I’ve said it multiple times before on my podcast, but I’ll say it again: I’ve always wanted to see LeBron James play on a team full of young or entering their prime highly athletic players. James has been a part of some great offenses, mainly due to his talent. His final two years as a Cavalier, the team ranked near the top of offensive efficiency and hit threes at a higher percentage than the rest of the league save for the Nash-led Suns. The problem being is that they played at one of the league’s slowest pace and the entire offense was built around Lebron James pick n’ roll in the half court while spacing the floor with shooters. This offense carried over to Miami, though they mixed it up a little as James began to initiate offense from the post where he almost unguardable one on one, something that Cavaliers fans had been screaming for him to do throughout his last two seasons in Cleveland. Still, LeBron teams have always spaced themselves well in the half court and played relatively slow compared to the rest of the NBA. His teams have almost always been in the bottom third of pace and, excluding his rookie season, none of his teams were even at or above the league average.
This stat has always seemed a little absurd to me. After all, if you’ve watched LeBron James play basketball for more than thirty minutes it isn’t that hard to discern that the man was born to run. There’s a reason he was religiously referred to as the “L-Train”. Not only is he a one-man fast break with his speed, strength, agility, and sublime finishing technique with either hand, but he is also one of the best passers of a basketball I have ever seen. The problem is that his teams have never really been built with this fact in mind. His best teams in Cleveland used smaller perimeter players/wings excluding James himself, a fact that was exploited by the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals as none of the bigs on that teams were particularly fleet of foot either excluding Andy. (I’m looking at you, Ben Wallace and Z.)
Early on in Miami, the Heat pushed the pace in spurts as Wade had not quite decomposed into his current lackluster version of himself and they had the speed on the perimeter to create some transition opportunities, but besides some experimentation with youth at the point guard position in Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers, he was playing largely with floor spacing NBA veterans—Mike Miller, Ray Allen, and Shane Battier—as well as cheap veteran bigs who weren’t necessarily going to be running the floor; think Udonis Haslam, Joel Anthony, and The Birdman. Their spacing was better than the Cavs version mainly due to the presence of Chris Bosh in their front court who is mid-range master and has at times extended his range out to the land of three. If LeBron teams never played up tempo basketball it would be logical to point to James himself as the culprit, but his teams have on a whole played faster with him on the court so it’s hard to say he’s the one slowing the whole thing down. It is more likely he’s never had proper running mates. That is until now.
Regardless of who—Andrew Wiggins or Kevin Love—is on the Cavaliers come the beginning of the season, both represent players who thrive in an up-tempo offense for one reason or another. Love is a master of the outlet pass and often operated as a quarterback after grabbing rebounds, launching the ball up court to a wing, usually Corey Brewer, who was releasing down the court. Love’s shooting ability also makes him a great trailer on the break as he can grab a rebound and delay his run down court, spotting up at the three point line if the opposing defense manages to stifle the first wave of the fast break. If Corey Brewer can feast on Love outlet passes then there’s no telling what LeBron can do as not only is he a better finisher, but he’s a better pass catcher. Outlet passes to James don’t have to be nearly as accurate. James has the uncanny ability to go and grab the ball out of the air like a streaking receiver. The other benefit to this attack is it isolates James against inevitably smaller players, as he’s the biggest perimeter players in the league. It’s easy points. The threat of the fast break also alters how opposing teams, specifically perimeter players, can rebound against the Cavs as they cannot crash the boards in fear of leaving a player like LeBron open on the break.
(Just imagine the dunk if LBJ was on the other end of this outlet pass.)
Where as Love offers the opportunity to play provider on the break for LeBron, Wiggins provides a different kind of outlet. Wiggins isn’t the greatest iso-dribbler or shooter at this point, but he’s extremely quick in a straight line and is already one of the best leapers in the NBA. James himself isn’t too shabby of a passer in transition and considering he’s impossible to stop one on one on the break it opens up the floor for his teammates. The key is having players who can not only keep up with him, but consistently finish. The idea of Wiggins running down the weak side in transition as defenses attempt to slow Lebron is mouth watering as James will readily give up the ball when the situation calls for it. It’s a pick your poison moment for any defense. Bennett, Waiters, and Irving, though not representing the open court threat that Wiggins would, should all be able to play up tempo basketball as they are all quite young and quick. Part of playing at a high pace is having the young legs to be able to do so and the Cavs do.
(Just sub Wiggins in for Durant here and start to get excited.)
If my GIFs and words aren’t enough to convince you the Cavs to to play in fifth gear more often this upcoming season hopefully Jacob can convince you with the numbers:
LeBron James has played on progressively older and slower teams during the course of his career. In terms of age, he’s played on a top-6 oldest team in each of the past five seasons. Miami’s minutes-weighted age was over 30 each of the past two seasons. In terms of pace, he’s never played on a top-10 fastest pace team in his career. His only year with an above-average pace was his rookie season in 2003-04.
Over the years of available data, we can see how much faster LeBron’s teams have been with him on the court. In minutes with him on the bench, Miami easily would’ve been the slowest team in the NBA the last two years. LeBron’s impact has made a substantial difference in pace; his teams have often had a pace 2-3 possessions higher with him as opposed to without him. That has made them much closer to average, which hovers around 94-96. The team age–especially of the bench–could be a significant factor here.
When LeBron’s teams have gone out in transition, they’ve been among the best in the NBA. Synergy Sports Technology has data going back to the 2009-10 seasons. In these last five years, LeBron’s teams always have ranked in the top-4 in transition Points Per Possession. The league average is around 1.12. By contrast, the league average in all overall possessions is about 1.02.
Even scarier has been LeBron’s efficiency when out on the break. He has scored at scintillating rates, especially the past three seasons. In these years, he’s averaged over 1.37 PPP in transition and shot an absolutely ridiculous 79% on transition two-pointers. There’s nobody quite like him in the game in terms of athleticism, strength and skill, making any young and athletic complementary roster a scary thought.