LeBron James dusted off his old playbook right before the lockdown. Then he showed off some new tricks.
Just days before the NBA suspended its season on March 11, James averaged 32.5 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.5 assists in consecutive victories against the Bucks and Clippers, the other two title favorites besides the Lakers when the season resumes in Orlando. But more important than his gaudy numbers was how he got them. Instead of resting on defense, LeBron matched up with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard on both ends of the floor.
Facing off against two younger superstars is a different kind of challenge for the four-time MVP at this stage of his career. LeBron (35) has seven years on Kawhi (28) and a full decade on Giannis (25). For the first time in his life, he’s no longer the best athlete on the court. LeBron has to find a new way to win.
The good news for the Lakers is that he has always been more than an athlete. He’s also one of the smartest players to ever play the game. No one learned the lessons of the last decade of postseason basketball more than LeBron, largely because he was the one handing those lessons out.
The best recent example came in the fourth quarter against the Clippers on March 8, when LeBron ruthlessly hunted Lou Williams in the pick-and-roll. It didn’t matter whom Lou Will was guarding. The whole point of the play these days is to target weak defenders like Williams in space—a technique James has mastered.
The Clippers tried to hide Williams on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, and Danny Green, but there’s no hiding on defense against LeBron. All three guards screened for LeBron to force Williams into a no-win decision almost every time down the floor. It didn’t matter whether he switched, hedged, or dropped back. LeBron had an answer for everything:
It was a preview of what we would see in a playoff series between the two L.A. teams. Williams, despite being a three-time Sixth Man of the Year and an elite fourth-quarter scorer, would be a massive liability at the ends of games.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel also played a smaller lineup to expose Williams. He moved Anthony Davis to center and played three shooters in Bradley, Green, and KCP around LeBron, making it impossible for the Clippers to help Williams without creating an opening somewhere else. The Lakers have kept those lineups in their back pocket to prevent Davis from getting worn down during the regular season. Their lineups with two traditional big men at the 5—JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard—are far less dangerous because neither can score outside the paint.
The Lakers have another gear they’ve barely showed off. The way Vogel distributed minutes at center in that clash against the Clippers is a better indicator of what he will do in the playoffs than what he has done in the regular season:
Percentage of Minutes at Center
|Player||Regular Season||Last Clippers Game|
|Player||Regular Season||Last Clippers Game|
The smaller lineups and pick-and-roll targeting were predictable moves from the Lakers. The more surprising part of the Clippers and Bucks games came on defense. LeBron turned back the clock and took over the primary defensive assignments on Kawhi and Giannis.
James’s defense was just as important as his offense in his eight straight trips to the NBA Finals. Peak LeBron was one of the most versatile defenders in league history. At 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, his combination of size, strength, and athleticism allowed him to defend players at all five positions. His teams could use any type of lineup around him, knowing that LeBron could shut down the best player on the opposing team.
It has been a long time since we have seen that type of dominance. LeBron is no longer as fast as he once was, and doesn’t have the energy to take on as much defensive responsibility over the course of the season. He has spent his first two seasons with the Lakers picking and choosing his spots on that end of the floor, preserving himself for the offensive end.
The problem for the Lakers is that they don’t have any other perimeter players with the size to match up with players like Kawhi and Giannis. Their top five guards—Bradley, Green, KCP, Rajon Rondo, and Alex Caruso—are 6-foot-6 or shorter. They need more from LeBron on defense against elite opponents.
He was excellent against Giannis. He’s one of the only players in the NBA strong enough to prevent the Bucks star from pushing him around while still being quick enough to cut off his drives:
While Giannis finished with 32 points (10-of-21 shooting) in the loss to the Lakers, he’s just 2-for-10 from the field this season in seven and a half minutes with LeBron as his primary defender, according to NBA.com/Stats.
LeBron wasn’t as effective against Kawhi. Unlike Giannis, Leonard is an elite shooter who can’t be given any space on the perimeter. Crowding him only created openings for him to attack a slower defender like LeBron off the dribble:
Kawhi is 6-for-8 from the field in just over nine minutes this season with LeBron as his primary defender. While there isn’t a large sample size for any of his 1-on-1 defensive numbers, it’s hard not to draw conclusions from the film.
LeBron and Kawhi are 1-1 against each other in the Finals, with James winning the Finals MVP in 2013 as a member of the Heat and Leonard returning the favor in 2014 while with the Spurs. But the matchup between the two would be completely different this time around. Not only is LeBron much older, but Kawhi is a different type of player. He averaged only 17.8 points per game in the 2014 Finals. He wasn’t the driving force of the Spurs offense like he is for the Clippers.
There is only so much LeBron can do to stop him. The better matchup for Kawhi is probably Davis, whom Vogel has used on the reigning Finals MVP in spurts. At 26, Davis has younger legs to stay in front of Kawhi, while also being long enough (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) to bother his shot.
The downside of the switch is that it takes Davis away from the rim, leaving it theoretically unprotected when the Lakers go small. But that is where LeBron comes back into the picture. There’s no reason that a player with his physical tools and basketball IQ can’t be a rim protector. He has just never been asked to be one before. We saw glimpses of what he could do in that role when he was matched up against Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green:
LeBron and Davis are still figuring out how to work as a unit in their first season together. Dividing up responsibilities for two players who can do so many different things can be challenging. The Lakers need the two superstars to invert their roles, with Davis handling some of the duties typically assigned to wings and LeBron filling in for him as a big man.
It’s not just on defense, either. LeBron has become an excellent post scorer as he has gotten older, averaging more points per possession in the post this season (1.00) than in the pick-and-roll (0.983). There are easier ways for him to get to the basket at 35 than putting his head down and dribbling through multiple defenders. He’s better when he can walk down one defender, use his size to his advantage, and then pick apart the defense if they send help.
LeBron doesn’t have to be as fast if he can lean into his old-man strength. He can bully Kawhi and Giannis in the paint, where he needs only one step to get to the rim, and can use angles to prevent them from blocking his shot:
But the odds are still against him. For as good as the Lakers looked in early March, the Bucks easily handled them in their meeting earlier this season, while the Clippers beat them twice. There was nothing that LeBron could do when Giannis started raining 3s on him when they met in December. He just has to hope that Giannis goes cold if they meet again.
LeBron’s basketball life has come full circle. When he made his first Finals appearance with the Heat in 2011, he was the über-athletic 26-year-old going up against old heads on the Mavs (Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd) who walled off the paint and dared him to shoot. Now he has to use those same tactics to hold off a younger generation who grew up watching him. Kawhi was playing at San Diego State in 2011. Giannis was a 16-year-old playing for a third-division team in Greece.
LeBron is aware of his basketball mortality, which helps explain why he is pushing so hard for the NBA to return. He has only so many seasons left during which he can play at a high level. Basketball is a young man’s game—but LeBron will enter the stretch run fresh. The NBA began giving out a Finals MVP trophy in 1969. The only players 35 and older to win one are Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But with every challenge also comes an opportunity. Michael Jordan retired for the second time at 34. He never faced younger rivals like Kobe Bryant in the playoffs. This is LeBron’s chance to do something that Jordan never did.
His first three championships came when he was the best athlete in the league. He will have to win a fourth with his mind.