the switch.”
In the Lakers game against Dallas, Finney-Smith came off a screen while James fought over the top and came up with a block. He gathered the outlet pass from Kyle Kuzma and found a streaking Bradley for a layup in transition.
“We got to intimidate people on the defensive end and make our mark there,” James said after the Heat game. “It is just fun getting stops, getting multiple stops making it tough on opponents and cherishing that side of the floor.”
The importance of James’ defensive play has not been lost on his coach.
“The guy is incredible,” Vogel said. “He is giving his all to this team. I mean, he’s really impacting both ends of the floor. The biggest impact is how he’s setting the tone, setting a tone for our group with how hard he is playing defense.”
It helps that James is playing with several plus defenders. Davis, Green, Bradley, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo have each made at least one All-Defensive team during their respective careers. Combine that with Vogel’s reputation as a defensive coach, and the recipe is there for continued defensive success if James’ effort remains high all season long.
That type of effort can drive them to an NBA title if James keeps it up.
All statistics via NBA.com and current through Nov. 13 unless otherwise noted.