Dominant Stat Could Push LeBron James Into Defensive Award Contention

LeBron James, Lakers

Getty LeBron James, Lakers

We are more than three weeks in the NBA season, and already, Lakers forward LeBron James has been making a strong case to win an award for which he got exactly zero votes last season: Defensive Player of the Year.

When it comes to the Lakers and the DPOY, the usual conversation centers around big man Anthony Davis, and with good reason. He is among the best rim-protectors in the league and is averaging 1.9 blocked shots per game so far this season. He was the runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year last season, finishing behind Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

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But through the first 12 games of the season, James has been a player reborn on the defensive end, and the case for him as the league’s top defender can be summed up in one number: 35.5.

That is the shooting percentage, according to the NBA’s stats, that James is allowing to opponents he defends this season. That 35.5% happens to be the best in the league (among players with 100 shots defended). The NBA’s numbers, in fact, say that the players James defends typically shoot 44.7% from the field, meaning he is forcing those shooters to be 9.2% worse than they normally would.

That differential ranks No. 2 in the NBA, behind San Antonio’s Rudy Gay.

Rank Player Team FG% Allowed Differential
1 LeBron James Lakers 35.5% -9.2%
2 Rudy Gay Spurs 36.0% -11.6%
3 DeAndre Hunter Hawks 37.7% -8.7%
4 Anthony Davis Lakers 38.2% -7.5%
5 Andew Wiggins Warriors 38.2% -6.8%

Lakers Defense Has Been a Focus in Recent Days

The Lakers’ defense has been the subject of much chatter in the early part of the season, but whatever struggles the team has had on that end thus far certainly is not James’ doing.

He has led by example, and has improved his individual D over last year, when opponents shot 44.7% against him. That was good for 55th in the NBA (among players with 500 shots defended).

Here’s what James had to say about the Lakers’ defense on Sunday:

Our goal is to be the No. 1 defensive team in the league. And it’s going to take our film sessions, it’s going to take our shootarounds, it’s going to take the practices when we do get an opportunity to get on the floor and then the games, to continue to work those habits.

We added five new guys to our rotation this year, pretty much, in [Montrezl Harrell], [Dennis Schroder], Wes [Matthews], Marc [Gasol] and also Talen [Horton-Tucker]. We’re all getting accustomed to one another, getting down to our rotations and what we want to build, how we build out from the paint to the perimeter, but we want to be the best defensive team in the league and tonight was a good start to that.

LeBron James Ahead of Last Year’s Top DPOY Vote-Getters

It is early and it is only one statistic, but it is worth noting that the league leaders in opponents’ shooting percentage last year were Antetokounmpo at No. 1 and Davis at No. 2—exactly how they finished in the DPOY voting. The player who was third in DPOY voting, Rudy Gobert, ranked fourth in opponents’ shooting percentage.

Antetokounmpo allowed opponents to shoot 36.2% that year. James is ahead of that number. This year, Antetokounmpo has been more lax on defense, allowing opponents to make 47.5% of their shots from the field.

Davis could eventually catch James—he is among the league leaders in the category, allowing 38.2% shooting this season, which ranks fourth this season. But the Lakers have been making an early-season defensive push, and James has been leading the way.

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