NBA Tactics: LeBron James can be stopped

An in-depth analysis of LeBron James' career, how it connects to his playing style, and who has successfully defended him in the past.


Analyzing The King

LeBron James has had three different stages during his career so far, all of which must be taken into account when deciding how to defend him. When he was younger, in his first run in Cleveland, James was passionate, superbly athletic, a high-flying slasher and excellent playmaker. In Miami, LeBron became an unstoppable force in a similar way; the perennial All-Star excelled because he was stronger, faster, and smarter than any other player he played against and was equipped with the perfect supporting cast. Possibly most important of all, James was having fun in Miami. 

For him to be successful, James needs someone who almost matches his athleticism and court awareness, shares his competitive edge and can also accompany him on fast breaks. Dwyane Wade was a seemingly perfect teammate, even disregarding the fact that they are such close friends. However, in LeBron’s return to Cleveland, he has adjusted his game to include more of a half court offense-centered style. While in Miami, he would be more likely to drive in isolation and rely on his finishing ability to get baskets. Now, he relies heavily on teammates setting screens, spacing the floor, and using backdoor cuts. 

James still slashes a lot of the time, yet he is more likely to drive and kick the ball into one of the rotating players along the three-point line. For him to be successful, James also relies on role players who can move well without the ball and can shoot from the perimeter, specifically big men such as Kevin Love or Chris Bosh. 

How to stop James

As mentioned earlier, James relies heavily on screens, drives, and kicks. However, his jump-shooting abilities and ball handling are his weaker attributes in these scenarios, which an astute defender must be able to exploit. 

In order to do this, if guarding LeBron when a screen is coming, defenders must go under the screen. Going under the screen will show the 32-year-old that opponents prefer him to shoot an off-the-dribble jump-shot rather than drive. If LeBron shoots, while this is an unfavorable scenario in many cases, it is preferred to allowing him to get to the basket. If he chooses to drive, then defenders are best advised to stay in front of him and attempt to take a charge. Defenders that force LeBron to complicate his dribbling in order to get around them, often cause him to lose the ball or retreat away. The latter, in itself, should be considered a small victory. 

Additionally, defenders need to be mindful that the four-time MVP’s passing is exceptional. Thus, other than an attempt to knock the ball loose when he comes close, under no circumstances should opponents put their hands down. Keeping arms extended and hands elevated allow opponents to more easily tip the ball away if James tries to pass it. Additionally, when a defender keeps their chest aligned with James’ it allows them to have a better reach on his one-armed passes and also makes it more difficult for him to drive around them.

Who to learn from

The obvious examples of guys who have successfully contained the two-time Olympic gold medalist include Andre Iguodala and Kawhi Leonard. Yet, with all due respect to Iguodala, any player looking to model their defensive stance after an NBA star should choose Leonard, first and foremost. 

The Spurs lynchpin, like any defender should, uses his hips as his primary defensive tool, relying on his gargantuan hands and lanky arms to strip the ball away only when he is sure that he will get the steal. Too many players have these reversed, in that they rely too heavily on their hands to play defensive, and forget that getting your body in front of the player you’re defending is paramount. This is especially important when guarding James since he is an extremely talented slasher and finisher. 

In some cases when marking a slasher with unexceptional ball handling abilities, guarding either their right or left side more heavily can help stop them, since that guides them away from the basket. However, if they have the unfortunate task of guarding ‘The King’, players must stay in front of him at all times. If James is able to get around an opponent, or at least beside instead of in front of them, he will find ways to beat them. Leonard knows exactly how important it is to beat an offensive player to a certain spot on the floor to limit their space to shoot, which is what makes him successful against opponents like James. 

How else can you stop LeBron? Comment below!

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