There are a number of reason why LeBron James is still the basket player in the world, but his versatility as a scorer is what jumps off the page at this stage of his career. Even though he’s putting the finishing touches on his 14th season in the NBA, he’s coming off one of his best seasons from the 3-point line. He has been one of the more efficient scorers in transition, isolation and as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll as well — he ranked in the 70th percentile or better in each category — which, combined, made up 62.7 percent of his scoring during the regular season.
There’s also the little things James does that don’t get as much shine as they should, one being his ability to turn into the league’s scariest big man when the Cavaliers run 1-3 pick-and-rolls. It’s not something we saw much of this season — James only had 49 possessions as the roll man compared to 370 as the ball handler — but the Pacers have had absolutely no answer for it in the opening two games of their series against the Cavaliers
. So much so that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tyronn Lue lean on it more the closer they get to the NBA Finals.
It’s almost better to think of Love as the small forward in the starting lineup and James as the power forward when looking at his value as the roll man. James is obviously at his best with the ball in his hands and he has the same tool kit as Draymond Green as a playmaking roll man. 23.6 percent of Love’s offense came from spot-ups this season, on the other hand, where he ranked in the 89.7 percentile with 1.19 points per possession. Only three players made more catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game than Love, two of which were separated by a margin of 0.1 3-pointers per game.
That means when James draws a second defender on his drives to the basket, Love is about as good of a target as he could hope for on the perimeter. You can see that on the following possession, with James forcing the Pacers to collapse on the roll before he finds Love in the corner for an open 3-pointer:
Take notice of what Tristan Thompson does on the weakside, by the way. When Myles Turner slides over to protect the rim, Thaddeus Young is the one who has to make the decision between switching onto Thompson or Love. He makes the right decision at first by boxing out Thompson — otherwise the possession would’ve ended in an uncontested dunk — but Thompson sets a Hammer screen on Young to prevent him from spinning around and closing out on Love on the 3-point line. James makes an incredible pass and Love still has to make the shot for the Cavaliers to score, but it’s little things like a well-timed screen that are just as important.
It’s a similar case — the roll, the attention, the perfect cross-court pass, the weakside screen — on this possession:
Believe it or not, those sequences are complicated when compared to some of others the Cavaliers have scored off of with James as the roll man. When they downsize with James and Love playing power forward and center, they can surround them with three shooters like Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. Because the Pacers have to respect the shooters on the perimeter and Irving coming off of a screen with the ball in his hands, James can slip backdoor for an alley-oop.
For example, the seventh-leading scorer all time should never get this easy of a basket in the postseason, but it’s hard not to fall for the bait with four 3-point shooters standing on the perimeter.
One of the solutions to avoid those types of breakdowns is to switch assignments at the point of attack. However, while that prevents James from coasting to the basket for layups or dunks, it also allows the Cavaliers to bring possessions to a standstill for him to post-up smaller defenders. With his size, strength and soft touch, James can easily get close to the basket for turnaround jump shots…
…and layups over Jeff Teague.
The Pacers did a better job of containing James in those situations in Game 2, but it came at a price. Similar to how Stephen Curry’s 3-point shooting draws multiple defenders towards him and opens up baskets for others, James’ gravity as the roll man put Irving in positions to look for his own shot. James’ screens lead directly to four baskets for Irving in Game 2, three of which came in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers were trying to prevent another late game collapse.
As you can see in the video below, the Pacers switched their scheme by having George hedge on the screen while Teague dropped underneath. It worked the first time — James and Irving didn’t have a lane to the basket for an immediate cut or drive — but James created the space Irving needed to score by simply setting a second screen. That meant Teague had to switch onto James and George had to drop back to take away an easy pass to James on the roll, which allowed Irving to pull-up from midrange for an open jumper.
Irving’s second field goal was more difficult, but the idea is the same: George drops back to take away the roll, Teague trails the play and Irving gets into the paint for a shot he can make more times than not.
Then there was the nail in the coffin. When the Cavaliers were up by five points with 30.9 remaining in the game, Irving scored a wide-open layup on a baseline out of bounds because the Pacers refused to leave James alone for a split-second. Just watch how Teague gets caught up on James’ screen and how George stays attached to James. He didn’t even roll to the basket like in the other examples, but the threat alone was enough to send the Pacers into a frenzy.
That’s a testament to how good the Cavaliers are offensively. James almost single-handedly took down the Pacers in Game 1 with 32 points and 13 assists because they struggled to contain him in a number of areas, namely as the roll man in pick-and-rolls. In Game 2, they switched up their coverage to make it harder for James to score those easy baskets, but that helped Irving get to his sweet spots and break out of a small shooting funk to score 37 points. Love also delivered with 27 points on only seven shot attempts.
One way or another, the Cavaliers are going to find a way to generate good looks. They have too much offensive firepower not to. And, as always, it begins with James. If they can just tighten up their defense before June, he might be right when he says they’re “right there of what we know we can become.”