The Los Angeles Lakers, co-owners of the NBA’s best record after six years of dysfunction, entered the 2019-20 season with two critical weaknesses.
One was the lack of floor spacing that resulted from the coaching staff’s decision to start Anthony Davis at power forward alongside more traditional centers in a (successful) attempt to improve defensively. The other was a dearth of supplemental playmaking, which I wrote about (and dramatically overplayed in hindsight) after their season-opening loss to the Clippers.
They’ve found the solution to both of those problems in a place that was so obvious that anyone missing it should have been kicking themselves, present company included. They turned to some guy named LeBron James.
James is doing something he’s never really done in his illustrious career: he’s playing as a full-time point guard and doing it brilliantly. His league-leading 11 assists per game is useful shorthand, yet it underplays his impact because his X-ray vision and pinpoint accuracy has papered over LA’s two biggest flaws. He see openings others can’t and he sneaks those passes into tighter windows than even other elite playmakers can.
Because of that, LA’s spacing challenges don’t matter and they only need one primary playmaker to create good shots. The Lakers rank fourth in offense and second in shooting efficiency despite bucking several modern offensive trends. Most notably, they attempt the fifth-lowest percentage of their shots from three-point range in the league, and they are dead last by a mile in drives per game. In a league defined by the drive-and-kick, the Lakers don’t do much driving or kicking.
And yet, they score in bunches because LeBron is that good a conductor. He rifles kick-out passes into shooters’ pockets.
He puts just the perfect amount of touch on pocket bounce passes to rolling big men, allowing them to finish in stride even as help defenders creep far in from the opposite side. It’s easy to take dishes like this for granted, but they must be so accurate to beat the help. On another team with better half-court spacing, LeBron has more margin for error. On this team, any pass that’s a tiny bit off target is a turnover. Instead, these end in layups and dunks.
LeBron’s lob passes are similarly precise. When standing still, they beat teams trying to front Anthony Davis with backside help off non-shooters.
When on the move, James’ combination of touch and eye manipulation freezes help defenders — or, more brutally, causes them to retreat to cover a pass that’s not coming. (Poor Gary Harris).
It’s one thing to have those tools in your bag. It’s another to deploy them accurately without much of a window to do so. James has the vertical benefit of leapers like Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard, but the limitations of his perimeter teammates shrink the horizontal space needed to fit passes in. LeBron’s kickout passes must be faster, his lob passes softer, and his pocket bounce passes more progressive to sneak through defenders’ long arms.
Because they are, the Lakers score much more than their supplementary offensive talent suggests they should, even when James isn’t directly assisting the made bucket. This corner three by Alex Caruso should not happen, but it does because James has ability to snap a perfect backdoor pass to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope through a tight crease.
James’ passing ingenuity is even more important when the Lakers aren’t going against set defenses. Last year, the Lakers planned to destroy teams in transition, using LeBron and all the young legs on the roster to force tempo. It failed spectacularly.
But now, the Lakers are doing exactly what they wanted to do last year, despite having a much older team and a coaching staff not known for pushing the pace. The Lakers rank third in the league in transition scoring efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, and lead the league in scoring efficiency off missed shots only. They are running less often than they did last year, yet are scoring far more points when they do.
That’s entirely due to LeBron’s skill in spot cheap scoring opportunities and cash them in with perfect passes. He’s the best deep route quarterback in the city, and not just because of Jared Goff’s regression.
He rewards big men who run the floor, especially if they have their man sealed and he can drop passes in over the top.
He spots open wings and finds them with pitch-ahead passes.
And he makes one specific pet play the Lakers use after opponent free throws possible. In those situations, the Lakers like to take Davis off the rebounding line and put him on the opposite block for early post-ups the other way. (They borrowed this tactic from Alvin Gentry, who used it during the Pelicans’ brief Davis-DeMarcus Cousins twin towers era). LA inbounds to LeBron, and he rushes the ball up to feed Davis as quickly as possible, giving him space to go one-on-one before help arrives.
As the year has progressed, LeBron has become more audacious with his post entry passes. He’ll sometimes eschew dribbling up the court and instead toss 60-foot bombs on a rope to Davis’ waiting arms. Many players can’t deliver the ball this accurately into a big man from six feet away, much less 60.
And opponents can’t get too comfortable overplaying these looooong passes, because LeBron is also on target with backdoor lobs from that far away.
These opportunistic buckets add up over the course of a game, and nobody on the planet creates them like LeBron.
Because he can, the Lakers are able to stack the deck elsewhere and not lose much offensively. They can play lineups filled with dogged perimeter defenders, all of which funnel ball-handlers into the waiting arms of their supersized frontcourt. Under normal circumstances, teams that emphasize defense as much as the Lakers do must accept the trade-off that come with using defense-first players that are limited on the other end. Instead, LeBron’s pinpoint passing allows the Lakers to have their cake and eat it too.
In one sense, this is a novel approach to using the post-millenium GOAT. Recent Heat and Cavaliers teams emphasized shooting over size, figuring that LeBron would become even more unstoppable with an open floor. That maximized LeBron’s biggest strength, and it clearly worked.
These Lakers, on the other hand, beefed up areas LeBron didn’t directly control while knowing that LeBron could raise the floor of anything more directly under his purview regardless. Instead of maximizing LeBron’s biggest strength, they brought potential team weaknesses to his level.
It’s different. It’s certainly a bit counterintuitive. But you certainly can’t argue with the results, at least so far.