HOW LEBRON JAMES HAS REMAINED SO UNSTOPPABLE
By Adam Mares
Every NBA season features a number of recurring, calendar-based story lines. November is all about surprising teams; December is all about surprising players. The new year brings emerging league-wide trends, February features trade rumors and deadline deals, and March revolves around the push for postseason seeding. By May, the regular season's sideshows and novelties have faded, replaced by the high-stakes drama of the playoffs. And in June, just one story line remains: the NBA Finals.
Over the last decade, that final story line has almost always centered on LeBron James. Last season, it was whether or not he could deliver on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland. This year, the Golden State Warriors have added Kevin Durant to what already was arguably the league's best team, and the question hanging over the NBA Playoffs is whether or not James can stop them.
For any other, ordinary player, this wouldn't even be a question—the Warriors have been dominant; the 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers have looked fairly flawed. But we're talking about LeBron. For 14 seasons, James has made the impossible seem possible, and the barely possible seem perfectly ordinary. James hasn't lost a first round playoff game in five years. He hasn't missed a trip to the Finals in six. At 32 years old and with more than 40,000 minutes on his professional basketball odometer, he should be slowing down. So far, however, that hasn't been the case.
After a dominating first-round performance against the Indiana Pacers, James is about to begin one of the toughest two-month stretches of his career, with match ups against a Toronto team that has assembled its roster with him in mind, Boston or Washington squads that are unafraid, and, most likely, a Finals rubber match with a Golden State team that has looked unbeatable since February. And yet, if anyone can successfully run that gauntlet, it's the greatest player of his generation.
Let's take a closer look at how James has remained so effective.
Room to Dominate
The Cavaliers put up a 113.3 offensive rating (ORTG) this season, the best mark of any NBA team James has played on. Part of this is due to a league-wide trend of improved offensive efficiency, but a larger part is the Cavaliers having built a near-perfect roster around James to maximize his offense talents. Never before has he been complemented by so many elite shooters and enjoyed so much spacing.
Whenever the Cavs went small and placed four shooters around James in the first round, the defensively challenged Pacers had no answer. James feasted on isolations, post-ups, and simple pick-and-rolls. Every Indiana defender took a turn stranded on an island against James, knowing full well that there weren't any helpers in the paint. Poor C.J. Miles was James' main target. Like a wolf separating the weakest sheep from the herd, James would force Miles out toward the top of the key, and then toy with him before driving past him for dunks.
Cleveland posted a 140.1 ORTG in 113 possessions with James on the court and the Cavs' lone non three-point shooter, Tristan Thompson, on the bench. Even more impressive, the Cavaliers had the second best ORTG of all 16 teams in the first round of the playoffs despite (a) averaging the fewest fast-break points by a fairly wide margin and (b) ranking right in the middle of the pack in second-chance points. In other words, the Cavaliers walked the ball up the floor, operated almost entirely out of the half-court, punted on offensive rebounds, and still wound up scoring 113 points per game. That's dominance.
James was both the driver and the engine of the Cavaliers' first-round explosion. Most teams have to run complex actions and rely on multiple moving pieces working together on a string in order to create high-value open shots. James generates the same looks via some of the simplest actions in basketball.
Perhaps the most unstoppable strategy that the Cavs deployed against the Pacers is also the rarest one for James: utilizing him as the screener in pick-and-rolls. For whatever reason, James is a reluctant roll man during the regular season, but he becomes much more willing in the playoffs.
Kyrie Irving is a near-perfect running mate for James' rolls, thanks to his ability to shoot off the dribble. During the regular season, Irving took the fourth most pull-up jump shots in the NBA and managed a respectable 48.6 effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) on those attempts. The Pacers also were perfect victims for the Kyrie-LeBron pairing, since they opted to switch most screens and frequently left an undersized defender on James.
In the 2011 Finals, James struggled to score against smaller defender J.J. Barea in the post. That was then. Today, James isn't just an adequate post player; he's one of the league's best at operating from the block. His size gives him a natural advantage. Pair that with improved footwork, and he's an impossible cover for most wing defenders. Half of being a great post-up player is knowing when and where to pick your spots, and James picks his spots almost perfectly. Switch the ball screen between him and Irving, and you've just given James the opportunity to post up a smaller, helpless guard.
Another way the Cavaliers generate great looks on relatively simple actions is by spreading the court and running pick-and-pop plays with James and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Korver shot 48.5 percent during the regular season after joining the Cavaliers. Read that again: 48.5 percent! And that's on 200 attempts, or nearly six attempts per game. No other player in NBA history has shot that efficiently on that many attempts (Korver put up almost identical numbers in 2015 with the Atlanta Hawks).
By spreading the court and running Korver as the screener, the Cavaliers put opposing defenses into a Catch-22. If Korver's defender helps off of him for a second, he risks giving up an open three once Korver releases from the screen and pops behind the three-point line. If he sticks with Korver, he places the other the defender in the unenviable position of trying to chase James around the screen, which in turn risks allowing James an open lane to the basket.
No matter which option defenders chose, James has mastered this game of chicken. Just watch how perfectly he times his reads when the defense tries to show on the screen just long enough for the on-ball defender to recover.
A Beautiful Mind
James is one of the most gifted athletes the NBA has ever seen. He's also one of the smartest. Watching him in a playoff series is like watching a predator stalk its prey. He tests out certain actions, quickly figures out the tendencies and weaknesses of opposing defenders, and then starts tricking them into falling out of position.
In this clip, James knows that the his defender will hedge the ball screen, so he sets a very half-hearted screen a step inside the three-point line. On first glance, it looks like James has been lazy and failed to make contact—but contact was never the goal. Nor was getting Irving open for a pull-up jumper. No, the goal was to catch the ball on the roll, far enough away from Paul George that the weak-side defender would have to fully commit. Once George hedges, the play is done. James has the defense in a checkmate. Tristan Thompson rolls to the rim, where he'll be free unless Richard Jefferson's man steps up to challenge him—and as he does, Jefferson is open for the skip pass. James knows the read before his feet hit the ground on the roll.
Once James has figured out an opponent, he orchestrates the offense like a chess master, moving the other nine players around the court to set up his strike. Just watch how he signals for Korver to vacate the corner as soon as he sets a double-high screen. James understands exactly where the Pacers will be vulnerable, on the back-side help. This is how the league's best player creates an easy two-on-one out of a simple double-high screen with no other moving parts.
In this pair of plays, watch how James tells Kevin Love to set the pin down for Korver,knowing full well that the screen-the-screener action will leave somebody open. In the first variation, James rifles a 35-foot pass to a wide-open Channing Frye underneath the basket; in the second, the same action produces a wide-open three for Korver.
Whatever James has lost in athleticism at age 32—and let's be honest, he has a whole lot in reserve—he has more than made up for it with his basketball mastery. There are things other teams can and will do to make life more difficult for him on offense; for instance, the Warriors are much better equipped than the Pacers to switch ball screens and throw multiple defenders at James. Still, there isn't an NBA team with five defenders who can guard James well enough to make switching everything a viable option, especially when the Cavs deploy their spread offense.
Because the Cavaliers defense is nearly as bad as their offense is good, this playoff run could be one of the biggest tests of James' career. Toronto added physical defenders in P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline seemingly to counter James. Washington gave Cleveland all it could handle in the regular season, and Boston is willing and able to play smallball. Even if James reaches the Finals for the seventh straight season, he'll likely face his most formidable opponent in the Warriors—and that's saying something, given that he has played against two of the NBA's greatest champions, in the 2014 San Antonio Spurs and 2015 Golden State.
On the other hand, would you really be comfortable betting against him? The Cavaliers may be flawed, but as time goes by, James seems to become less so.