James’ game is missing one ingredient: defense

Rob Oller of the Columbus Dispatch explains, of course LeBron James was named MVP of Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. The league expects and rewards lack of defense during the annual East meets West Whoopdeedoo.

And James did not disappoint. Lukewarm defense often is his specialty.

Let’s get one thing straight: King James is almost perfect. In only his third season, he is 99 percent of everything the Cleveland Cavaliers hoped for when they used the No. 1 pick of the 2003 draft on the high-school senior from Akron. The dynamic 21-year-old scores, soars and elicits roars as he alternates between biting his fingernails and blowing past defenders.

But while James is nearly unstoppable offensively, defensively he is anything but. Stopping his man cold is not often a hot topic around Quicken Loans Arena, where James’ 26 points helped the Cavaliers make the pesky Orlando Magic finally disappear last night, 105-92.

Even in what was a sturdy effort on the defense end _ he allowed 15 points while guarding three different players — it was obvious that James does not come by defense naturally. Writers who regularly follow the team describe his defense as average at best.

Maybe it’s nit-picking to point out James’ one weak spot when the rest of his game is above reproach. I like to think the criticism is more a case of wanting to see one of today’s great players become one of the game’s greatest ever players — something close to Michael Jordan — instead of the reincarnation of Dominique Wilkins, an incredible offensive talent who never quite got over the defensive hump.

At the moment, James’ game resembles Russian roulette in reverse; a bullet in every chamber but one. It’s only a matter of time before his defense comes up empty at the worst possible time.

That’s not to say he is a terrible defender. He limits his man to 13 points a game while averaging 31.2 on offense, entering last night the third highest in the league behind Kobe Bryant (35.0) and Allen Iverson (33.2). It’s just that it defeats the purpose to score 43 points and allow 50, as James did last week in allowing Paul Pierce to hang half a hundred on the Cavs. Cleveland won that game in double overtime, but wasn’t so lucky against Golden State four days earlier. James tossed in 33 points but allowed Jason Richardson to score 31 in a 99-91 loss.

Allowing big numbers occasionally will happen. Even Jordan, early in his career, wasn’t always the lockdown defender he later became. Before being selected to the first of his leaguerecord nine NBA All-Defensive teams in 1988, Jordan once scored 52 points against Portland while allowing Clyde Drexler to get 42. But Jordan always played defense well enough to get noticed. James, meanwhile, too often plays it poorly enough to get noticed.

You say it’s unfair to compare Jordan and James? OK, how about James and Bryant? The NBA coaches have selected the Los Angeles Lakers guard to the All-Defensive team five times, three as a first-teamer. James has yet to get a sniff of that team.

“Playing great defense is a mindset,” said Scott Williams, TV analyst for the Cavs and who played with both Jordan and James. “You have to look forward to that one-on-one challenge.”

Does James relish it? He says he does, so it’s only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. We’ll come to his defense this time. Ultimately, though, the defense is up to him.