(Editor’s Note: This post is from Nick Whalen, the newest writer for Behind the Buck Pass)
Can anyone contain LeBron James? That’s the question every NBA team has been asking this season. The answer has been an overwhelming “no,” as James has breezed his way to what will likely be his fourth MVP in the last five years. The 28-year-old enjoyed arguably his best overall season in 2012-13, averaging 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game on a ridiculous 56.5 field goal percentage.
King James is nearly impossible to stop for just one game, so how do the Milwaukee Bucks plan to do it for an entire series? With no ideal matchup on the roster (Mbah a Moute is probably the closest), we could see Jim Boylan throw a slew of defenders at LeBron over the next four-plus games. One of them, who has matched up with James a few times this season, is Larry Sanders (or LARRY SANDERS!, as he’s known in the Twitter world these days).
Sanders, a vastly improved overall defender this year, switched out onto James several times during their four matchups this season. Though he moves very well laterally for a center, Sanders was often over-aggressive, bodying up James far from the basket and trying to swat the ball, which resulted in two quick fouls on this play.
LeBron is not a player Sanders can afford any margin of error with defensively. With James’ strength, swatting at the ball is meritless, and bodying him up only accentuates his foul-drawing advantage. If Larry finds himself guarding James on the perimeter, he’s best off trying to force him into long jumpers. Now, that’s certainly much, much easier said than done – especially with James shooting a career-high 40.6 percent from beyond the arc – but if Sanders can keep an adequate cushion, James has shown he’s prone to settling for long jumpers. Given Larry’s wingspan and athleticism, he should still be able to make the shot much more difficult than most.
Maintaining space from James on the perimeter also enables Sanders to react to the drive more effectively. At this point in his career, James really is not as laterally quick as most give him credit for. His lean frame simply doesn’t allow him to make elusive moves offensively (when’s the last time you’ve seen LeBron cross anyone up?), but he compensates with his strength and uncanny ability to finish with contact.
On the above play, Sanders held his ground away from the basket, and forced James into Monta Ellis’ waiting help. In this instance, Monta was in great position (helping to take away the drive while preventing the pass to Mario Chalmers in the corner), but that’s not always the case. Abandoning a man on the perimeter to help on the league’s best passer can be deadly with shooters like Mike Miller, Chalmers, Shane Battier and Ray Allen on the floor (Ekpe Udoh was fortunate this was Bosh). The Heat essentially allow opponents to pick their poison. Forcing James toward help defenders may be Larry’s best bet, but the risk of leaving open shooters is what makes Miami so dangerous (just ask the Thunder).
Should Sanders find himself matched up with LeBron, staying out of foul trouble must be his top priority. James is one of the league’s best at drawing calls, especially away from the basket, and Sanders is at times prone to swatting at shots when playing straight up could save him a foul. Preventing James from grabbing offensive boards is also imperative, as he is all but guaranteed to finish strong or draw a foul (and it better be a hard one) around the rim. Milwaukee cannot afford to have its only true rim protector in foul trouble and may be better off keeping him away from guarding James altogether. Chris Bosh is the more sensible matchup, as he’s reinvented himself as a midrange scorer who rarely draws contact inside.
In all truth, the Bucks have little chance of containing the best player in the world. Despite Brandon Jennings’ bold prediction, this series could be over quickly; but no matter how many games we get – with this Bucks team – it promises to be an interesting one.