The Risks of Doubling LeBron James

by Couper Moorhead

More important things happened in Orlando on Wednesday night. The Miami HEAT’s bench stretched a lead and closed out a win for the third-straight game – a massive development for regular-season purposes if it continues. The HEAT’s defense, bolstered by a friendly schedule as of late, crept closer to the Top-10 in efficiency. And the team was able to focus on the long-term by resting Dwyane Wade again.

All those things will make an impact on this season, as will the individual improvements of Norris Cole, the all-around play of a healthy Rashard Lewis and the evolution of Michael Beasley. But even with all that going on during an otherwise quiet evening, LeBron James found a way to remind us of something that will be just as crucial come the postseason.

While the Magic are a talented but young, still-in-transition team, coach Jacque Vaughn employed a rather complicated coverage when it came to James in the post. Rather than have a guard dig down from the three-point line to shade James away from the middle of the floor, Vaughn had an extra defender from the weakside come over to the ball-side of the paint – a look that somewhat resembled the quasi-zone principles used to varying degrees in Chicago, Indiana, Dallas and Vaughn’s former coaching home, San Antonio.

Sometimes you can see a possession such as the one above and while it appears as though there is an interesting scheme, it’s really just one player going rogue and taking a risk. Orlando’s defenders repeated this coverage with such regularity that it had to be part of the game plan, likely based on how the aforementioned teams have approached James in the postseason. The issue is that the HEAT often go to post-ups to specifically counter this approach, getting James in behind the first layer of defense rather than asking him to read the coverage from the perimeter.

So there was a bit of warring ideologies at play here and James, who has found a way to beat just about every zone look the league has thrown at him save for Dallas three years ago, kept winning the skirmishes. Six of James’ seven assists were for threes, and he created at least eight deep opportunities for his team out of the post. Because when one defender slides across the paint to James, a second defender has to manage whoever the HEAT have in the middle of the floor. The weakside becomes a shooter's playground.

“They were doubling LeBron all night in the post,” Chris Bosh said. “With this team you are going to have to pick your poison. LeBron is so unselfish.”

“I told them to stop doubling me,” James said. “I actually told them on the floor stop doubling me, that I would find the open shooter.”

This isn’t James operating on his own, either. In its third year with this offensive system, the team’s spacing is routinely impeccable and at worst it’s entirely functional. Even as James backs his man down and reads the floor, the HEAT’s shooters shift as the defense looks away to focus on the ball, setting up at one end of a passing lane and trusting that James will find them. All five players on the floor are live at all times, and even if James sees an open man he doesn’t have to force a poor passing angle.

At other times, James doesn’t even have to touch the ball at all to create an open shot.

“[James Jones] just happened to be the recipient of those plays,” James said. “They kept coming with the double and we just swung the ball around, and J.J. was in that corner and was able to knock those shots down.”

Caveats are always necessary in one-game samples, particularly early in the season, and the Magic were far from perfect with their chosen defense. It would hardly be fair to expect as much from such a young team, but that’s sort of the point. Indiana, Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio haven’t just given James trouble in the past because of a system. Those teams executed brilliantly. If you don’t come prepared to be near-perfect, the system won’t save you.

Such are the risks of sending multiple defenders at LeBron James.

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