LeBron James credits health for his improved defense

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The Los Angeles Lakers have the best defense in the NBA.

It’s just six games into the season, but this was unexpected. Los Angeles is allowing less than a point per possession (96.3 defensive rating, via NBA.com), and holding teams to the lowest effective field goal percentage against in the league (45.6 percent)

Going back to Laker media day, new coach Frank Vogel talked about the Lakers being a defense-first team, but it was shrugged off because what coach doesn’t say his team will be defense first? The Lakers are living up to that promise, however. Having Anthony Davis and the surprisingly active Dwight Howard protecting the rim is part of it. The overall size and length of the Lakers is part of it.

However, another big part of it is LeBron James — he is focused and playing hard on defense most of the time this season. That is not something that could be said of him the past few seasons.

What changed? LeBron told Dave McMenamin of ESPN that being healthy is the difference.

“I’m playing injury free. I’m not injured. My quick twitch is back. My speed is back, my strength is back,” James said after the Lakers’ 103-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday to improve to 5-1…

“Playing with a torn groin last year — even when I came back it was still partially torn — it was difficult to be able to move and shift like I’m capable of doing that defensively,” James said. “For me, I just take the challenge. I love being challenged. Coach [Frank Vogel] challenged me, AD [Anthony Davis] challenged me, I challenged myself.

“I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back. My mind has always been there. That’s what it’s all about.”

Undoubtedly LeBron being healthy — and having the longest off-season he’s had since 2005 to get his body right — is part of it.

However, there is a mental aspect as well. LeBron has had to carry such an offensive load in recent seasons, he seemed so worn-down by teammates and his situations, that he just took plays off defensively. That was true in Los Angeles last season, and before that in Cleveland (although come the playoffs, he’d return closer to form with the Cavaliers).

These Lakers need him to be a defensive force, to lead by example, and six games into the season he is up to the task.

It’s early, if the NBA season is a marathon then we’re not even at the second mile marker yet. There is a lot of season still ahead of us. However, what LeBron and the Lakers are showing is they can play the kind of defense that will take them deep in the playoffs next spring. And they hope into June and the summer.