Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote a great post today about how the Toronto Raptors are on the cutting edge of NBA analytics.
With the help of camera-tracking technology, the team spent years inventing a computer program that (among other things) shows you what every Raptors player should have done on every defensive possession.
There are a million ways to use this data, and you should go read Lowe’s entire post if you want to get a firm handle on it. But one of the more interesting conclusions from the computer is this: NBA teams should play more aggressive help defence, meaning players should leave the guys they are guarding in order to defend the ball way more often than they currently are.
The only problem with playing super-aggressive help defence is that you get tired. The computer says players should be running all over the place all the time, but actual, human NBA players don’t have the ability to sustain that type of energy.
Except LeBron James.
According to Raptors analytics director Dan Rucker, LeBron plays defence like the idealised “ghost” defenders in the computer program play defence:
“The Heat have three of the best wing defenders in the league in Shane Battier, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, and the latter two are among the NBA’s most gifted pure athletes. James can mimic [a computerized] hyperactive ghost in a way no other player can, Rucker says. ‘LeBron basically messes up the system and the ghosts,’ Rucker says. ‘He does things that are just unsustainable for most players.'”
defence is notoriously hard to objectively quantify, but as new methods for evaluating defence continue to emerge, we’ll probably see more and more proof that LeBron is just as dominant on that end of the court as he is on offence.
By the time LeBron’s career is over and we’re judging his legacy, he might get the benefit of something that none of his predecessors got — we’ll have objective measures for how well he plays defence.
With the rudimentary stats available to us now, we know LeBron is a good defender, but only in a general sense.
In a few years — with the type of analytics stuff the Raptors and other are doing — we’ll be able to say things like, “Look, LeBron was only out of position X number of times in 2015-16,” or, “Look, LeBron prevented X number of open threes with help defence in 2015-16.”
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