LeBron James has been one of the NBA's best pick-and-roll ball-handlers for nearly two decades, and for two seasons, he and Anthony Davis ran the most feared iteration of the play in all of basketball. The James-Davis two-man dance was, at its best, defense-proof. Blitz James and he slides a pocket pass into Davis for a four-on-three. Switch and one of them kills the mismatch. Help on his drive and the greatest lob-catcher in league history finishes with a dunk. Rotate the low-man away from the corner and the Lakers got an open 3.
It was the backbone of the Laker offense as they won the 2020 championship, a finishing move no defense could counter in the final minutes of close games. And ever since the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, it's been almost completely defanged. The Lakers lost a close game to Portland Trail Blazers -- one of the worst defenses in the NBA -- largely because Jusuf Nurkic ignored Westbrook to defend the James-Davis pick-and-roll 3-on-2.
Modern spread pick-and-roll places an enormous emphasis on the word "spread." Defenses are desperate to ignore your worst shooters. Westbrook becomes invisible off of the ball. The play that helped the Lakers win a championship had been solved.
The Lakers have tinkered with solutions over the past year and change. Westbrook served as a screener for James for all of one game last season before abandoning those duties. The Westbrook-Davis combination has had success recently. But Laker ball-handlers have scored just 0.786 points per possession in pick-and-roll this season, ranking in just the third percentile league-wide. Those numbers look better when you include passes and their big men have fared much better as rollers, but the days of unleashing the James-Davis two-man war machine upon unsuspecting opponents have largely been gone. With James missing so much time due to injury early this season, they hadn't yet developed alternatives.
But Friday was a promising step in the right direction for James. The traditional spread pick-and-roll he once ran with Davis may still be weakened by Westbrook's presence, but the Lakers found a few wrinkle that worked far better, and they weren't just limited to what James could do with the ball in his hands. For a stretch of the second quarter, the Lakers used James largely as the screener for Westbrook.
The concept is deceptively simple. Westbrook can't impact spacing with the ball in his hands because a screen gives him a clean runway to the basket. Defenses have to appreciate the threat he poses as a driver, but the confusion of the screen creates room for the screener to make a play off of a quick pass. And when that screener is LeBron James, there's hardly a viable solution for the defense. They can't send help against him barreling towards the basket because he'd just flip the ball to a big in the dunker's spot or a cutter. The main non-shooter on the floor has had his shooting limitations nullified by starting the possession with the ball in his hands. In this case, Westbrook slips the pass into James with only Wes Matthews in front of him. Khris Middleton can't commit to the rim because Austin Reaves is in the corner ready to hit the 3 James would create for him if he does.
This is where Westbrook's reflexes kick in. Check out this next play, a fairly similar concept that works largely on the speed of the pass.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is ready to help off of Wenyen Gabriel, but Westbrook sneaks the pass in a beat quicker than most ball-handlers would. James is already in motion and there's nothing the former Defensive Player of the Year can do. Deviating from modern pick-and-roll norms, both of the screens James set in the plays above came inside of the arc. These weren't spread pick-and-rolls in the traditional sense. They were close quarters two-man actions meant to take advantage of the fact that James and Westbrook can react faster than a defense.
James and Davis expanded on this concept in the fourth quarter. Rather than set up their pick-and-rolls at the top of the key with three shooters spreading the floor, they went the other way. Davis screened for James in the corner, deep inside of the arc, and that shrunk the floor so much that the Bucks didn't have time to react defensively.
This is a dead play to 99 percent of ball-handlers. Almost anyone else just winds up staring Antetokounmpo in the face and passing the ball back out. But again, we're talking about LeBron James here. He sneaks a pass into the inch of space between the two defenders, and because he does it so close to the basket, Davis has already established position and finishes through Antetokounmpo's contact. The next time they run it, Antetokounmpo is tied so close to Davis that James can go up for the relatively clean jumper over the much smaller Matthews.
And of course, sometimes a defense can do everything right and still fail because, yet again, we're talking about LeBron here. Sometimes he's just going to finish over Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis at the same time because he's LeBron James and he can do that.
This isn't James, the monopolizer of offenses we've so frequently seen in big games. It's James the chameleon, capable of blending into virtually whatever hue of the offense is required. He excelled as a screener for Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. He can get downhill in a spread pick-and-roll as easily as he can navigate tight quarters from the side. Get him the ball in the short-roll and he essentially becomes a version of Draymond Green that can score consistently. Ignore his big men for a second and he'll get them layups. Even Antetokounmpo couldn't help but express admiration for the James-Davis pairing after the game.
"You have two Hall of Famers running pick-and-roll it's obviously hard to stop," the Milwaukee star said. "Especially when the guy that's coming out of the pick-and-roll is one of the best players to ever play the game and the guy that's gonna roll is one of the best lob threats and big man in the league. Two versus two, low pick-and-roll, it's just hard."
The trio of James, Westbrook and Davis was never going to fit together easily. Their skillsets overlap in ways that can't always been schemed away. Tthe things they lack are expensive to find on the open market. But in the simplest of terms, they are all-star players with specific gifts that, under the right circumstances, can shine even in less than ideal conditions. LeBron's ability to vacillate between roles helped bring the best out of both Davis and Westbrook on Friday. It wasn't the same lethal pick-and-roll that won the Lakers a championship, but it was good enough to beat one of the best teams in the NBA.
And, for now, that'll do.