LeBron James: The Most Unreliable Defender in the NBA

David Richards/USA Today

The Cleveland Cavaliers (lack of) defense has been a hot topic in NBA circles all season. The Cavs rank in the bottom half of the league in just about every statistic or metric humanly possible. There is no point debating it, or beating a dead horse, or diving in to what the Cavs — as a team — have done wrong.

The reason they have been so bad is simple, but it will sound so far-fetched that you won’t believe it is the truth. LeBron James — widely renowned as the best player in the NBA, a positionless, all-around freak we have all grown to admire — is not only the worst defender in a Cavalier uniform, but one of the worst in the entire NBA. Take a breath. Now read it again:

Lebron James is one of the worst defenders in the NBA.

James has long been lauded for his ability to guard every position, using his unfathomable athletic ability and size to lock down anyone who stepped up to him. But that was clearly a younger and more defensive-minded player; the current iteration is about as far away from that as one could imagine.

To put it simply, James has been appalling.

According to NBA stats, of all players that have played more than 15 minutes per game, James ranks the 13th worst in Defensive Rating with a scary 112.9. As bad as his rating is, he still ranks above fellow Cavs witches hat’s Derrick Rose and Kevin Love.

But that worrying statistic is just the tip of the iceberg.

James currently sits with 0.0 total defensive win shares, meaning that he has literally not made any difference to improve Cleveland’s porous defense. That mark ranks him in the bottom 50 of the entire league, behind notable defensive turnstiles like Enes Kanter and 37-year-old Jamal Crawford.

Elsa/Getty Images

Love and Rose, along with other pedestrian defenders like Channing Frye and Kyle Korver, have been blamed for the bulk of Cleveland’s defensive woes.

The meteoric drop-off in James’s defensive consistency has quietly been the most impactful factor of all. No longer does his defense impact games the way it once did, nor can his offense cover the holes left by such a poor effort.

According to NBA stats, James leads the entire league in total opponents points in the paint, coming in head of Devin Booker and James Harden by a sizable margin. He is also second worst in opponents second chance points, ranking just behind Pacers forward Thaddeus Young.

Not only is James allowing his opponents get into the paint and finish with ease, he is allowing them to grab their own misses and put them back as well.

In transition, he has been a shadow of his former self.

Known for his elite transition defense, and backboard-shattering blocks *insert game winning block in the 2016 Finals here* James has been a shell of that this season.

He may not be the actual worst in the league as he is with other defensive benchmarks, but King James still ranks 423rd out of 443 players, giving up 138 points on fast breaks in 16 games this season.

Lowlights like the one below have become an increasingly popular part of James’s defense:

It has been clear, for whatever reason — age or his rumored Cavs departure — that he has not been putting the same effort in on the defensive end that we are used to seeing. Last season, a motivated James on a semi-good Cleveland defense averaged 1.1 loose balls recovered per game, but this season he is averaging just 0.4 so far. Registering just two deflections per game is also a massive slide from his 3.5 per outing last season.

The energy, and dare I say care, has disappeared from James’s defense, and every metric including the almighty eye test are the proof.

The reason may be partly entwined with the fact that he has played a league-high 38.6 minutes per game, a tough load for a man in his 15th season with more than 50,000 minutes on his odometer. Even his with his top flight fitness regime and genetic gifts, minutes of that magnitude start to wear on players in their mid-thirties.

Despite his huge workload and downright awful defensive output, James has been his usual self on offense this season, shooting a career high from the field and from having his second-best season from behind the arc.

Yet the Cleveland Cavaliers sit at a mediocre 9–7 and in fifth place in the middling Eastern Conference. Their formula of leaning heavily on James’s immense offensive talent while surrounded him with aging veterans won’t work unless their leader can shoulder the load on both ends of the floor.

Not just the glamorous one.

Cleveland has arguably the worst defense in the league, and LeBron James is in many categories, the worst defender of all 444 players that have played this season. We know he can defend leaps and bounds better than he has shown, there are no shortage of highlight that make you sit up and take notice. But as of right now, the biggest thing standing between Cleveland and another Finals run is their defense.

And their biggest defensive problem is LeBron James.



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