By the Numbers: How does LeBron James Flip the Proverbial “Switch”?

‘I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed’ – Kerr after Wariors make 5th straight NBA Finals

They say defense wins championships.

For the better part of the decade, playoff-LeBron has shown the capability to “flip the switch”- propelling his team to a guaranteed Finals appearance.

While many would notice his triple-doubles and scoring outbursts on the regular, the proverbial “switch” that he flips is basically him exhibiting a more concerted effort on the defensive end- whether it is on-ball, transition, and on help defense:


Every possession counts in the playoffs, and that’s why limiting transition opportunities is a must to give yourself a better chance of winning.

In transition possessions where James is involved in the regular season, his team is giving up 1.3 points per possession. In the playoffs, however, when James is involved, his team is giving up only 1.1 points per possession. Putting it in perspective, without the 0.2-point difference, LeBron would put his team as one of the five worst transition defenses in the league.

According to advanced analytics, the Cavaliers are ranked 29th in defensive ratings at 109.5, putting them at 3.9% odds of making it to the NBA Finals. Odds are much more in favor of Eastern Conference foes like the Raptors (58%), Celtics (21%) and the Sixers (11%). LeBron’s effort to sprint hard and deter the fast break would be very much needed, but he has already shown that in the biggest stage before:


In the regular season, when LeBron is the primary defender of the ball handler, the opponents attempt shots with an average of 53-percent qSQ (quantified shot quality). This means that a player would have an effective field goal percentage of 53% when a shot is taken against LeBron, given his defensive pressure and effort.

Against playoff LeBron, that percentage drops to around 47 percent, since he contests 4% more shots in 100 possessions in the postseason. With his proper positioning, defensive smarts, and athletic gifts, James can slow down the opposing team’s best scorers when needed:


LeBron has a habit of coming off from the weak side by help off a drive or by plucking away passes on the perimeter. In the regular season, James has been helping on 7.5 percent of opponents’ drives, giving up 0.95 points per possession, ranking his team around 12th on that category. Playoff-LeBron however, helps on 11 percent of opponents’ drives, giving up 0.9 points per possession in the process, which ranks 1st overall.

With LeBron James looking to make his eighth straight finals appearance and possibly win his fourth title, he has to kick his defensive tenacity up a notch in order to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a shot.