In last night’s Heat – Bulls game, we got to see some defense from LeBron that we knew he was capable of, but may not have realized just how capable he is of it. What I am talking about, of course, is his lockdown defense on League MVP Derrick Rose. Rose is some 5 to 6 inches shorter than James and a bit quicker, but he was unable to utilize his slight speed advantage and ended up taking tough contested jumpers late in the fourth quarter as James sealed the lane and prevented Rose from driving.
Steve Kerr remarked that he hasn’t seen a defender like James since his former team mate Scottie Pippen. Pippen, while not as strong as James, was able to latch on to most players defensively, save the stronger power forwards and centers. The difference with LeBron is that he could probably contain most of them, too. In 2008, when the Magic faced the Cleveland Cavs in the ECF, I was actually surprised to see that they did not put James on Dwight Howard. For as massive and strong as Dwight Howard is, all 265 pounds of him, LeBron is perhaps even more solidly built, weighing the same as Howard despite being some 3 inches shorter. He has the strength necessary to keep Howard from getting into deep position and could use his vertical leap to compensate for his height deficiency.
Am I suggesting…wait…that LeBron could cover any player in the league? Not necessarily. I don’t think LeBron has the lateral footspeed to cover someone like Rajon Rondo or Russell Westbrook, arguably the two quickest players in the league (Tony Parker used to be in the discussion), but he could cover just about everyone else. Kevin Garnett, in his prime, could do things defensively that LeBron can’t do, but Garnett, like Howard, is a few inches taller than James.
I already knew LeBron was a good defender; I just didn’t realize how good he is. His chase down blocks that he has become famous for are always impressive, but we saw a lot less of them this year. It was his first season since 2006-07 that we saw James average less than a block a game. Still, it isn’t just the draw dropping athletic plays that make LeBron a great defender; it is just his versatility. Having a player capable of covering all five positions, to near lock down degree, is a great asset for any coach. The Heat looked great defensively…and LeBron’s versatility was a big part why.