LeBron James’s stellar all-around offensive skills combined with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 12-4 record (third-best in the NBA) should put the star forward in the running for his fifth MVP. However, with his work at the other end, James is steadily becoming a sneaky contender for Defensive Player of the Year as well.
James’s efforts as a scorer and facilitator are generating most of the headlines this season. On top of being fifth in scoring (25.6 points) and ninth in assists (6.7 dimes), he became the youngest member of the 25,000-point club. He also recently joined Oscar Robertson as only the second player in NBA history to rank in the top 25 all-time in both points and assists. The 30-year-old is 18th on the career scoring list and 25th in lifetime dimes. With another 75 helpers, he’ll move past Derek Harper and into the top 20.
Those impressive feats have overshadowed what James is doing on the defensive end. So far this season, opponents are shooting just 27 percent from the field with James defending as opposed to 43.3 percent normally.
No, that’s not a typo. Twenty-seven percent.
While James’s numbers are skewed by the small sample size (16 games), here’s how his defensive field goal percentages compare to last season’s efforts by San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who took home 2014-15 DPOY honors:
For James to follow in Leonard’s footsteps, the magic number is 96. The last two perimeter players to win Defensive Player of the Year (Leonard in ’14-15, Metta World Peace in ’03-04) both had a defensive rating of 96. In fact, the last 10 players to win top defensive honors all had a defensive rating of 99 or lower. James is currently allowing 101 points per 100 possessions, which is tied for the fourth-best effort of his career but doesn’t even rank among the top-20 in the category.
Defensive rating isn’t the only advanced stat that James needs to improve if he wants to add Defensive Player of the Year to his extensive list of achievements. As seen in the chart below, James’s defensive win shares (wins attributed to player because of his defense), defensive box plus-minus (estimate of defensive points per 100 possessions), block percentage (rate of shots blocked by player when on the court) and steal percentage (rate of steals committed by player when on the court) all pale in comparison to past efforts by Leonard and World Peace (Note: Stats do not include James’s recent performance against Charlotte).
Still, the fact that James is making a case for DPOY in his 13th season despite back troubles and assuming the bulk of Cleveland’s offensive responsibilities is nothing short of amazing. Once Kyrie Irving returns from knee surgery to lighten some of the scoring load, James will be able to exhaust even more energy on the defensive end. That could be scary considering the menace James has already become this season.
As he’s done throughout his career, James is putting the Cavaliers on his back and lifting them atop the Eastern Conference. That kind of effort should culminate in a new addition to his trophy case. However, this time around, it might not be the hardware we’re used to seeing him holding.