LeBron James is a rare combination of speed, quickness, size, strength and transcendent talent. As such, there’s no doubt that he’s the best basketball player on the planet. Even so, measures can be (and are) taken to minimize his effectiveness.
The simplest strategy is to play him soft on the perimeter and let James shoot as many jumpers as he’s willing to take. For sure, he’ll single-handedly win some games when his shots are falling, but he’s a streaky shooter who lacks a consistent stroke — so this gamble is well worth taking. Also, if LeBron is firing away, his teammates become spectators and, as such, they’ll lose their focus on both ends of the court.
Aside from making his shots, however, LeBron is so powerful and his handle so accomplished that he can defeat this tactic by using his dribble to occupy the space his defender has allowed and then backing him towards the basket.
A counter to this aggressive move is to overplay LBJ and force him to the nearest wing. In lieu of enticing him to shoot from long distance, this is precisely where the defense wants him to be, i.e., in an iso situation on a wing. Once LeBron is there, he should be allowed to drive baseline then doubled by a big man as he approaches the lane.
This movement must be accompanied by the remaining trio of defenders rotating in a quick, coordinated fashion: A forward hustles into the lane to deny James the opportunity to drop a pass to his basket-cutting center. The other two defenders approach the passing lanes between LBJ and his two teammates on the strong side. The only Cav left unguarded would be behind LeBron, forcing James to either twist his body to find him or make a blind pass — both of which he’s entirely capable of doing.
Also, if the undefended teammate moves toward the top of the key and somewhat within LeBron’s line of sight, more defensive rotations are called for: The two out-defenders moving one space to the top, the power forward hustling to the strong-side corner, and the big who’s been doubling LeBron reattaching himself to Cleveland’s center.
It should also be noted that while James is a willing and accomplished passer, he’s much more interested in making the direct assist-pass (or “home-run pass”) than any pass that would facilitate any additional ball movement.
Complicated? Yes. But this procedure bears some resemblance to how the Warriors tried (and, for the most part, succeeded) to contain LeBron during the championship series.
Moreover, extraordinary measures must be taken to deal with such an extraordinary player.
LeBron can also be attacked on the defensive end of the game. Situate whomever he’s guarding in a high screen/roll set-up in tandem with the quickest ball handler available — thereby forcing a defensive switch. As good a defender as LBJ is (an aspect of his game that’s somewhat overrated), he understandably gets routinely chumped when compelled to guard a player who’s appreciably quicker than him.
Like the rest of us civilians, LBJ also manifests some personal flaws that sometimes make him his own worst enemy. His overbearing arrogance is annoying but excusable since he can usually back up his self-aggrandizing pronouncements. But several past-and-present opposing players and coaches are convinced that he’s something of a front-runner.
To support this belief, they point to his performances in his last two championship series — the Heat losing to the Spurs in 2014, and then LeBron’s Cavs losing to the Warriors. “As soon as he felt that his team might be overmatched,” says an ex-player, “LeBron just laid down. He just went through the motions, playing with no fire and a minimum of the kind of extra hustle that his team desperately needed.”
Another one-time Eastern Conference coach says this: “Sure, Miami beat San Antonio in 2013, but an argument could be made that more than the Heat winning the championship, the Spurs lost it.”
Among the same circle of past-and-present NBA veterans, it’s widely believed that LeBron’s only legit title was in 2012. That’s when he showed some grit in leading Miami back from a 1-0 deficit against the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Oklahoma City Thunder.
For many NBA insiders, then, LeBron James still has something to prove.
And then there’s the case of LBJ’s latest coach, David Blatt, who’s supposed to be an offensive genius. Forget that LeBron disses him by making his own decisions about removing and inserting himself into ball games. Forget that LeBron has publicly snubbed Blatt, and might (or might-not) have pushed him aside during a timeout.
The fact remains that the offense of every team LeBron has played for has boiled down to one overriding strategy — some kind of iso for LBJ.
Yeah, yeah, Kevin Love couldn’t play against Golden State, but his absence was not much of a difference maker. That’s because although Love is a terrific (if somewhat immobile) rebounder, makes quick and accurate outlet passes, and can drain open jumpers, his low-post offense is slow and methodical, and he can’t guard his own shadow. Love would’ve been a total defensive liability as the Cavs tried to cope with the Warriors’ small-ball strategy.
The loss of Kyrie Irving, on the other hand, was devastating. This guy can score and defend with anybody. Still, Irving also creates the vast majority of his point-making in iso opportunities.
So what adjustments did Blatt institute to compensate for the absence of Love and Irving? Isos for the infamously unreliable J.R. Smith and even for the offensively-challenged Iman Shumpert, plus an occasional high screen/roll for Matthew Dellavedova. And even more isos for LeBron.
Not exactly championship-level coaching.
Even more so than LeBron, Blatt has plenty to prove.
It all comes down to this: In championship competition, no matter how talented a player or a team might be, a one-on-five game plan is always doomed to fail.