Film Study: How LeBron James leads Lakers' transition offense
When it comes to transition offense, LeBron James is one of the most unstoppable forces in NBA history. He has the speed of a running back, the body of a defensive lineman, and the quick-thinking brain of a Hall-of-Fame QB.
But over his 17-year career, most of James’ teams haven’t played very fast. In his days with Cleveland and Miami, only one of his teams (his last season with the Cavs) ranked in the top 10 in pace, and only one (his first season with the Cavs) ranked in the top 10 in fast break points per game.
James himself averaged 5.4 fast break points, second among 503 players who played at least 300 games, over those first 15 seasons. But he never played for a team that ranked in the top five in pace or fast break points until he arrived in Los Angeles. Despite his combination of size, speed and skills, his teams have mostly played slow and deliberate, intentionally so at times.
|Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes|
The 2018-19 Lakers played fast, but not very efficiently. They ranked third in the percentage of their shots that came in the first six seconds of the shot clock (19.6%), but 21st in effective field goal percentage on those early-clock shots (58.7%). James himself shot effectively on those shots (63.7%), but the Lakers who ranked first, third and fourth in field goal attempts in the first six seconds of the shot clock — Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart — all had marks below the league average (59.7%).
Last season’s Lakers ranked 24th in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), the lowest ranking for any team James has played for. It was the first time in 11 seasons that any James team ranked outside the top six offensively.
This season, the Lakers haven’t played quite as fast. But they’ve been much more efficient, both overall and in transition. They rank fourth in offensive efficiency (112.6 points scored per 100 possessions) and their effective field goal percentage of 64.1% in the first six seconds of the shot clock leads the league.
|First 6 seconds*||Transition**|
|* Shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum
** Transition possessions, according to Synergy tracking
%FGA = Percentage of total FGA
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Freq. = Percentage of total possessions
PPP = Points per possession
Volume is important, because transition offense is the best offense. For every team in the league, effective field goal percentage is highest in the first six seconds of the shot clock.
But when a team employs both James and Anthony Davis, two elite finishers who don’t shoot particularly well from outside the paint, those first six seconds of the shot clock are even more critical. When you watch the Lakers, it’s becomes clear how much they value early offense. They’re relentless in trying to create transition opportunities, and it all starts with the four-time MVP.
The Downhill King
James ranks third in the league — behind Russell Westbrook (181) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (164) — with 136 buckets in the first six seconds of the shot clock, 54 more than any of his teammates. Priority No. 1 for any opposing defense is slowing him down.
Here are a few plays highlighting his ability to get to the rim and finish through contact:
Play 1. James grabs a rebound in the restricted area with one Sixer behind him and two basically even with him, but coming out of the corners. Those three guys are out of the play and James slices through the other two defenders on the other end of the floor, less than four seconds after he grabbed the rebound. And one.
Number to know: According to Second Spectrum, James has shot 67.0% at the rim with a defender there to contest. That’s up from 63.1% last season and the eighth best mark among 49 players (second best among non-centers) with at least 200 contested attempts at the rim.
Play 2. When Kuzma grabs the loose ball, James is again in the restricted area, with all five Nets in front of him. But he quickly runs past DeAndre Jordan and into a one-on-one matchup with Wilson Chandler, who can’t stop his spin move.
Number to know: Overall, James has shot 68.9% in the restricted area, the 28th best mark among 89 players with at least 200 restricted area attempts and his lowest mark in the last 14 seasons.
Play 3. James grabs another rebound inside the restricted area, but again puts Jordan behind him and, this time, only has Caris LeVert between him and the basket.
Number to know: 42.6% of James’ shots have come in the restricted area. That’s down only a tick from last season (43.0%) and the sixth highest rate of his 17 seasons in the league.
Play 4. This bucket doesn’t take place in the first six seconds of the shot clock, and the Bucks are all back. But Davis is over to set a screen as James (who never stops) enters the frontcourt and the league’s best rim protecting team can’t keep him from getting to the cup.
Number to know: James has scored 0.98 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, according to Synergy play-type tracking. That’s the ninth best mark among 49 players who have averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game. His and-one frequency (4.1%) is the highest among the group.
James isn’t just looking to run the break himself. While there’s a certain level of ego that comes with being the best player of one’s generation, it doesn’t manifest in James needing to control all aspects of his team’s offense. And if a teammate is running ahead on the break, he’s certainly willing to give up the ball.
The Lakers lead the league with 7.8 “pass-ahead” passes per game, according to Second Spectrum tracking. And James leads all individuals with 4.6 per game, 0.9 more than any other player. (James Harden is second with 3.7 per game).
Play 1. James is one of three Lakers still in the backcourt paint after JaVale McGee grabs a rebound and gives him the ball. But he spots Danny Green ahead with no Bucks defender in position to guard him. Green walks into an open 3-pointer.
Number to know: Green’s 35 3-pointers in the first six seconds of the shot clock are tied for 11th in the league, according to Second Spectrum.
Play 2. James stops a Giannis Antetokounmpo drive and quickly passes ahead to Kuzma, who pushes into a 4-on-3 situation for the Lakers and gets an open corner 3-pointer after a pass back from Green.
Number to know: Kuzma has an effective field goal percentage of 63.9% in the first six seconds of the shot clock, up from 54.8% last season.
Play 3. James grabs a loose ball and gets rid of it before he even takes a step. Khris Middleton stops the break by grabbing James around the waist (ruled a clear-path foul).
Number to know: James has drawn 5.1 fouls per game, his lowest rate in the 15 seasons for which we have the stat.
Play 4. Just a ridiculous pass from the dotted circle in the paint to a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer on the other end of the floor.
Number to know: James ranks second in the league with 219 assists on 3-pointers, two fewer than Ben Simmons.
Davis On The Run
James isn’t the Lakers’ only unstoppable force on the break. Davis is another beast in the open floor, and his zeal for running the floor is a problem for opposing bigs.
Play 1. Davis grabs the rebound and goes coast to coast. It helps that the only Pelicans on the floor with any size are Brandon Ingram, who gambles for a steal instead of getting in front of Davis, and Nicolo Melli, who is less than swift in getting back on defense.
Number to know: Davis has scored 1.35 points per possession in transition, the fourth best mark among 101 players who have averaged at least two transition possessions per game.
Play 2. After a make, Alex Caruso pushes the ball up the floor and Davis establishes position in the paint against the helpless Josh Hart. For some reason, Pelicans center Jahlil Okafor decides to join two teammates in stopping the ball, rather than running all the way back to help his smaller teammate against the 6-foot-10 Davis.
Number to know: Davis has an effective field goal percentage of 71.6% in the first six seconds of the shot clock (highest among 71 players with at least 100 field goal attempts in the first six seconds) and 51.7% thereafter, according to Second Spectrum. Among those 71 players, only Pascal Siakam (67.4%, 47.4%) has a bigger differential.
Play 3. When Davis contests a shot on the perimeter — which, because the Lakers switch a lot, he’ll often do — he has license to leak out. Here, Dwight Howard’s pass is a little behind him, but not enough for the Nuggets to catch up.
Number to know: Davis has contested 4.7 3-pointers per game, second most in the league.
Play 4. Davis isn’t as quick to run the floor after contesting this Middleton shot, but Green encourages him to keep going. Middleton chooses to pick up Green on the break, Brook Lopez is thinking differently, and Davis runs free for a lob from James.
Number to know: James’ 172 assists to Davis are 42 more assists than any other player has to a single teammate and 30 more assists than James has had to a single teammate in any of his 16 prior seasons.
Play 5. Davis sprints ahead of Antetokounmpo on the break. Their legs get tangled and Davis hits the floor, but the threat of him in the paint takes the attention of two Milwaukee defenders, leaving the lane open for a Kuzma drive around Pat Connaughton’s close-out.
Number to know: The Lakers have scored 112.7 points per 100 possessions in 1,317 minutes with James and Davis on the floor together, but just 105.7 in 572 minutes with Davis on the floor without James.
Running is a habit, and the Lakers have developed it over the season. Whether they’re retrieving a loose ball, grabbing a rebound, or inbounding after an opponent’s bucket, they are looking to get into their offense early. Whether you’re talking about transition offense or defense, the first few steps are critical.
Play 1. James retrieves a loose-ball in the deep corner, gets the ball to JaVale McGee, and immediately starts to sprint up the floor, quickly putting two Nuggets in his rearview mirror. Two other Nuggets try to stop the ball and Davis has himself another lob finish.
Number to know: Of James’ 172 assists to Davis, 102 (59%) have been on buckets in the restricted area.
Play 2. James rebounds Davis’ block and is again in an immediate sprint up the floor, creating an open, catch-and-shoot 3-pointer for Green.
Number to know: 24.8% of Green’s points have been fast break points. That’s the highest rate of his career and the fifth highest rate among 265 players who have scored at least 300 total points. Caldwell-Pope has the sixth highest rate (24.5%)
Play 3. McGee grabs the loose ball and the center (who averages 0.39 dribbles per touch, 272nd among 294 players with at least 1,000 touches) immediately puts the ball on the floor. He (wisely) gets the ball to Green and keeps running, putting the Bucks in scramble mode. That leads to Davis blowing by a Robin Lopez close-out and getting an and-one bucket.
Number to know: The Lakers have averaged 23.2 fast break points per 48 minutes with McGee on the floor. That’s the highest on-court mark on the team.
Play 4. This one is even more awkward than McGee leading the break. Both James and Howard get caught in the air and have to pass the ball backward. But just getting up the floor quickly leads to another mismatch, and James drives past Brook Lopez for a ferocious finish.
Number to know: Davis (13.0) and James (12.9) rank eighth and ninth in points in the paint per game among 350 players who have played at least 30 games. They’re the only pair of teammates (or former teammates) in the top 25 that have played at least 1,000 minutes together.
A Critical Six Seconds
The Lakers have been relatively good in late-clock situations. They’re the only team with an effective field goal percentage better than 50% in the last six seconds of the shot clock. But there’s a big difference between their mark 50.4% in the last six seconds and their mark of 64.1% in the first six seconds. Only the Sixers (63.7%, 51.2%) and Warriors (60.3%, 47.9%) have a bigger differential between their effective field goal percentage in the first six seconds of the shot clock and their effective field goal percentage thereafter.
|eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
%FGA = Percentage of total FGA
With 28.5% of their points, the league’s highest rate, coming via fast break points (16.8%, second highest rate) or second chance points (11.8%, 12th highest), you could argue that no offense depends on scrambled defenders more than that of the Lakers. They’re 6-8 when their total of fast break points and second chance points is fewer than 28.
The difference between their field goal percentage in the paint (61.0%, first) and their effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (48.7%, 25th) is also the biggest in the league by a wide margin.
|eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA|
Among 183 players with at least 200 field goal attempts from outside the paint, James (47.2%) and Davis (43.3%) rank 143rd and 172nd, respectively, in effective field goal percentage on those shots from the outside. Slow them down in transition and keep them out of the paint and you’ve gone a long way in getting a stop against the Lakers.
Alas, that’s much easier said than done. This team is relentless in its pursuit of early offense, and those first six seconds of possession may be what determines the next NBA champion.
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