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Saturday, March 2, 2013
Was Jordan right about defending LeBron?

By Micah Adams


David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/MCTIs it best to let LeBron go left or right? The answer might surprise you.

“So if I have to guard him… I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right."
-- Michael Jordan on LeBron James in ESPN The Magazine


Video tracking data from Synergy Sports allows us to provide a statistical scouting report on just how James plays in certain situations. What are his tendencies? Where is he most effective?

We took a look at James in two key areas in the half-court in which he primarily hurts teams: in isolation and in the post.

James has three basic options at the start of any isolation action. He can drive left, drive right or shoot early.

He drives on 62 percent of his isolations, favoring the left over the right side. He takes an early jumper on 38 percent of his isolations.

So how do his tendencies change depending on which direction he goes? And which is most effective?

When he goes left
LeBron drives left on just over one-third (34 percent) of his isolation plays. When he goes left, his most common decision is to pull up for a jumper. It’s moderately effective, scoring on roughly 45 percent of his attempts

When he drives left AND attacks the basket, he is practically unstoppable, scoring on more than 85 percent of his plays, either from a made basket or free throws. On a points-per-play basis, James leads the NBA in drives to the basket when going left.

When he goes right
James' tendencies change when he goes right. Just as Jordan said, “when he goes right, he’s going to the bucket,” doing so on more than half of his drives.

However, he isn’t nearly as effective finishing at the rim going this direction. While still very good, his right drives to the basket “only” result in points roughly 60 percent of the time.

The Verdict
The numbers don’t agree with Jordan when it comes to James being in isolation.

When James goes left, he averages more points per play than when he drives right.

When he drives left, James scores 60 percent of the time. That number dips below 50 percent if you can force him right or bait him into taking an early jumper.

What about in the post?
When it comes to scoring in the post, James' production doesn’t jibe with his overall tendencies.

James likes to use the left block, doing so on nearly 60 percent of his post ups. However, he scores just 43 percent of the time on the left block, ranking below average in points per play.

Contrast that with his production on the right block. Although he utilizes it on just a third of his post-ups, James ranks 2nd in the NBA in points per play on the right block, trailing only Kevin Durant.

So though Jordan may want to force him left there to take James out of his comfort zone, it's not something that will necessarily stop him.

What is the best way to defend James in the post?

Points are easy to come by for James himself or when he’s able to find cutters. However, when he kicks out to spot-up shooters, those plays result in points just over one-fourth of the time (26 percent).

That ranks worse than 85 percent of NBA players.

But if James does keep the ball, the key is to keep him out of the middle of the lane.

James averages nearly twice as many points per play when he turns towards the middle from either block than if he is forced baseline.