LeBron James is not happy, which is actually a good thing for the Miami Heat. Three years and two championships into this great experiment on South Beach, James and the Heat have come to expect more than the team’s 4-3 start.
Yet while James’ tough talk about the Heat’s need to shore up their defense is a necessary step in addressing the problem, all the bold declarations and curse-dropping in the world don’t overshadow the fact that James has been far from innocent of Miami’s defensive indifference at times this season. On Tuesday, three days after the Celtics downed the Heat on Jeff Green‘s last-second shot, James expressed disgust with his team’s effort on defense thus far.
“It’s simple,” James told reporters. “These first seven games, we’re playing like [expletive] defensively. It’s that simple. We’re not a sugarcoat team. We came in and got right down to it. We’re terrible on defense, and we’ve got to change that.”
On all counts, James is correct. The Heat’s offense might be as good as it has been since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2010, but their defense has been atrocious. They have the sixth-worst defensive efficiency rating in the league, sorely jeopardizing James’ stated plans to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award this season. They allowed the Celtics to shoot 51.7 percent from the field on Saturday and watched the Celtics shoot 10-for-21 on 3-pointers. For a game in which the Heat themselves shot better than 57 percent, it was as close to a stinker as a team can get.
Still, all of that would have been moot if the Heat — namely, James himself — had defended slightly better on the final play. While Gerald Wallace and Green received loads of deserved credit for hooking up on the play, James helped make it possible with one moment of inattention. If James had not tried to cheat out on Jordan Crawford on the fateful inbounds play and turned his head away from his man, Green might not have been able to sneak into the corner.
Because James is James, he was able to recover and challenge Green’s shot at the buzzer. But that split-second of laziness by James was all Green needed. It was the difference between a win and a loss.
Watch James on the play in the video below, starting at around the 7:20 mark, and see how one split-second was all it took for him to be caught out of position for Green to get open.
Moments like that were not uncommon for James against the Celtics. Earlier in the game, he lucked out when he let Green drift into the opposite corner for an open three. Green’s miss and the long rebound that resulted led to a run-out chance for James, who had leaked out early on the shot. Details like that are revealing, but they are not even necessary to judge a defensive effort that even looks bad on paper; allowing his man to score 24 points and hit a game-winner in his face hurts James’ defensive player of the year case regardless of whether would-be voters parse his play from possession to possession.
Despite all that, James offered no mea culpa. As refreshing as it often is to hear James constantly talk in terms of “we” instead of “I,” there are times when stepping to the forefront and taking on the responsibility for the team sends a message of accountability. It’s something Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have mastered. Yet by harping on the team’s needed areas of improvement, James comes across as shirking his personal culpability.
“We can’t afford to trade baskets with anyone, no matter who we’re playing,” James said, after effectively trading baskets with Green on Saturday. “It hurt us. We messed around with the game [Saturday], and that was that.”
James is nowhere close to the Heat’s biggest culprit on defense, of course, and as a leader it falls to him to call out issues when they arise. Eventually, all of Erik Spoelstra‘s teaching points in film sessions would fall on deaf ears if the Heat’s best players don’t speak up and reinforce the point.
In order for the Heat to again defend their title, however, it would be best if James’ statements eventually evolved from “we” to “me.” If King James is looking for improvement on defense, maybe he can heed the words of a different king — the King of Pop — and start with the man in the mirror.