The Atlanta Hawks have a LeBron James problem and it isn't a new one.
James may not be the best player on the planet anymore (hello, Stephen Curry), but he is certainly close, and the Hawks have particular knowledge of his greatness. For context, LeBron James holds a 34-11 regular season record against Atlanta between his time in Miami and Cleveland, and when you take a look to the postseason, that record jumps to an unblemished 8-0.
Yes, the Hawks have never beaten a LeBron James-led NBA team in a single playoff game.
Of course, topping James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a single game is not the goal of the 2015-2016 Atlanta Hawks, as they will be looking to dethrone the reigning Eastern Conference Champions beginning on Monday. How will they try to do it? Kyle Korver spoke with Chris Vivlamore of the AJC over the weekend, and he has a few ideas:
"You can’t give him angles. You can’t give him easy baskets. You can’t give him momentum plays. He’s just too good. He’s too big and strong. You can’t give him an angle. You can’t shade him one way. You can’t force him one way. You’ve got to square your shoulders to his shoulders and try to make it tough on him. Even if you do that, he’s still probably going to get 30 points."
In case Korver wasn't clear, there isn't an "easy" way to defend LeBron James.
Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore represent the obvious trio of candidates to defend James, but it will be a team-wide process. If there is a weakness for LeBron at this point in his career, it is with his perimeter shooting, where the now 31-year-old made less than 31% of his three-point attempts this season. Of course, forcing James to settle for those shots is a different animal in and of itself.
The common sentiment would suggest that Bazemore will get the first crack against James, but he is also the worst match-up. While the soon-to-be free agent swingman is an above-average wing defender in a vacuum, LeBron is the perfect storm in terms of a player that Bazemore would have trouble with on the defensive end. James weighs at least 250 pounds (depending on who you believe, it could be 270-280), and Bazemore's wiry athleticism is intriguing, but at just 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, the physicality isn't in his favor.
Even if Budenholzer elects to go the "obvious" route early, he will likely be choosing between Millsap and Sefolosha throughout the series. The head coach famously turned to Millsap during last year's Eastern Conference Finals sweep as DeMarre Carroll was severely limited and Sefolosha was on the shelf, but this season, Millsap has been the team's best and most versatile defensive player. When the starting lineups are on the floor for both teams, deploying Millsap on James would force Kyle Korver into a perilous match-up against Kevin Love, but it is a "pick your poison" situation, and Millsap is definitely the best physical pairing when it comes to defending James.
As for Sefolosha, he is the forgotten man in that he was absent a year ago and, of course, his bench role leaves Sefolosha in relative obscurity at times. However, it would be easy to argue that the veteran swingman is the best wing defender on the roster (ahead of Bazemore), and Sefolosha's craft on the defensive end is appealling here. The issue, though, is that his offense has been a point of discussion in that he simply isn't making shots (1 of 11 from three against Boston), and Sefolosha doesn't have ideal girth when dealing with James on the interior.
The numbers for LeBron James against the Atlanta Hawks in his career are, well, startling. The future Hall of Fame forward puts up 28.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game against the Hawks in more than 50 career contests, and James produced 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game during the sweep in 2015. With that on the table, the task for the Hawks is significant and generally terrifying from an outsider's perspective.
"Don't let LeBron James beat you" seems to be a common theme across basketball discussions, but the problem with that is that Cleveland's supporting cast is stellar in its own right. Kyrie Irving (who had 35 points in the last match-up between the two teams) and Kevin Love are studs, but even beyond that duo, the Cavs are scary in their shot-making proficiency. Cleveland made 41.3% of 34.5 three-point attempts per game in their first round win over Detroit, and over the course of the regular season, Tyronn Lue's squad was a top-10 shooting team (36.2%) while taking the third-most attempts (29.6) per game in the NBA.
In the end, there isn't an easy option for the Hawks, but there are better suggestions than others. Paul Millsap should be prepared to take the lion's share of minutes, and forcing James into taking his own jump shots over swinging the ball for open threes from J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and others would be the best move. Containing LeBron James is more of a realistic goal than simply stopping him, but above all else, restricting the open looks from everyone else would be a big factor, even if that means that James averages 35 points per game in his own right.
No one has enjoyed more success on a per-game basis than LeBron James, and that has to change if the Hawks have a prayer to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second straight season.